Welcome to Aerocene and Arachnophilia, magnificently presented on 25,000 square feet of exposition space at The Shed in New York. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Argentine-born, Berlin-based artist and visionary polymath Tomás Saraceno, then even more reason to rush with a visit as there are only two weeks left before the end of this spectacular show.
“Tomás Saraceno: Particular Matter(s)” has taken over two-thirds of The Shed’s exposition space and features Saraceno’s existing and newly commissioned works. Organized by The Shed’s curator Emma Enderby and its assistant curators Alessandra Gómez and Adeze Wilford, it’s the artist’s largest exhibition in the United States to date — we cannot but be grateful to Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rockwell Group for the building’s adaptive structure capable of accommodating this unusual retrospective.
WHAT: “Tomas Saraceno: Particular Matter(s)”
WHEN: Feb 11-Apr 17, 2022.
WHERE: The Shed, 545 West 30th street, NYC.
At the heart of Saraceno’s artistic practice is a revision of the anthropocentric and gravity-bound paradigm. It has evolved from his life-long obsessions—spiders and air balloons; by taking an unconventional look at the interactions between the layers of earthly habitats, his work questions the nature of perception, inviting awareness of other-than-human forms within and beyond the boundaries of our planet. The artist generates this awareness through the initiation of community-led artistic explorations of “new modes of sensitivity” and “ethical collaborations,” enabling new hybrid relationships involving multiple entities: from spiders to humans and gravitational waves to dust particles.
One of those collaborations, the Aerocene Foundation, ushers in the era of Aerocene, which, unlike the Anthropocene era, is a society free from carbon emissions and, ultimately, from fossil fuel: “a stateless state, both tethered and free-floating; a community, an open-source initiative.” Conceived by Studio Tomás Saraceno, it emerged in 2007 through “Museo Aero Solar”—”a traveling project in which aerosolar sculptures are created out of plastic bags brought by people from various communities worldwide. The sculptures are capable of flying using only the power of the sun and, thanks to their biomorphic shapes, are a decidedly arresting sight.
A large-scale installation of one of them, grounded, is on view in Gallery 4. Shoes must be taken off before entering the sculpture, and one can marvel, standing under its enormous plastic dome, at the ingenuity of its quilt-like construction. Also presented in the gallery is a DIT (Do-It-Together) kit — “Museo Aero Solar” is not a singular object; it can be created as a DIT project wherever people embrace the possibility of flying free from carbon.
The most significant part of the “Tomas Saraceno: Particular Matter(s)” is dedicated to the airborne life of spiders and their webs—Arachnophilia, the source of Saraceno’s artistic inspiration and scientific inquiry. It is a captivating and extensive survey that emerged from over a decade of research and observation of spiders and their sophisticated ecosystem that provides shelter, food, and communication.
Housed in The Shed’s Level 2 Gallery, it begins in darkened rooms that contain glass vitrines with iridescent spider/web suspended within. The only lights in the room are the ones that shine through these delicate gossamer formations. All of them, made in collaboration with spiders from The Shed and other locations, are constructed by different species of spiders. Seen so close, in all the splendor of their intricate entanglements, the spider/webs are things of otherworldly beauty. They are evocative of networks of entirely different, cosmic proportions: wormholes, spiral galaxies, or time-space diagrams.
The exhibition’s titular display, “Particular Matter(s),” is also redolent of something out of a planetarium visit: in a pitch-dark room, a beam of light shines on a thick cluster of dust particles drifting within its shiny cone. But the luminously outlined border is an illusion — the text on the wall reveals that these particles, an amalgam of cosmic and men-made dust, which includes black carbon emissions from burned fossil fuels, are everywhere—they constitute the air we breathe.
The survey proceeds into rooms dedicated to Saraceno’s research on the uneven distribution of pollution along geopolitical and racial lines. “We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air,” a new commission greatly influenced by the artist’s discourse with Harriet A. Washington, a public health and medical ethics scholar and the author of “Medical Apartheid.” It comprises works that visualize pollution in hourly iterations as a clustered arrangement of variably shaded dots. As air pollution increases during an hour, the corresponding dot darkens in color on the paper strip. Similarly, “Printed Matters” are the cards printed with black carbon pm 2.5 pollution, which was distilled from the air in Mumbai on 8-gram handmade paper. Called “ready-mades created by the atmosphere itself,” they manifest the sinister relationship between fossil fuels and location; the apparent insouciance of their Minimalistic displays only underscores the darkness of their significance.
The last three spaces bring exhausted but enraptured visitors back to the matters of the spider/web. “Sounding the Air” is a mesmerizing display that consists of five long, thick threads of spider/web undulating in the light. Even more absorbing is “How to Entangle the Universe of a Spider/Web?” where a laser scans an extended stretch of a spider/web, intermittently filling it with striking, deep-red color. The final space, “A Thermodynamic Imaginary,” is a large room filled with hefty Mylar spheres suspended on weblike wires— possible evocations of planetary movements. A video showing test flights of aerosolar sculptures gliding above the Salinas Grandes of Argentina saved the day for this otherwise uncharacteristically for Saraceno tame display. The takeoff and movement of these three-dimensional black sculptures that resemble buoyant stingrays was a thrill to watch.
The tour-de-force of the show is, of course, “Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web,” a multi-sensory experience within a 95-foot-diameter sphere suspended in The Shed’s soaring McCourt space. It comprises a pair of transparent weblike nets, stretched end-to-end on two levels and floating in 450,000 cubic feet of air at 12 and 40 feet above the ground (Upper and Lower Levels, the tickets are to be purchased separately). There’s an airlock between the stairs and the sphere, and after a few suspenseful moments, we entered a space filled with a nebulous substance. Everyone was invited to step and make themselves comfortable on the wire mesh. The lights dimmed, nebulous turned into a pitch dark. The nets began to vibrate with recorded sounds produced by spiders as they build and interact with the webs — their vibrations are usually imperceptible to humans. Without giving away too much, I can share that the experience was of momentary weightlessness. It was as strange as one might imagine the experience of a spider/web while still being circumscribed by very limited human senses.