On the connectivity of fabrics: ‘Gaia mother tree’ by Ernesto Neto

In 2018, the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto created, through a collective process, a monumental textile installation in the main station of Zurich called Gaia mother tree that was organised by the Fondation Beyeler. The textile object looks like a twenty-meter high plant, that reaches up to the ceiling of the station building and fills the entrance hall with bright and warm colours. Its translucent structure is made of mainly yellow, orange, red and light green hand-knotted cotton strips. On closer inspection, the meticulous knotting of the fabric becomes visible.

Ernesto Neto, Gaia mother tree, 2018, Zurich main station (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The form as a whole resembles a majestic tree, while at the bottom of the installation people could walk in and take a rest. In this busy passage of Zurichs main station where hundreds of people walk through day by day, Gaia mother tree created a monumental space on its own that inhabits the space of the station concourse – the textile created a venue for interaction and meditation. Countering the prohibition of touching that usually applies to art objects in the white cube, viewers were invited to explicitly touch this huge fabric, lean against it or sit down, pull it softly or set parts of it in motion. Not only the sense of touch but also the sense of smell was activated: drop-shaped elements hung from the branches that were filled with aromatic spices, plant seeds and dried leaves – some of them traditionally used by indigenous Brazilian communities for healing processes. On the one hand the installation with its clear irregularities and its gigantic size undermined the orderly structure of small handcrafted everyday objects. On the other hand Neto’s work is conceptualised as textile crafted space in a built space of stone and concrete; so the architecture not only provides the framework, but the textile also works as an extension of the built space into the interior.

Ernesto Neto, Gaia mother tree, 2018, installation view Zurich main station (detail) (Image: Fondation Beyeler)

Netos work features a biomorphic form that resembles a tree, while combining organic materials and processed cotton with indigenous craft techniques. For the duration of its existence in the urban heart of one of Europes biggest financial hubs the object enables moments of aesthetic experience, where participation, sensuality and community are important. The oversized craft object creates a textile space that is to be inhabited by passers-by while the idea of connectivity is central: the textile formation connects spaces, subjects and their bodies as well as notions and ideas such as spiritual, humanist and ecologist principles. Processes of interaction and of creating temporary communities are important to Neto’s work, while the textile materiality in its flexible polymorphism seems to be predestined for this.

Textiles are extremely adapt­able – they are supple, tensile, pliable and tear-resistant – and have a high capacity to accommodate external influences such as heat, cold, moisture or dryness. They can have protective effects, for example against air currents or weather conditions; and as meshes they can also allow diverse external influences to pass through them to a limited extent; moreover, the same textiles can be large and expansive in its assembled state, but small and compact as a folded piece of fabric. In contrast to stable, permanent, durable, angular buildings, textile spaces are lightweight, transportable and often temporary. On the material level, textiles have a limited time frame and their status is precarious, because it is much more likely to degenerate into a material remnant than a building or a stone sculpture. The differentiation of inside and outside separated by a wall does not apply to the textile space: the fabric interior and the exterior as well as concavity and convexity are mutually dependent. For the architectural building of Zurich’s main station the walls are central, space-defining elements, however Neto’s textile spatial structure has no supporting function and as such it negates key aspects of the tectonic wall.

Textiles in general are not to be thought of as passive materials that must be formed or activated – by a handicraft or technical process; instead, their independently interactive aspects have to be taken into account. Regarding the title of Ernesto Neto’s installation Gaia mother tree, the multi-layered title refers to Greek mythology and the so-called mother earth, but it also recalls the Gaia hypothesis that was formulated by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis and the biophysician James Lovelock in the 1970s. The idea of their endosymbiotic theory understood the earth as a dynamic, self-organizing system in which everything interacts with each other. This evolutionary and systemic model is built upon symbiosis and interdependency, and not on selection, competition or rivalry. The gaia-hypothesis draws on the notion that all living organisms continually change their environmental surrounding – an idea that is again discussed regarding the Anthropocene by thinkers like Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway or Dipesh Chakrabarty.

Ernesto Neto, Gaia mother tree, 2018, installation view Zurich main station (detail) (Image: Fondation Beyeler)

In extension to this we can understand Neto’s Gaia mother tree as a textile-based mode of creating aesthetic and social symbiosis and connectivity. The textile object creates a sort of display, a setting that activates and integrates all elements involved. The viewers’ mode of perception and interaction changes through stopping, walking in, sitting down or passing by. And as the bodies move, they become part of the whole setting and of the textile space. When the body touches the textile object, it in turn reacts due to its flexibility – it shrinks, tenses, stretches. Thus, the textile object is not opposed to the viewers, as is frequently the case for art objects, but integrates passers-by and the environment, because all involved components react to the surrounding context and to movements, to sound, light, reflections or natural forces like wind. The fabrics bring their own agency into play: Gaia mother tree can be understood as textile encounter with the participating body – individually and collectively – in an interplay of stasis and movement, involving the concrete architecture as well as the lively urban surrounding.  


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