Lie Down at the Aspen Art Museum’s Last Stand

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
The view from inside the main piece in Ernesto Neto's "Gratitude" at the Aspen Art Museum.
Aubree Dallas |

If you go …

What: “Gratitude”

Who: Ernesto Neto

When: Now through Sept. 7

Where: Aspen Art Museum

What: Family Workshop

When: 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Aspen Art Museum

More information: Limited to 20 participants; visit

Many art exhibits keep you at a distance, with “do not touch” signs beside canvases, velvet ropes around sculptures and security guards’ eyes on you. But Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, in a spectacular installation that marks the final show at the riverside Aspen Art Museum, invites you inside his work to snuggle with it, lie on it, smell it, touch it and be touched by it.

The centerpiece of the show — titled “Gratitude” and opening today — is a massive, Creamsicle-orange canopy of translucent fabric hanging from the ceiling in the museum’s main gallery. The cloth forms a tent-like structure, under which eight blue foam-topped and raised platforms are situated in a circle. The foam bunks are cut out like gingerbread men (actually cut from a crude outline of Neto’s wife) on which visitors are encouraged to lie down.

On your back, you are immersed in Neto’s creation. Fabric pods, filled with crystals and stones, droop from the top of the umbrella-like structure at varied lengths — many close enough to touch, some too close not to. A magical, Oz-like glow fills the interior as light filters in from above.

The pads have holes carved out strategically, each targeting a chakra on your body. Below the holes, more crystals and rocks are suspended — each type of crystal corresponding with a specific chakra.

“Maybe this is the child time of the museum, and now the museum is going to become an adult, with a serious museum, a big architect and all of this. So I’m very happy to be part of the child time, because I feel very much myself as a child.”
Ernesto Neto, artist

In the surrounding gallery space, Neto has positioned two smaller pink canopies with single blue bunks beneath and a different array of drooping, mineral-filled sacks inside.

Woven rope nets, also filled with stones, crystals and beads, hang from pullies on the gallery ceiling. Additional suspended biomorphic forms, without beds beneath, are lined with aromatic spices like cloves and turmeric. Their scent permeates the museum, suggesting Mom is cooking somewhere nearby as you rest in Neto’s psychedelic fabric caves and amoebas.

In the smaller upstairs gallery, Neto has a similar setup, made for children. One large orange canopy there has a large mat positioned on the floor, inviting groups of kids to gather underneath. A second canopy has a single matted bunk beneath it, sized for a child (and cut from an outline of Neto’s son).

‘Gratitude’ in progress

Little more than a week before the scheduled opening, the gallery was a hive of activity. “Gratitude” was still just an idea in Neto’s head, schematics on paper and scattered pieces strewn on the museum floor. Ten men moved purposefully around the space, rigging pullies and stretching fabric over wooden armature. The foam beds were stacked in a corner, beside plastic tubs and bags filled with rocks, crystals and piles of rope and yarn. Neto’s son, Bruno, played “Pokemon” on his laptop amid the creative chaos.

Neto sat down to talk about his process and vision for “Gratitude,” grabbing a length of rope and crocheting with his hands as he spoke, with a pencil wedged behind his left ear and his salt-and-pepper curls rising skyward.

“I want people to take good care of the show,” he said. “There is a fragility to the piece, like in all my work, because I want to touch this idea that there is a fragility to the planet and we need to take care of it and also there is a fragility in the relations between human beings. My work is all about relationships. One thing is related to the other.”

Neto combines a childlike sense of play and imagination with his precise artistic vision in massive installations that have won him international acclaim as well as the 2014 Aspen Award for Art, which he’ll accept later this summer. An immense piece filling the 55,000-square-foot Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan in 2009 included immersive fabric worlds as well as a ball pit for adults. A show last year at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India included a floor of crocheted rope. While this show is far smaller, Neto says it is more technical than his larger ones.

Neto’s show will be the last in the current museum, with a new downtown Aspen Art Museum opening in early August. His installation will stay on display in the old building through early September.

“This is a smaller space, but it’s wonderful to work in a place like this,” he said. “The river beside this place is incredible. I feel the energy of the river in the museum. It’s a shame that they’re going to lose that in the new museum, but I understand they need to grow.”

He calls his work “adventure sculpture” and notes that, given his reliance on precise counterweights and fabric sizes and countless other factors, he often has to improvise and find new solutions as he puts the final touches on an installation.

When he came to town in the early winter to look at the museum space, he was unsure how he’d approach his Aspen Art Museum exhibition.

“I came to Aspen in November, and I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I remember I thought I wanted to walk on the walls, maybe because of the skiing here, you know. I don’t know how I had this idea.”

His time in India, he said, led him toward experimenting with chakras and infusing a spiritual interaction into the piece. He combined that with the power of the adjacent Roaring Fork River and the constant thrum of outdoor activity in the forests surrounding us to find “Gratitude.”

Neto shipped crystals and glass beads from his home in Rio de Janeiro and sent dimensions and designs for the exhibit’s fabric pieces and computer-cut wood armature to a team in Denver, where they were made before delivery to Aspen.

When Neto returned here last month, one of his first steps was soaking the stones and crystals for the show in the Roaring Fork and then drying them out in the sun bedside the museum.

“This river has such energy,” he said. “They’re so much brighter now. They were not like that before. So I want to bring this energy for the people. … This is really a piece for you to get energy and exchange energy.”

He infused an element of trust in the pieces here, leaving counterweighted stones hanging above viewers lying on their backs, positioning others to rub against heads and hands.

“I thought about this idea of the artwork touching you,” he said. “Normally, in my case, you touch the artwork. But here it’s the other way around, it’s the artwork that’s touching us. Metaphorically, the artwork is always touching us. … This is a way to lie down, to breathe and to receive it.”

Aspen ideas

The childlike aspects of the show also may be a result of Neto’s childhood memories of Aspen. On his only family trip to the U.S. as a child, Neto visited here. At 13, on a vacation through the states, the Netos went to Disney World in Florida, to New York City and here for a week of skiing at Buttermilk.

He marveled at the idea that he’s returned to create the closing show for the Aspen Art Museum.

“I never understood how it was in the summer here,” he said. “Now I understand people do a lot of running, kayaking on the river and hiking and biking, so it’s interesting how it gives a possibility of life that you don’t see anywhere. You don’t see that in New York — and I love New York — but this is another planet.”

He aimed to infuse that zest into “Gratitude” along with its meditative aspects. The concept grew more child-like and playful as Neto refined it, drawing inspiration from the buzz of outdoor play here.

“Maybe this is the child time of the museum,” he suggested, “and now the museum is going to become an adult, with a serious museum, a big architect and all of this. So I’m very happy to be part of the child time, because I feel very much myself as a child.”