The first time I tried meditation, I failed. We sat by the fireplace in my friend's living room as she guided us, peacefully through the steps. "Focus your mind forward and imagine a constant, something you've seen and trusted the existence of your entire life -- the moon, the sun -- and hold it gently ahead at a distance," she coaxed. Eyes closed I pressed my mental viewfinder forward, fumbling through hazy variations of things I should know intimately.
Finally, something appeared: a perfectly defined mushroom cloud.
I've chased emptiness for years, but never got as close to it as I did today, sitting with Ernesto Neto in the middle of his new exhibition "Cuddle on the Tight Rope."
Viewing this massive work from the outside, it resembles a multicolored macrame caterpillar that twists slightly, filling the length of the Nasher's atrium-style gallery. Each of the caterpillar's feet act as the work's structural base, grounding it and distributing the weight of it and its temporary inhabitants. Looking at its interior is a different experience entirely.
Crocheted hammock material in brilliant patterns and shifting shades hangs through the middle, anchored at the base with a pathway of small plastic balls, similar to what you'd find at a McDonald's playland. They are bundled together with the same woven fiber as the rest of the work, and resemble a long, diverging, climbable body pillow. We took our shoes off, gripped the hammock-like sides and stepped inside the tree house.
I pulled gently, letting my fingers dip in and out of the weave while my heels, arches and toes pushed down into the balls. They shift. They depress under your weight. They feel secure and even adventurous. When we reached the interior, "the stomach" of the caterpillar, the path diverged into a figure eight. There, we sat.
Ernesto has commissioned his work for places all over the globe, hanging drops of fabric in Paris' Panthéon, a suspended work in Argentina, but this piece he designed specifically for this room and it's his first climbable work that is anchored to the ground, rather than the roof. Existing underneath architect Renzo Piano's famous glass ceiling, tempered light filled the space. The simplicity of Neto's open weaving invited it to flow through the work of art, below it, and all around it. While I sat in this state of suspension I was overwhelmed by its lack of boundaries. And after a while, I felt my weight, but not the ropes holding it. It was as though energy, gravity and light had woven together to keep me elevated.
We said half-sentences. Each of us occasionally trailing off as our minds flirted with non-existence, emptiness. I pressed my face into the ropes, leaned back and forth. The cocoon swung gently, like a pendulum. The Brazilian-born artist smiles when he talks about gravity, time -- and better, the lack of each.
He would like to have a moment where he could turn living off and then turn it back on. We move too much. We chase time, and consider it and money an even exchange, he said. Ernesto would rather time just stop for a while, that we would all simply be.
We are quiet. We are weightless. We shift. We swing.
When I leave the womb of "Cuddle on the Tightrope" I tug my boots back on. Soon, I remember everything: the deadlines, gotta get gas, I should stop eating lunch from the vending machine, and decide to excuse myself rather than linger. Rather than do what I want to do: climb back inside, play and rest. When I returned to my car, it was drizzling. I slid into my seat, sat my belongings down, and wept.
"Cuddle on the Tightrope" opens tomorrow and runs through September 9 at the Nasher. Five are allowed on at a time and you can remove your shoes on one of Ernesto's custom benches -- they're woven sacks filled with plastic balls.
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