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“Directions—Ernesto Neto”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to June 23

One of my favorite photos of furniture is an advertising shot of the Pool Living Pad that Luigi Colani designed for Rosenthal in the early ’70s. As configured, it was the apotheosis of the sectional sofa/conversation pit, a square, 36-unit grid of flat pieces, edges, and corners that eliminated the need for any other living-room furniture, destroying the familiar divisions of table, chair, love seat, and ottoman and ejecting the floor from their midst. Viewed from above, it was the unforeseen union of rigorous monochrome painting and the easy-chair art recommended by Matisse—and that was before the addition of the pictorial elements that were its users. It was a Malevich Red Square you could scale the edge of and sink into, an arena for the lazy gladiators of the fashion-forward leisure class. It was a pleasure pad, the ideal staging area for an orgy. It was late-modernist design as the Blob, a warm, ruby mass that could expand outward and subsume all our nonworking lives.

The room-as-womb was a concept at the height of its currency in the late ’60s and early ’70s. As we jetted into the technological future, bracing ourselves for the next shock of the new, we craved consolation. Our minds may have reeled, but our bodies could be coddled. We wanted to be cradled by geometry. Seating tended toward envelopment. Eero Aarnio’s Globe chair was basically an upholstered eggshell, hard on the outside, completely cushioned on the inside. The space around furnishings began to meld into them. The void was softened; it grew protuberances. Verner Panton specialized in interior design that elided the distinctions of floor, wall, and ceiling—first using pattern, later color and form. His fabric-wrapped foam-rubber environment at the 1970 Cologne Furniture Fair completely surrounded its inhabitants in a hard-edged oasis of softness.

Although he was a youngster when these developments were new, Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto drinks deeply of their cultural moment. He uses stretched Lycra tulle, the material used for women’s hosiery, to fashion quasi-site-specific environments that appeal to multiple senses. In It Happens When the Body Is the Anatomy of Time (2000), bundled masses of clove, cumin, and annatto anchored canted columns of fabric that stretched from a ceiling canopy to the bare floor. The spices that seeped through the distended weave of the cloth made fragrant halos around the bulbous footings. In Globiobabel Nudelione Landmoonaia (2000), the thin columns that stretched between canopy and floor covering hemmed in a giant pillow, where viewers could recline after threading their way inside. Tight openings in smaller, stand-alone sculptures invited hands-on exploration that critic Bill Arning has likened to fisting. Visionary ’60s Italian designer Joe Colombo could come back from the dead and not raise an eyebrow over O Habitat (1999), in which an entire room was appointed with such pieces.

It is not without hints of frustration and disappointment that those who have experienced Neto’s more tactile, olfactory work note that The Dangerous Logic of Wooing, the sole piece in his “Directions” show at the Hirshhorn, doesn’t offer similar interactions. At the Baltimore Museum of Art’s “BodySpace” show last spring, only three shoeless viewers at a time could enter the clove-scented Lycra environment of Neto’s Sister Naves (1999); the foot traffic off the Mall proving prohibitive to such restrictions, the Hirshhorn commissioned something that, though still partaking of Neto’s all-encompassing classification of his works as “body/space/landscapes,” is more purely sculptural.

A disorderly linkage of pendulous off-white forms hovers between the floor and ceiling of the small space, its swelling, Styrofoam-pellet-filled bulk—essentially a giant beanbag—suspended from hooks via a network of counterweights that are filled with rice. Although touching isn’t prohibited (gentle pats are permitted, if not explicitly encouraged), Wooing is intended for the eye, not the hand, for the ambulant body, not the recumbent one. Originally, parts of the piece were filled with oregano, but the seasoning wasn’t dense enough to allow them to hang properly, and the smell was supposedly overpowering, reaching halfway around the third floor.

Created for the site but relocatable, the piece gently dominates the space. You’re by turns under it, virtually within it, or pushed out toward the perimeter. Absorbing vibrations and stilling the air, it modulates the sound and temperature of the room. Toward the center is a zone of comfort, even if mainly metaphorical. Along the periphery is a brittle band of coolness, where the noise of your movements is reflected by the gallery’s hard walls. Neto notes the early influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose set design alternated stretches of alienating white emptiness—punctuated by cutting-edge furniture such as Olivier Mourgue’s then-new Djinn seating—with cocoonlike capsules and padded corridors. Here, too, is a sense of surrounded weightlessness, as if you were underwater, or encased somewhere beyond gravity’s pull.

But the longer you look, the more accustomed you grow to Wooing as a piece of deftly installed sculpture, rather than a complete environment. Sit outside, in the museum’s inner ring, and the tenuous balance the rotund forms have struck with the room starts to dissolve. Step back inside, circle the piece several times, and you’ve pared away the gallery skin. You start picking the massive forms apart, uncovering symmetries in what once seemed chaotic, tallying masses and counterweights, cataloging the openings where rice and Styrofoam made their entrance, all now twisted shut like the necks of half-inflated balloons. Color differences resolve themselves from the overall whiteness. The counterweights and the “buttons” that link them to the larger forms are whiter than the rest. At opposite ends of the room, picked out in yellower cloth, are genitalia.

Finally, that Star Trek moment arrives when what you have been puzzling over is revealed, its extent understood; and what you thought was a dead planetoid, an abandoned starship, a mindless field of energy reawakens into sentience, emerging as a life-form heretofore unknown. Here are two large bodies, male and female, intimately close but distinct and unlinked.

Having enabled us to travel an arc from ignorance to familiarity, with mystery dispelled and us no longer in their thrall, Neto’s twin leviathans glide away. CP