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It's hands-on work

Ernesto Neto searches stores for everyday objects that will give his sculptures some tactile oomph.

October 01, 2003|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

Ernesto Neto needs a few items for his latest work of art: something squeaky, something furry, something hard and something cold. Oh, and two pounds of loose camomile.

The Brazilian artist is on a scouting trip in West Hollywood, similar to one he embarked on earlier as he prepared to assemble a sculpture for the Museum of Contemporary Art. This latest piece, "Three Religions, No God and the Children," transforms MOCA's gallery space at the Pacific Design Center into a sensual, organic environment.

In this life-size work of art, three large pyramid-type Lycra shapes are woven together, creating three low entrances. Foam flooring is embedded with toys to provide textural and sonic surprises. Removable puzzle pieces can be shaken like rattles. Lengths of Lycra -- filled with camomile, lavender or oregano -- hang overhead. In the center of the space, an island, or nucleus made of the same material as the flooring, provides options to lean back against its soft shapes. Hand-sized cavities in the island invite further investigation.

"He wants the piece to be welcoming," MOCA associate curator Alma Ruiz says, "so people will be brave enough to remove their shoes and crawl into it."

Once inside, strangers talk with each other as they navigate the environment, prodding the Styrofoam and shaking the puzzle pieces.

"He creates what he calls a contemplative atmospheric space," Ruiz says, "in which you can get in touch with yourself but also establish relationships with other people in the space, even people you don't know."

To create this sculpture, Neto, whose works have been shown at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the 49th Venice Biennale and London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, used materials he found at West Hollywood stores. Before returning to Brazil last week, he revisited some of his favorite haunts -- unlikely places for artistic inspiration.

His first stop is Bed Bath & Beyond at the Beverly Center. As he enters, he remarks upon "these treasures of humanity and civilization." Neto walks the aisles, pointing out items he included in the sculpture's nucleus. He picks up a "chi balance" massager. "I didn't know what it was," Neto says. "I destroyed it, took the top out and used it."

He reaches a pile of furry decorative throws, which he used to line the cavities. This time around, Neto buys some as gifts for his family. At the checkout line, the artist points out tins of mints. He had purchased similar tins at Starbucks and a Rexall Drug Store to use as rattles inside the puzzle pieces. He also tapped Rexall for shaving brushes, and Sports Chalet for racquet balls. Nearby Urth Caffe supplied the camomile.

Though the work is lighthearted, Neto's inspiration is grounded in astronomy, physics, mathematics, psychology and philosophy. A discussion of the work's themes raises the topics of quarks, calculus, Plato's value of the mind over the body and Christianity's subsequent emphasis on the ideal.

"We have this ideal objective," says Neto, waxing metaphysical as he rides up the Beverly Center escalator. "But in reality, we are organic, we have to eat, we have to go to the toilet, we have to make love, we are animals."

At that moment, he arrives at a pet store and proceeds to point out the squeaky toys that he discovered upon his first visit. "They are great surprises. I didn't know pets like toys that made noise."

"Three Religions" was already fully conceived and half constructed before Neto arrived in Los Angeles, but the idea for embedding squeaky toys into the floor's mattress came from discovering them at the store. On this visit, Neto picks out a few of the plush pet toys to bring home as children's gifts. The sculpture, he says, reflects his perception of Los Angeles, with its hidden treasures.

Walking into the mall, Neto is briefly distracted by the store windows. "Seduction. It's all seduction," he murmurs.

He turns to discussing his use of color. He likens the three shades of the pyramids -- champagne, beige and brown -- to an abstraction for different skin colors. "This idea of people congregating is always in my work, but I decided to be a little more explicit in the sense of the skins."

The green of the base recalls the earth, vegetables, the color of life. The other side of the base is covered in pink fabric, but it's hidden from view, a nod to the current that underlies all interactions. "It's kind of like sex -- everybody hides, but that's what structures everything in nature and human beings, relationships."

The next stop is International Silks and Woolens, his fifth visit to the store in a week, where he is greeted warmly by the staff. He had been inspired by their cornucopia of fabrics to cover the underside of the puzzle pieces with fake furs in wild colors.

On this trip, he picks up yards of fake fur and ribbons to take home. They likely will be put to playful use drawing viewers into future projects.

"Why do we look so much for the drama, why do we need it so much to feel alive?" Neto asks as he heads back to the museum, loaded with toys and textiles. "I propose an idea that you can interact with other people and find more joy in the smallest things."

Such as a shopping trip.


'Three Religions, No God and the Children'

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA at the Pacific Design Center), 8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood

When: Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Mondays and Fridays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Ends: Jan. 12

Price: $8, adults; $5, students and seniors; free for MOCA members and children under 12. Free general admission every Thursday

Contact: (213) 626-6222 or

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