Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas
Through September 9
by Erin Starr White
From my view within Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto’s Kink (2012) at Dallas’ Nasher Sculpture Center, light does beautiful things. Fashioned from an inordinate amount of brightly colored, crocheted nylon rope, this giant, caterpillar-like form is shot through with diamonds of diffused sunlight. This light, which might have been taken for granted in any other space, is exceptional due to its filtration through Renzo Piano’s elegant roof—the Nasher’s expert shading system. Aware of the peril the Nasher’s roof is currently facing due to nearby development, Neto’s sunlit webbed tunnel is a cheerful reminder that most art does not welcome such direct solar energy.
Kink is Neto’s contribution to the exhibition Cuddle on the Tightrope and physically illuminates the artist’s abiding interest in multi-sensory interaction with works of art. Neto’s work often features environments crafted from fabric, spices, foam and foodstuffs, arranged so that the viewer experiences these constructions from the inside. The other half of the exhibition is a grouping of works selected by Neto from the Nasher’s permanent collection and installed in an adjacent gallery. Predominantly figurative, works by Twombly, LeWitt, De Kooning, Giacometti and Brancusi underscore the notion that working in variations on a theme is fecund ground.
Elevated from the honey-colored gallery floor by long, arching steel rods planted in half-disks of smooth wood, Kink has a whimsical, visually stimulating exterior. Centered in the heart of a spacious gallery overlooking the Museum’s garden, the piece is comprised of two parts: this larger tent-like structure and a smaller parcel of netting and balls that sits idly by the south end of its mother sculpture, not quite sure of what to do with itself. The larger of the two greeted me with the ebullience usually reserved for birthday party bounce houses and pits filled with colorful plastic balls. With a large opening at each end of this orange, red, pink and grey tube, Kink has a definite directional flow—not unlike a section of intestine or artery. Upon entering the south-facing mouth of the piece I feel light and buoyant, a lot like the structure I am moving through. As I walk carefully over this lumpy path, my weight produces shifts in an unsteady foundation. I must grab hold of the sides of the structure in order to successfully make it to the other end.
As I moved through the cocoon-like netting of this colossal organism, I was alone in the piece and the gallery, save for a few guards. To walk the work’s elevated path of copious dark grey polypropylene orbs is to be severed from the quiet coolness of the gallery and embraced by a swaying, unstable, benign being. Balancing oneself and negotiating the ever-moving pathway below is a fun and enchanting task, but a sense of transgression persisted, as if being shoe-less and monkeying around inside of an artwork is wrong. Perhaps the loud crunching sound that matches my awkward gait is too much. I could disturb other visitors, after all. This sense of impropriety triggers the memory of an event I did not witness, but wish I had. My bodily intervention with Neto’s Dr. Seuss-like sculpture reminds me of the earlier, watershed human/art experiment that was Robert Morris’ 1971 Tate Britain retrospective. Here Morris placed large, interactive sculptures throughout the galleries, openly inviting viewers to cease being viewers and become engaged participants. This exchange, which resulted in all hell breaking loose within the Tate’s hallowed Duveen Galleries, must have been a rich and rewarding one for participants. The Guardian said at the time: "The participation seems likely to wreck the exhibits and do the participants a mischief." Devoid of the traditional pedestals and plinths meant to support (and prevent physical interaction) between pieces of sculpture and their viewers, Morris’ exhibition had to be closed after only four days on view.
While Neto’s call to activate his brilliantly colored organism appears foolproof (no nets crashing down or rods gouging visitors), I sense that my delight at being invited by an artist to participate in such a physical way mirrors the thrill those bell-bottomed Londoners must have felt. And though I would like to think contemporary museum-goers are savvy when it comes to physically engaging with art, the glee expressed by the participants I saw seems to belie the sheer freedom we still feel when the institutional leash is taken off and we get to really dig into an artwork. We might just need more of it.
Erin Starr White has contributed art criticism to Artlies, Art Papers, Glasstire, and ...might be good. She is an Assistant Curator of Education at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.