Visual Art

Julianna Thibodeaux

Ernesto Neto

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Through Feb. 12

Ernesto Neto's installation is on view at the IMA through Feb. 12.

There's so much contemporary art that seems pretentious, especially when it comes to installations. An artist tries to be clever and creates a wacky space inside a space, and it may be interesting and cool, but it really isn't provocative in any meaningful way. But then there's some profound artist's statement that goes with it, some way of explaining its intellectual or social value, and sometimes that value is authentic and sometimes it isn't.

I was superficially delighted when I first encountered Ernesto Neto's latest installation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Neto's installation, the inaugural offering in the IMA's new Forefront Galleries, consists of a padded room covered with red and white stretchy fabric, furnished with a gargantuan red beanbag "chair" and a nylon pod filled with small, red plastic balls and larger rubber ones in red and white. McDonald's Playland meets Moonwalk.

We kicked off our shoes and entered the space, amused at the red and white, Cat in the Hat spectacle, padded around on the foam and then entered the nylon pod where we bounced around for a while, immersing ourselves in red, white and plastic. The three of us - my husband, our toddler and I - quickly forgot we were experiencing a work of art and instead dove around in the sea of balls playing hide and seek.

After exiting the pod of balls, I looked up to take in the details of the piece. Globe lights hung suspended in nylon from the ceiling. Two armchairs were draped in fabric, with comment books pocketed in their sides. Another family had been enjoying the beanbag chair - or rather, the parents were, while the two kids, about 4 and 6, had been intermittently pelting us with rubber balls.

Just as we were about to leave the gallery, I looked up to take one last look, hopeful that some deeper meaning or symbolic significance might emerge. Well, it didn't, and then it did. First, we had fun as a family enjoying a work of contemporary art, in and of itself a fine thing. Then it hit me. The suspended globes, Adam's apples or tonsils. The pod of plastic balls, a gaping mouth with food tossing around inside. The beanbag chair, undulating flesh - abdomen, rear end. Just one discombobulated combination of body parts and suggestions of body qualities - supple, giving, unforgiving, red, dark, hollow, solid, smooth, rough and ever flowing, one part into another.

The body is one great big metaphor for sensuality - and as it turns out, Brazilian artist Neto is all about the body and its connection with sensation. But there's more to it than that: The body is a house, and either we feel comfortable in it or we don't, or at times some of each. But it's where we live. It's our home base for experiencing the world - mostly done through the senses. So here, perhaps, is the greater significance behind all that nylon and good, clean, sometimes sensual fun: What does it mean to be human, to experience the world, to react to it with our senses? How much of this is in our head? Certainly we make much of our physicality - just turn on the television and there's plenty out there to make us "feel" better and to give us pleasure. And there's plenty that makes us feel rotten in our flesh-enclosed homes.

Neto has made an international name for himself - in fact, he's one of a number of Brazilians who seem to be hitting it big right now - creating these experiential, sensational places all over the place, offering a way for us to consider our sensate selves anew, and to consider mind-is-body in a larger marketplace of ideas. The "soul" may or may not be part of the subtext.

With this, its first Forefront exhibition in the museum's newly expanded Contemporary Galleries, the IMA reopens its doors to contemporary art with a nod towards the international art scene - and a hint of things to come. Neto's work will remain up through Feb. 12

The museum also reintroduces its new galleries with three additional special exhibitions: Off the Wall by assume vivid astro focus (through May 14), a fine collection of prints from Universal Limited Art Editions (through April 16) and the multi-institutional collaborative outdoor installation borrowed from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (through Jan. 29), The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Project, "Untitled" (For Jeff)" - just look for the big hand. As such, these four offerings give a full-spectrum view of contemporary art and comprise a strong and provocative opening for the IMA. Contact the IMA at 317-923-1331 or visit the museum at 4000 W. Michigan Road or on the Web at