Recent Stamps Speaker Ernesto Neto has achieved international acclaim for his dramatic, participatory environments involving biomorphic forms.
Neto often uses stretchy, transparent fabric weighted with spices in his installations and sculptural work, but he constantly experiments with new materials and techniques.
He is interviewed here by Reed Esslinger (MFA 2012).
Reed Esslinger: I’ve always been curious, especially with your enormous pieces, how your work can be architectural, monumental, but at the same time, incredibly intimate. I was wondering...is there a point in which the monumental overshadows the intimate? Is the intimate also important to you?
Ernesto Neto: Yes, very, very much so.
How do you keep that in your work?
I think the intimate is always part of it because that's the way I deal with the world, in a way. It’s the way I feel things. Even with the monumental things, all these works are made by hand. At some point, this thing is going to attach to this wall here. The moment that it will be attached to the wall, is going to be a small interaction, an intimate situation.
So this is reflected in the whole construction because the whole construction is constructed by hand. So, in terms of architectural space, it’s the feeling of the hand being present.
I sense that in your pieces. Even though I know some of them had to be lifted with cranes, and some of them must have had many, many people's hands on them...
Yes, many people with many hands. They all have their own intimacy. The relationship with the people who are doing the work – it's very important. A friend of mine said to me, "Ernesto, what's interesting is that your work has interactivity. People are going to interact with the work. But the making of it and the formation of it has also come from interactivity. It contains a collectiveness, a sense of growing something and doing something." So when this thing is made – the sculpture itself – and the audience comes to interact with it, the interactivity is already felt within the body of the work. This spirit of the work, this collectiveness, and this intimacy, this hand touching, is contained within it.
With so many people involved in your work, I’m curious how you keep yourself involved in a way that you don't lose the joy of making? And your own curiosity?
I know, there’s a lot to do. You know, it's like a cowboy with the cows. You’ve got to make the cows move. And even though the cows think and the cows have ideas, somebody's got to say, "OK. Let's go, let's go, let's go, let's go." You direct and lead with care. You care about them. There is a sweetness to the situation. And sometimes you have to be hard and... firm, too.
How involved are you?
I know everything that's going on. I don’t do everything. But I'm in on everything. For example, there are people doing the crocheting. They get to deeply know the kind of crocheting I did myself, for example. But if I were to do all of it, it would take much longer than somebody who does crocheting all the time. They bring a certain specificity to the skill, etc. But I understand everything that's happening there.
It’s important that they feel that you are there. Even if you connect with a phone call, they’ve got to know that you are close and involved.
And another thing is, you let each thing have its own nature. You don't want to control: "Oh, no. This should be like this." The work doesn't want to be like this. It's a dialogue with the work, itself.
You're collaborating with the material.
Yes, and "material" means a lot of things. It means the material, the dimension, the situation. Material is a question. It’s dependent on relationship. It's like painting – if you have green and a red beside it, this green is going to become one color, and this red is going to become one color. If you have this same green with a blue beside it, it's going to become another color.
A color isn't one specific thing. It's defined by what's around it.
Yes. It’s a neighborhood.
You spoke of something in your talk, something that seemed really humble and human to me. You said that sometimes you just have to allow yourself to feel kind of down, or kind of depressed about your work, to give it some space, in order to move on. I was wondering if you could explain what you meant by that.
This is very personal and I don't know if this applies to everybody. But with myself, I realized that sometimes I would go to the studio and I would try to work and at some point, I couldn't do anything. I would lay down, and begin to feel myself getting depressed. Then, suddenly something would shift, and I would have a great idea, and begin to work again.
So, because of my experience, I began to think that depression is something that is a normal part of life. It's kind of necessary, to sometimes feel like a little animal. Sometimes you need to be down. You can not be up all the time.
Can you describe to us what it's like in the studio in the beginning before the other people come, when you're figuring out what it's going to become? What are the first stages like?
One thing is that sometimes you need to stop and concentrate. I like to do that lying down, on the sofa or on hammock. The hammock is the best thing for me – in the hammock you can move, you can flip down and draw on floor. It's a very great place to think.
To create the idea, to generate the thing, it happens inside of our mind. Not that it's mind‑orientated, but in that way that the mind is part of the body.
So it’s as if my studio was my brain. I close my eyes and I begin to look inside to see what's going on here.
When I think about work, I always think of where the work is going to be, because nothing can exist without a place.
And then, how do you get it out of your head?
Then there’s a process of summation of all the things that come. Sometimes you don't know. Then these pieces get woven in here and there. Then, there is thinking about how to make it happen. If something is too complicated for me to make, I don't make it. Simple.
At some point your hand is going to arrive. You can have an idea, I can have an idea. We can have an idea together. We can say "Let's make the sculpture. You go to your home, your studio, and we'll see each other in one month. And each of us will bring our sculpture." Good exercise, huh? Each sculpture is going to be pretty different, because your hand is different than my hand... And what we make is going to reveal so much about our personality, about our relationship to the planet, to the world, to the ground.
If I have an idea, and I make the work, and it turns out to be exactly the idea, I say, "Oh! It's exactly what I was thinking!" And, I think it's a stupid work.
Because it's boring. It didn't surprise you.
Because there's nothing. No transit. Nothing happened in between. If it's something that I can think, then what's the point?
You can watch Ernesto Neto’s March 15, 2012 Penny Stamps lecture here.