Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Ernesto Neto has designed a new installation at the Park Avenue Armory.
Lisa Delgado

A Tyrannosaurus rex might elicit awe at the Museum of Natural History, but across town at the Park Avenue Armory, an equally majestic beast has taken up residence. A creation of Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, anthropodino is an arched labyrinth constructed out of wooden “bones” towering several feet high, like the rib cage of some gargantuan prehistoric reptile. The art installation opening tomorrow inaugurates the armory’s new annual program of commissioned artworks for the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall.

For some artists, the vast expanse of the Drill Hall space might have been “almost terrifying,” according to the armory’s consulting curator Tom Eccles, but Neto had already shown his flair for large-scale immersive works, with similarly scaled sensorial installations in Rome, Paris, and Malmö, Sweden. Neto grew up architecturally savvy.

photographs by Lisa Delgado

His father was a mechanical engineer and homebuilder, and as a boy, Neto often witnessed the construction process of his dad’s projects. Nowadays, the artist’s sensuous biomorphic installations, which blur the boundaries between art and architecture, are much in demand around the world. His Malmö Experience filled the entire Konsthall there with malleable Lycra environments shaped for visitors to touch and even sit within.

His latest—and largest—creation, anthropodino, reflects Neto’s fascination with two creatures that have each dominated the planet in their own time: dinosaurs and Homo sapiens. Dinosaurs represent awesome power, “But in the end they were too weak to survive the fast transformations of their own habitat,” Neto said. “This conflict between strength and fragility has a lot to do with all my work… and with the future of our own human civilization on Earth.” Like all of his installations, this one can be seen as “animal architecture,” he added.

The curvature of the Drill Hall’s barrel-vaulted roof inspired the forms of the installation, which consists of two parts: a “labyrinth” with a central dome rising up from the floor, and a canopy with spice-filled tentacles, or “drops,” hanging down from the hall’s iron trusses. Conceived in a different design language, the hanging portion is “not exactly the anthropodino, but a voice of it, a thinking of it, a breath of it,” Neto said.

The fabrication involved an eclectic high- and low-tech mix. Long Island City fabricator Jan Mollet cut the many pieces of birch plywood frame using a CNC mill, according to project manager Richard Griggs. In Neto’s home base, Rio de Janeiro, workers used hundred of yards of Lycra to hand-sew the skins of the tent-like, labyrinthine passageways and central dome, as well as the 190-foot-by-100-foot canopy. The cloth was then shipped to New York and fireproofed.

Right before the month-long exhibit opened, Neto and a team of a dozen helpers worked several days to put the elaborate installation together with a military precision befitting the Drill Hall. First, the canopy had to be hung from hooks attached to the trusses, according to armory president and CEO Rebecca Robertson. The heavy, spice-filled drops were then hoisted into the air using 80-foot articulating boom lifts, and laced onto the canopy by hand.

As for the labyrinth, the arches and central spine of the frame are slotted together by hand onsite, with no nails. It’s designed a bit like a huge version of a toy dinosaur model, curator Eccles said. Next, the wood frame had to be covered with the Lycra skin. Outside the labyrinth are areas devoted to rest and tactile sensations, including a pool filled with 28,000 plastic balls, a soft pink carpet to lie on, and a giant beanbag mattress.

Despite all the preparation, Neto’s installations have sometimes surprised him in the final forms they take. “He plans it meticulously, but it’s weight/counterweight, and it’s stretchy fabric, so when it all drops, he doesn’t 100 percent know how it’s going to work,” Robertson remarked. “It’s very alive, in a way."