Tomás Saraceno: Following the life of spiders in the air

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The Shed went above and beyond for the multi-tasking Tomás Saraceno — a visionary Argentine artist and environmentalist who is among the world’s greatest spider whisperers — by making three of its four public spaces, or roughly 28,000 square meters, available to him. And Saraceno appears to have returned the favor by hosting an insightful, if high-minded, survey of his work in makeshift galleries, as well as two inspirational installations elsewhere in the building. The whole thing is titled “Tomás Saraceno: Special Matter(s).”

The most ambitious of these is a shed job that can literally get you on your knees. Essentially, Free the Air: How to Hear the Universe in a Spider/Web is the pinnacle of this entire endeavor. Later more.

The smaller installation Museo Aero Solar, on view in a third large room, focuses on a giant sphere that resembles a tent and is actually a grounded balloon made out of plastic bags – it looks fantastic, like a colorful translucent one Madness quilt and visitors can enter and walk around. It’s one of the projects of the Aerocene Foundation, a global crowdsourcing group led by Saraceno dedicated to developing fuel-free flight – powered only by the movements of the wind and sun.

Together, the exhibition and installations form something like the complete Saraceno: part education; partial collaboration; partial out-of-body experience infused with different kinds of beauty. Particular Matter(s) is the largest presentation of the artist’s work in the United States. The entirety was organized by Emma Enderby, the Shed’s overall curator, with Alessandra Gómez and Adeze Wilford, her assistant curators. The Shed exhibition is sensibly complemented by Saraceno’s exhibition at his longtime representative, the Gallery Tanya Bonakdar at Chelsea.

Less an artist than a polymath on a mission, Saraceno’s endeavors often seem more like science than art. The Shed’s various exhibitions reflect, to varying degrees, his activities as an arachnophile, artist, architect, activist, teacher, musician, environmentalist, and social justice campaigner for clean air. His overarching goal can be summed up simply as getting people to live right. That means making them understand that they are not the top of a power pyramid in the so-called Anthropocene, but exist on a horizontal plane with all nonhumans, which they should be made aware of and learn to have in abundance. And they exist in what Saraceno prefers to call the Aerocene age, which requires cooperation between species and clean air.

However, one might wonder how someone with Saraceno’s keen environmental awareness allows his work to be displayed in the Shed. Granted, the building, or at least its exterior, is perhaps the best part of Hudson Yards’ civic disaster and failure of will, perhaps the worst of this city’s many recent self-inflicted architectural wounds.

Saraceno’s quest was inspired by spiders and the ingenious basis of their aerial lifestyle – the multifunctional webs that provide shelter, sustenance and, when vibrated, a means of communication. Spider webs also served as models for floating sculptures. Consisting of translucent webs and spheres, these have become some of Saraceno’s best-known works, Free the Air being the most recent example.

The exhibition part of Tomas Saraceno Particular Matter(s) begins with the silent spectacle of his collaboration with spiders: in a darkened gallery, seven Plexiglas boxes, each containing several different connected webs, all shimmering white. Each web was constructed by a different species of spider on a sturdy wire frame in Saraceno’s studio, where he monitors their progress, swapping out one species and introducing another as he sees fit. Especially in the dark, these faint, ghostly crystalline structures reveal how much we already owe to spiders, as their webs provided models for architecture and textiles for early humans.

To the lay eye, the webs of the various species here generally divide into lattices, often in fan-like expanses, pillow-like canopies, and maddening masses of strands that can resemble pickup sticks tossed in the air. The combinations are stunning, reminiscent of modern architecture and – because of the abrupt changes in pattern and rhythm – brushstrokes or music. Unfortunately, information about the Spiders who worked in each showcase (how many members of what kind for how long) can only be found on a label outside the gallery; it should be available on a handout.

From here, the subject shifts to air pollution that poses a threat to spiders and humans alike, particularly the tiny, breathable grains of carbon called particulate matter. In one corner you’ll see “Arachnomancy,” a deck of tarot cards printed with ink made from particulate matter that pays tribute to the spider-seers of Cameroon.

“We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air,” another Shed commission occupying three nearby walls, is struggling with the air pollution inequalities that race divides more than classes, according to it Harriet A Washington, author of Medical Apartheid who has written on environmental racism and contributes an essay to the catalogue. The work consists of seven large, framed pieces of paper measuring pollution at various locations in seven states over two years. The degree of soiling is displayed in rows of dots from almost invisible to very dark. They look nicely minimalist, but clearly illustrate this country’s injustices when it comes to clean air.

The last two galleries of the show return to the aesthetics of the net. “Sounding the Air” consists of five long, thick strands composed of multiple silk threads from cobwebs. Light shined on the strands makes them vibrate; Via camera and computer, these movements are translated into sounds reminiscent of avant-garde music. In “How to Entangle the Universe of a Spider/Web?” a laser repeatedly scans through an extended stretch of spider webs. The result is a seemingly cosmic, shifting red splendor. His message? Spider webs are much more complicated than suggested in the show’s opening gallery.

In the final gallery, A Thermodynamic Imaginary, Saraceno uses large plexiglass spheres, web-like wires and cords, small glass things and their shadows to evoke planetary motion and even a solar eclipse in a beautiful but terrifyingly conventional installation. But an intriguing video playing on the left wall of this gallery lets us take a look at the black aerosolar sculptures resembling three-dimensional kites; They are part of the Museo Aero Solar project being tested in Salinas Grandes, Argentina. Watching the sculptures rise and move away from the tiny figures on the floor is an exciting sight.

If you’ve read the wall texts throughout, you may find this exhibit a little tiring, but you may have learned a tremendous amount and may be a little more optimistic about the fate of the planet. It’s helpful to know that a lull is expected in the installation pieces, particularly in the soothing “Free the Air,” Saraceno’s great white sphere (27 meters in diameter) that has more or less eaten up McCourt space. Inside are two trampoline-like steel nets. The light room dims as visitors – seated or lying down – listen to a 20-minute concert and feel it: the vibrations of a composition derived from recorded movements of air particles. It can take you out of this world for a short time.

The show at Tanya Bonakdar, 521 West 21st Street is in some ways a continuation of the Sheds. The focus is on the installations made of black polyester rope, for which Saraceno first became known. The stretchy ropes run through the white space with ornate spherical structures at their intersections. These resemble stars, snowflakes, magnified particles and of course spider webs – equipped with live microphones connected to powered speakers. Visitors can touch them and make them vibrate like spiders in their webs.

The sum of these two exhibitions, but particularly that in the Shed, is a much deeper appreciation of what started Saraceno’s love of spiders. Whether you like these creatures more or not, they help create a better future.

Tomás Saraceno: Special matter(s)

Until April 17 at the Shed, 545 West 30th Street, Manhattan; 646-455-3494, theshed.org.

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