Ernesto Neto hallI suppose I was startled by the patrons I spotted walking into the Park Avenue Armory. They wore bright colours. They had squeaky voices. I was expecting art, but they were kids and they were demanding fun. What we all got was something sublime. In "anthropodino", the Armory's first commissioned art installation, Ernesto Neto, a Brazilian artist, has converted the massive drill hall into a complex of caves and tented passageways suspended by diaphanous fabric. Stretched lycra walls extend upwards into a magnificent nave at the centre. (See a film of its creation here.)

I’m repelled by Neto’s aesthetic, which is equal parts Gaudi, sci-fi and majestic homage to gonads and egg sacs. But his work is a feast for the senses. Interaction is irresistible. The kids went into playground mode, running for the plastic ball-pit and the chamber of bean-bag cushions stuffed with lavender. Adults sniffed quizzically at the dangling and dripping sacs to determine what spice (cumin? turmeric?) was stuffed inside.

And then I got lucky.

For one night only, the Armory hosted a performance within the installation by Shen Wei Dance Arts, the company renowned for its contribution to the full-blast Opening Cermony of the Beijing Olympics. Live musicians first entered the hall to provide a soundscape designed by Tom Chiu, an experimental violinist. A procession of 20-some dancers drifted into the room and circulated like sleepwalkers through the netted caverns.

Ernesto Neto hallShen Wei imagined "anthropodino" as the dancers’ natural habitat. The sleek anthropods of his company moved with eyes glazed, expressions vacant and their skin brushed with a silver-white patina. The dancers' sarongs (for the men) and evening gowns (for the women) were fashioned from swathes of pewter-coloured crushed velvet, fastened by a single safety-pin at the hip. They drifted among the spectators as the music escalated, from the harmonic drone of violins into a stunning chaos accented by wailing bagpipes and a bassoon.

The male and female dancers seemed to randomly connect and fuse into mechanical, alien-like pas de deux, and then drift away from each other. At the climax of the performance, the dancers filed into a long line and jumped up and down as if on well-oiled pogo-sticks. Dispersing, each dancer reclined on one of Neto’s plywood benches or a lilypad-shaped patch on the floor. Their muscular bodies writhed as they wriggled out of their velvet clothes, peeled to the waist like sweaty sheets after a nightmare. The music ground down into a final fermata of violins.

For us earthlings, this was an affair to remember. The Ernesto Neto installation is up until June 14th and his work is represented by the Tanya Bonakdar gallery.  Shen Wei, a Lincoln Centre favourite, is mounting a New York premiere in July. Tony Chiu tours regularly with the Flux Quartet. But this trinity will never again be as one.

“I love this art,” a child declared on the way out. His dad smiled and said, “It loves you, too.” He couldn’t be more right.

"anthropodino", Park Avenue Armory , New York, until June 14th



Picture credit: James Ewing