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Ernesto Neto. Photo: Petri Virtanen, Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery

“Everything has a spirit” 1

Brazilian artist’s Ernesto Neto speech at the press opening of his exhibition “BOA” at the KIASMA museum 

Una Meistere

Ernesto Neto “BOA”, KIASMA, Helsinki, until September 4

“I'm a messenger of the boa constrictor,” said Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto at the press opening of his exhibition BOA at the KIASMA museum of contemporary art in Helsinki. The event itself felt like a meditative ritual led by Neto in which he shared in his experience of fluidity after meeting shamans from the Huni Kuin tribe living on the banks of the Amazon River. On the fifth floor of the museum, the artist has conjured a timeless space resembling a temple. All you have to do is take off your shoes, let your toes enjoy the soft carpeting, lose yourself in the stylised head of a snake and prepare to delve into your own soul. It is a world that, although physically located in the centre of the Finnish capital, carries one back to nature, the origin of everything.

“We are nature. And culture is only a subproduct of nature,” says Neto. At one end of the exhibition space is a flower-shaped table displaying objects used in Huni Kuin shamanic rituals. None are reproductions, and visitors are allowed to touch them and thereby take part in the process; after all, according to ancient Huni Kuin wisdom, distancing oneself lessens the power of ritual objects. Step by step, Neto takes the visitor ever deeper into the secrets of the Huni Kuin, constructing a space of ritual offerings, celebrations and contemplation full of ancient knowledge, symbols and words. Visitors feel as if they travel back in time and to a completely different order to more powerfully and authentically feel and experience their present daily lives. Neto admits that renewing the connection between indigenous people and Western civilisation, between man and nature, has become his mission. Because only by returning to our roots can we save the world that we have ourselves almost destroyed.

Ernesto Neto. Casa de cura (Healing House), 2016. Photo: Petri Virtanen, Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery hereby reprints an excerpt from Neto’s speech at the press opening of the BOA exhibition. It will also soon publish an interview with the artist

“This room is a temple for me. It’s a place where we can feel our body, to feel a connection with ourselves, nature and the people around us.

“Five years ago a friend of mine went to the Huni Kuin people to publish a book commissioned by the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden Research Institute (JBRG)*. A book about medicines made by indigenous people, their stories and plants. When she came back, she said that I should go there to meet the pajés, the shamans. I went there two years later. On the second day of my visit I participated in a ritual in which everybody was sitting in a circle. There was a candle lit in the middle of the space. It was an open place called kupixawa, a little way outside the village, like a ten-minute walk through the forest. It's where they have their medical parks, their sacred gardens of medicinal plants. They know so many medicinal plants. Around three hundred. The book contains about one hundred of them.

“So, the candle was there, and everybody was sitting down. They were dressed more or less the way I'm dressed now, but with traditional adornments, covered by keneya, their signs and symbols. This symbol [Neto shows the bracelet on his arm], for example, is the step of the jaguar. So, when you want to move invisibly, you dress up with the step of the jaguar. This one here is the thorn. You're walking in a forest and suddenly the thorn touches you; if you keep walking, the thorn will cut you. So, you need to step back. They even give this a name – it’s called “wait a little”. And many times in life we bump into a thorn and we have to go back and change our movements.

Ernesto Neto. Yubẽ bushka, 2016. Photo: Petri Virtanen, Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery

“Everybody was sitting on the ground, but they put me in a hammock, because it was the first time I would be drinking the sacred medicine. It's called nixi pae and also huni, which is from their name, Huni Kuin, which means ‘the true people’. ‘Huni’ also means a man, a woman, a human being. In Peru, for example, it's called shipibo. But normally they call it nixi pae – ‘nixi’ means wine and ‘pae’ means strong. This drink is a mix of wine and leaves. The wine brings the force, the masculine power, and the leaf brings the vision, the feminine power. We were there sitting down, everybody in silence, just the forest sounds – nui, nui, nui, cri, cri, cri.... It was already a very sacred moment, and suddenly a man – he was probably 30 years old – together with his brother, they picked up the tea and began to serve it. One by one we drank this tea and went back to our places. And then after about ten or fifteen minutes of silence, suddenly the guy sitting on a chair begun to sing. It was like a fountain of sound washing over me at that moment. And something like twenty minutes later the force began to come.

“The only introduction I had before the ritual was from the partner of my friend, Anna. He’s a publisher, and they were working together on a book. He’s from the Santo Daime, which is a kind of church spread out across all of Brazil and also in Europe, the United States and even in Japan. It was founded by a guy named Mestre Irineu. He was black guy, two meters tall, and in his 20s he worked on a rubber plantation and drank nixi pae with the indigenous people. And he had a vision to create this church connecting the power of Jesus to this universe of healing and sacredness. It began in Acre, a state in northwest Brazil, and from there it spread out further. So, when the force came to me, I began to have an incredible vision of me and my wife making love in the universe. We were floating and our bodies became like particles spreading all around. I began to have a closer connection with friends, family and people in general.

Ernesto Neto. [tapete campo] ondé ki nós vamo?, 2012; Velejando entre nós, 2013. Photo: Petri Virtanen, Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery

“The nixi pae began to teach me, because this medicine is here to teach us, to show us where to go, to cleanse us. To show us the things that we did wrong, too. So it's work, it's not easy. Because you deal with things that sometimes you prefer to hide. But it doesn't make you feel guilty; it just shows you the way to do it better next time, it tells you to do it this way and not that way.... It really guides you in a direction of love. At the end of the ritual it brings you a lot of joy; the refill of unconditional love was extremely strong. I’d never felt something like that before. It was one of the most important moments in my life, if not the most important one. Maybe when my two kids were born – that was also something really sacred.

“This dimension of sacredness is the most important thing I've learned from the indigenous people. That sacredness is everywhere. It's not there in the sky, in God, like in Christianity, which has generated all of this Western society. Sacredness is on the ground, in plants, in the river, on the mountains, on the wind, everywhere. We are a part of it. We are nature. There is no way to escape it. Culture comes after. Culture is a part of our nature, but our relationship is with this planet, with this universe, with everything. And the guide to this healing process is the boa constrictor. The boa is the light. And joy is the cure. The cure comes through joy. When they are singing, they sing: the force is coming, the force is cleansing us, the stars, the birds, the boa, the river, the day, the light, the night, the wind....

Ernesto Neto. Variation on Color Seed Space Time Love, 2009. Photo: Petri Virtanen, Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery

“So, they sing for all these forces many different songs, thousands of years old, and they have been doing these rituals and having this communication with nature for thousands of years. When you ask them how they know if this plant is good for this or for that, they say – we drink nixi pae and we talk with the plants. So, this is the way they do their science. It's difficult for the modern scientific establishment to accept that and to understand it, because there is no mathematical proof, at least until now. But 74 percent of the medicines we have in our pharmacies today come from plants and from this ancient knowledge. Representatives of Western companies go into the jungle, find the people and trap them in a way to talk with their shamans, to discover what this or that plant is for. Then they take the plant, go into the laboratory to find out the active substance, and then they make a business out of it. There’s a snake, a very poisonous snake, named the jararaca. And the poison of the jararaca is used to treat very complex heart conditions. So, you use the poison and it looks like the heart gets stopped without stopping, I don't know the exact explanation of it.... But these people make millions with this poison, with this knowledge.

“In the meantime, the Huni Kuin, and indigenous people in general, are cut out of this business. Not that they are much looking for money. Money is not really important for them; there are many things much more important to them than money. Spiritual connection is the most important thing. When you turn to a shaman and say, ‘Ah, you are the pajé...’, he answers, ‘No, not me. Nixi pae is the pajé. I'm just a student.’ So, this dimension of humbleness is very important, because in the end it is not one person or another person who discovered the thing. It's the boa constrictor who brought it. There’s this idea that things are beyond us, beyond us self-powered people.

Ernesto Neto. Yubẽ bushka, 2016. Photo: Petri Virtanen, Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery

“The sensorial capacity of these people is unbelievable. You’re in the forest and suddenly they’re saying that somebody is coming, because they hear this pop, pop, pop.... It’s the sound of a boat coming up the river. But we don't hear anything; we only start to hear something five or ten minutes later. The boat is coming. We go into the forest and we don't know anything – everything is just green. But for them, it's this plant or that plant. Everything has a name. And everything has a spirit.

“Three days later I went upriver to a village in the heart of the forest to meet a very special man, one of the oldest pajés alive. We had a ritual there when we arrived. We were sitting around the fire, the sacred fire, and we drank nixi pae. When the force came, I had the feeling that I'd been placed inside of a leaf. I could see the whole structure of the leaf in a mix of scientific and sacred ways. And all of my work came together. In a way, everything I'd been looking for over the past thirty years arrived at that moment. But when we had a second dose, I thought I would die. When I arrived there, I had this irrational fear; I was afraid that he would turn into the jaguar and would swallow me, because there are a lot of stories that people tell.... At that moment, I was resigned to the fact that I would die. I had this feeling that I wouldn't come back, and I was fine. I’m gonna die, that's it. And it's not a jaguar. I said: ‘It's strong,’ and they kept singing, because the ritual is all about the singing. The singing brings the force and, depending on the chant or who is chanting, you receive different visions, different feelings. Nobody said anything, and suddenly I stood up. I went to my little can of water and took three sips, and I said, ‘I'm not gonna die, I’m gonna live....’ Everything went away, the ritual continued marvelously, and it was very special for someone like me. I felt like a child there, because everything was so different.

“Eight months later I met a guy named Txanabane, who was from the village but had been living in Rio de Janeiro for the past eight years. He was doing rituals there. I went to a ritual to him with my friend Anna, and it was incredible. After the first dose, the title of the exhibition I was working on at the Guggenheim in Bilbao came to me, and I named it The Body that Carries Me. I kept repeating the title so that I wouldn’t lose it.... At the end of the ritual, when we were almost out of the force, we had this closing, in which we all stood up and held hands with each other to do a dance. And this really blew the force away and brought everybody back. So, when they sing at the beginning, the songs are about bringing the force on, then there are songs to spread the force around, a song to bring visions, and finally there are songs to cleanse everything and blow this moment away and let us return with this healing inside of us. And then I suddenly realised that I was near my home. It was incredible – I was right back there, and there was my wife and my kids, and I felt a very strong link with my family and nature and love. I had the feeling that this force is the force that unifies us all.

Ernesto Neto. Apenas sentado no caminho da jibóia (Just Sitting on the Boa Path), 2016; Lago dos sonhos ancestrais, a floresta ensina aonde ir, nós somos natureza (Lake of Ancestral Dreams, Forest Teaches Where to Go, We Are Nature), 2016; Chuva da floresta (Forest rain), 2016; A Terra é o corpo (The Earth Is the Body), 2016. Photo: Petri Virtanen, Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery

“I've become a part of this group, and I began to go every time there was a ceremony. The group’s name is Guardians of the Forest. I've met some incredible people through them and through these ceremonies, through the medicine. And it began to enlighten my life. It changed a lot in my way of talking to people, in my way of eating. I used to be a person who really drank a lot. I liked the force of the drink, this force of the alcohol was very important to me. My friends and I had special parties on New Year’s Eve since we were 16, a free party on the beach, where the toilet is in the sea. And we danced all night long. And we drank.

“But a while after going into the forest and participating in the rituals there, the incredible process of healing started. We went to the samauma tree after one of the ceremonies. Those are really big trees, with roots that form whole rooms. We were sitting down in one room like this for a while, and after a while I went out. I was together with one of the indigenous men, a super-wise man, and when I emerged from the room, suddenly a lot of black bees began to land on me. All over my body. On my face, on my chest.... And I stayed there with them landing on me, I don't know, for ten minutes or more, but I began to feel that they were blessing me, that they were cleansing me. And when I started to move away, to go to the river, they began to leave little by little. It was something really special. When I came back to Rio de Janeiro, I went directly to the opening of an art fair. People I met there kept saying, ‘Ernesto, you’re different. Neto, you look beautiful, you look younger, there’s a light on you, there’s an aura around you....’

“Afterwards I had a beer. And later a second one. For many years there was nothing that I loved more than a beer. But I didn't have a third one. And little by little I began to stop drinking. So, I don't drink anymore. If I drink a little bit, I feel it takes me out of this enlightement in which I'm living today. This enlightement of the boa constrictor, I feel the boa inside of me.

“So, eight months after the moment when I thought I would die, I realised that I had not been swallowed by a jaguar, but I'd been swallowed by the boa instead. And, of course, this is not something that happened just to me. It has happened with many people who get involved.

Ernesto Neto. Yubẽ bushka, 2016. Photo: Petri Virtanen, Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery

“When I was in Bilbao preparing the exhibition with this force of joy inside of me, I always thought about the joy and, you know, I always had the feeling that there was a voice that was saying that good art – important art – is art that talks about suffering, about problems. About sadness, because we are here to suffer and suffering is good – the notion that comes along with Christian culture. I see this divination of pain and suffering all around us nowdays. I always felt that my work was political, because it talks about nature – nature as something from which we think we can grab whatever we want. We can take all of it, pollute the rivers, and all of these tragic things that are going on in this time in which we are now living. And suddenly it came to me – we've been trapped for 2000 years, because the image of Jesus on the cross is not an image by Jesus. It's an image by the people who killed Jesus. It's like you killed a deer and mounted its head on your wall. This is not Jesus. The cross is the church’s instrument, the cross is a gun, it’s a tool of torture, it’s pepper spray, it’s the atomic bomb. It's sadness, unhappiness, greed, jealousy, all this bad energy that’s around us. But Jesus is life, happiness, joy, encounter, sharing, generosity, peace. So, this was something very important that I received at that moment.

“Eight months later I was talking with my wife, and I was saying to her, you know, I understand the thing of the cross. It's clear to me. But the boa constrictor, the serpent in the Judeo-Christian tradition is considered something evil that brought sin to humanity. How can that be? Because for the Huni Kuin the serpent is the light, the teacher, it is the pajé, the shaman. It's the boa who gives to everybody. And then, as soon as I had said that, the answer came to me like “boom!”: if the jibóia, the boa, the serpent, had not given an apple – nixi pae, ayahuasca or whatever it was – to Eve and had not talked to Eve about sharing this fruit of the knowledge tree with Adam, they would still be in Paradise today. They would be there. But we, where would we be? We wouldn't be in Paradise. So, the serpent, the boa, brought the light to humanity. If there hadn’t been a boa, a serpent, a jibóia, we wouldn't be here today. There would be nobody here. And this was an interesting thing to understand in this tradition – how people wrote things down incorrectly. Because we are living in the society of the cross. God was very angry with Adam and Eve, and he kicked them out of Paradise and gave them a punishment – work. Work is punishment? You plant a seed, you grow a tree, you have the passion to make an exhibition and you create it, you cut down the tree and get wood and build a house.... What’s going on here? What’s going on with that? We are living in a society of the cross, and Jesus there bleeding on the wall is something to scare us, it’s something to imitate love, but there is no love on a cross.

“The house is the body’ is a well-known statement from the late 1960s. It was the title of a work of art by Brazilian artist Lygia Clark. It was the time of the counterculture, which talked about everything I've been talking about here now. I think this statement is now ‘the earth is the body’. Because when we see the earth as a landscape, we begin to believe that we can grab everything from it without problems, without consequences. But it's not like that. The earth is our body, and we are a part of this body. We need to be humble.

“We are here in this exhibition, in the head of the boa constrictor. I wanted to create this greenery around it like a form of protection. For us to be able to take off our shoes and relax. To have time to breathe. Because we are being bombed by information all the time. By newspapers, by television, by ads, which have a lot of things written on them. By pictures, by plotters everywhere. I wanted to create a place where you can close your eyes and just breathe. And, of course, this is a room for rituals. People can sing here, they can dance here, they can have talks like we are having here now, they can meditate. I would also love to do a sacred ritual here, to drink nixi pae, to bring pajés here. I thought about bring them here to meet the Sami people. Because I think the meeting of these peoples can be very important – the meeting of indigenous people from the forest with indigenous people from the Arctic, to share their knowledge, to share the situation of this planet, to pray for this planet.

“I would also like to invite the president, the prime minister and the other important people who guide our world to drink nixi pae, because I think nixi pae would be able to teach them so much of what they are doing with their people and this planet.

“You know, we can’t even light a candle here in this room, because this room has a high level of smoke detectors. And this is very interesting. Because in a way it represents the type of society we are creating. For me, health and safety are the warriors of the apocalypse. I have a friend, a Romanian artist, and he has a picture of ketchup. He said that kechups like that were sold in rows in the countryside for many years. But as soon as Romania joined the European Union, this was forbidden. Because the cans of local ketchup don’t have a stamp of quality. But the people planted tomatoes for generations, they watched them grow, they harvested them, they made ketchup.... So, what is this quality thing, for whom these warriors of the apocalypse are working for? For industry.

“In Rio de Janeiro we drink coconut water on the beach. All the kiosks sell coconuts. When I was young, they opened a coconut with a machete; then, when I was a teenager, they began to open them with three bumps. It looked like an upside-down pyramid, and you can see this incredibly beautiful, sacredly clear water with these little pieces of coconut meat floating in it. And you can drink that. It was like this sort of dance. And then, something like seven, eight or ten years ago, they made a new kiosk on Ipanema Beach with terrible architecture, like in the shopping malls, very pointed. Imagine, you’re going to the beach, you’re almost naked, and you have these points. And nowdays it's forbidden to open a coconut like in the old days because of health and safety rules. So, you can't cut it open anymore; you have to put a special stick inside of it. As a result, it becomes like a rugby ball with a straw, and you can’t see the water anymore. You can’t even hang them because of health and safety.

Ernesto Neto. Yubẽ bushka, 2016. Photo: Petri Virtanen, Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery

“So, what do they want? They want to take the image of the coconut out of us. You don't see the water, you don't see the dance of opening a coconut. And maybe in twenty years they’re just going to sell us a packaged coconut. Because when you buy a coconut, you’re just paying a fee for opening it, for the craft; you’re not drinking sparkling water, beer, Coca-Cola, iced tea and all these other things. It's so rude, all this greed. Why do they need to make so much money? I’ve heard that eight or nine individuals have half of all the money in the world in their hands. Do you think these people feel good? Are they having a good life? It’s hysterical. There’s this never-ending need to make more money, to have one more airplane. You know, the society we are living in now is like that. We have that on the TV all the time. If you’re feeling bad – they don't say this directly, of course – but when you’re feeling bad, you go to the shopping mall and you buy a shirt. But then you feel bad again, and you need to go to the mall again to buy another shirt. And then you buy a car. And then you buy a second car. And then there’s a new car on the market – you haven't the money for it, but somehow you buy a third car anyway.... And there’s a new TV, and Apple is releasing the new iPhone. You wait in line for ten hours, all night, to get the new iPhone. What's going on? You’re working like crazy to get the new iPhone or TV. And then, finally, you’ve made so much money that you can get an airplane, but suddenly you meet a new friend who has two airplanes. And you begin to smash everybody who is working for you, smash the whole pyramid down, because you want to make more profit to buy another airplane. Is this healthy? Are these people happy? No, these people are suffering. There’s no such thing as bad people or good people. Everybody deserves the cure. Everybody can be transformed.

“We’re talking about generations and generations of evolution. Where has this evolution taken us? We have all these electrical and domestic things like washing maschines and so on. But do we have more time now than we had before?

“I think this is a very crucial time to see what’s really going on on this planet. With humanity. Where do we want to go? Is this the way to keep going on? Just grabbing everything and consuming like crazy? No. This is cocaine. This is an addition. And we’re working every day for that. This is just crazy.

“We all like the exuberance of plants. The lush greenness, the leaves. And in a lot of places, especially in my country, people work for the leaves. But we can remind ourselves that plants also have roots. And the roots are the force. It's very interesting to think about a tree, because with a tree you have both shadow and light. The roots, they are in complete darkness, while the leaves are in the light. They are moving to the light. Every tree for me – and I've seen them so much – is an entity of civilisation. The indigenous people say that there is no separation between the figure and the background. There is no separation between them and nature. And when you have these guys speaking, you have the forest speaking. The Huni Kuin believe that at the beginning of the world there was only darkness, and suddenly the light and the force came: ‘Aaaa....’ This light showed nature, and when they saw nature, they said, ‘Iiiii....’ The ‘Aaaa’ is the masculine power, and the ‘Iiii’ is the feminine power. I think that is so important what the forest is saying. We all are kind of indigenous; there is an indigenous spirit inside all of us. Haux

*Una Isĩ Kayawa (“Book of Healing”)