'Sculpture is a happening'
Topology at Tate with Ernesto Neto

Issue no4
Aug - Sept 2020

A report on Tate's Topology series: scientists en philosophers explore the work of Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto.

Saturday January 21 the second event of a series called Topology: Spaces of Transformation took place in a nearly full auditorium of London's Tate Modern. The field of topology originally belongs to mathematics and deals, simply put, with continuity, compactness and connectivity. Rather than looking at the identity of objects, it observes how they act in relation to one another. The Topology series brings together artists, scientists and intellectuals exploring the relevance topology has for art. This session was called 'Edges of the World' and focused on the work of Ernesto Neto.

It isn't hard to see the poetic potential topological ideas have to artists and theorists. In a time of site-specific works, interactive approaches and rapidly changing societies, topology adds a scientific flavour to the current mindset that 'everything is in flux'. Furthermore, topology can be used politically, as philosopher Éric Alliez demonstrated in his discussion of Leviathan Toth, a work Neto installed in the Panthéon in Paris in 2006. The enormous white, soft and almost messy-looking shapes hanging from the ceiling of the temple of the French republic compensated the strict and indeed politically defined space, Alliez argued.

Physicist Luiz Alberto Oliveira referred to Neto's sculptures and installations as applied topology. 'We should think less about the identity of objects and see them more in terms of their processes of creation,' Oliveira argued. 'Creation does not end with the object itself. Instead, it exists in constant tension with the world around it, where it originates from.'

Neto himself equally emphasised the performative aspect of his work, not in the last place by turning his own talk into a performance. Starting of by reading a poem on the joy of carrying stones, he continued by praising tactility. 'As a sculptor, I love to touch. I love to touch this wood,' he said, and illustrated his statement by stroking and kissing the lectern. 'To me, a sculpture is a happening. Everything I do happens through relationships.' And as if his passionate tone of voice was not convincing enough, he demonstrated his enthusiasm by dancing samba on stage.

Curator Margaret Wertheim, who studied mathematics and physics, used the term 'material wisdom', a concept that seemed to resonate with Neto's tactile approach. She spoke about hyperbolic space, a geometric concept long-time thought of as inexistent. Hyperbolic space has a negative curvature, meaning it curls out of itself. In Wertheim's Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project, women worldwide make knit installations resembling coral reefs, a pattern found in nature which, in fact, is a hyperbolic space. Through material wisdom, Wertheim explained, knitted structures have proved a mathematic assumption wrong.

Wertheim's anecdotes on the practice of crochet met Neto's immediate approval, who embarked on an imitation of his grandmother teaching him how to knit. What could have become a theory-dense afternoon, was made more accessible by Neto's insistence on the power of all things practical. 'You can create intellectual solutions through knots. Folding in, folding out, it's very interesting,' he concluded.

Topology: Spaces of Transformation: Edges of the World
With: Artist Ernesto Neto in conversation with physicist Luiz Alberto Oliveira, science writer and curator Margaret Wertheim and philosopher Éric Alliez.
21 January 2012
Tate Modern

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2020