Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Ernesto Neto/the 'New Decor' (Hayward Gallery)

Lee Bul's chandelier Sternbau no. 3. Pretty, but perhaps a little inconsequential.

I hoped that after its hiatus the Hayward would open with a new exhibition that would be interesting. Brazilian installation sculptor Ernesto Neto was not someone who I was particularly familiar with - this was his first solo exhibition in the UK so I can probably be forgiven for this - though I had seen images and so forth. I didn't really know anything about the other exhibition.

I'd like to think it would take quite a lot for me to leave an art gallery (voluntarily) without at least attempting to look at everything. This time, however, I simply had to go - Ernesto Neto's exhibition made me feel like pieces of my brain were being systematically removed and replaced with squishy multi-coloured slime.

But first, the 'New Decor'. This was, to me, a fairly inconsequential arrangement of objects - connected by the rather obvious theme of artists' responses to the everyday objects that surround us (furniture mostly). I didn't really get the sense that the curator (Ralph Rugoff, the gallery's director) saw this theme as a subject for critique. Though individual artists did offer 'takes' on furniture through re-interpretation or re-contextualisation, there seemed to be no overarching 'point' to the exhibition; not at least in the sense that I was expecting - a critical rethinking of the objects that we surround ourselves with. Nevertheless, there were some nice pieces. Elmgreen and Dragset's mirrored bunk beds (Boy Scout) had a anxious and nervous tranquility, and were a little worrying for it. It was also nice to see some work by Doris Salcedo, which often has great expressive poignancy. Roman Signer's fantastic Floating Table (one of those 'does what it says on the tin' pieces) had a bizarre innocence but (like other works in the show) was worrying.

The standout work for me was Jin Shi's haunting installation 1/2 Life, a portrait of Chinese migrant workers seen through their possessions. Here, their life was depicted by showing a 1/2 size mock-up of a typical hovel - so that we 'look down' on these people's lives as the Chinese population does. The piece lacked the worker her/himself - and this conspicuous lacking contributed to a haunting state of instability, as we waited for the worker to (never) return.

Many of the pieces, however, had not much to say (at least as far as I could see), and some reminded me of exhibits in the Millenium Dome - a kind of semi-ironic celebration of western bourgeois banality.

Up the stairs, I moved into Neto's big work The Edges of the World. A touchy-feely, childlike environment, one is immediately confronted with squashy fabricy textures one is encouraged to 'be gentle with'. Sacks of stones hang in loose, ladies' tights-like stalagmites, dripping and oozing with 'playful' organicism. Bright colours are everywhere. One is invited to hit a drum and watch plastic grains bounce all over its surface and onto the floor; to turn (with an oversize mitten) the pages cardboard 'children's' books contained in a see-through stretch-fabric globule; and to take one's shoes off and wander through what feels like a play pen that should be attached to a Heston Blumenthal gastropub. There was also a swimming pool.

I didn't get that far, I was tiring of it all. Neto's uncompromisingly joyful aesthetic combined smell of Southbank saturday afternoons, children's feet and socks, and the noise and clatter of said children's intensive running around of the exhibit was too much for me. Maybe I'm a miserable bastard, but it was all too much fucking fun for me. I mean, there's nothing worse than being forced to smile and be happy and be content with the world. Neto's art is not only shallow, it's positively malicious - invading and pervasively joyous to such an extent as to destroy whatever curiosity I might have had.

If you do go to this exhibition, and if you come away happy and smiling and pleased with the multicoloured vibrancy of the Southbank and all of its minions and minstrels, I assure you, you have been hoodwinked.

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