(Above) Ernesto Neto at the Hayward Gallery
Exhibitions: Ernesto Neto: The Edges of the World and The New Décor, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, until September 5 2010
Anyone uttering those two buzzwords, "the environment", on the Southbank this summer won't be met with the usual hefty political or scientific debate in response.
Rather, they will be directed towards two exciting new exhibitions showing at the Hayward Gallery. The Edges of the World and The New Décor use the intersection of art and design to reshape our notions of both domestic space and the urban environment.
Visitors enjoy a dip in the pool
Though these two shows may hold an important message about the spaces in which we live our lives, they deliver this message in the guise of art that is humorous, interactive, and immensely fun.
For The Edges of the World, Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto has completely transformed the upper gallery into a colourful space of exploration.
This installation forms part of the summer-long Brazil festival on the Southbank, continuing the Hayward's annual tradition of offering its space up to artistic restructuring during July and August.
Brazil takes over the space
Using his trademark polyamide tulle fabric as an analogy for skin, Neto's installation aims to fuse the body with the city, so that the tunnel-like passages visitors walk through become reminiscent of a miniature cityscape and, at the same time, a grossly enlarged intestinal tract.
In another room, a seating area takes the form of a huge heart-shaped boudoir, complete with a central drum which visitors can beat as they sit.
The installation continues onto the outdoor terraces, one inhabited by a bark-lined garden with a figure-of-eight shaped balancing beam on which to climb; another is host to an oversized paddling pool in which visitors can swim if they book in advance.
(Above) The New Décor. Image: David Levene with Martin Boyce
In short, Neto's "environment" is the perfect place to bring your children. A companion of mine compared it to Teletubbyland, and I am inclined to agree (if you focus on Teletubbyland's warm serenity rather than its slightly creepy inhabitants).
But it's not only the young that seemed to benefit from the slightly surreal happiness that so much colour and play can bring: even the Hayward staff were infected by it.
This makes sense given that the signs asking visitors to "Be Gentle or Don't Touch" largely invalidated the staff's roles as gallery invigilators.
(Above) Los Carpinteros, Cama. Image: David Levene
As such, rather than monitoring us closely to ensure we stayed away from the artworks, they were free to enjoy watching people fool around – one staff member even gave a wobbly demonstration of the outdoor balancing beam when he saw visitors looking at it in bewilderment.
The New Décor brings the viewer back down to earth: physically, to the ground floor, but also psychologically.
Contributed by 36 international artists, the artworks in this show are back behind the invisible barrier that usually separates visitor from work, and which Neto’s installation had so elegantly traversed.
Image: David Levene
Yet the overt humour of many of these pieces prevents them from contrasting entirely with Neto’s environment.
Los Carpinteros' hugely elongated and twisted bed, Roman Signer's (literally) Floating Table, and several works by witty conceptual duo Elmgreen and Dragset carry further Neto's attempt on the floor above to counter the obliviousness with which we inhabit and co-habit with the domestic space and its accompanying objects.
Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday). Admission £6.50-£11. Book online.
Watch a timelapse of The Edges of the World being constructed: