It’s summer, the sun is out and Tomás Saraceno is standing in a courtyard-cum-amphitheatre buried in the middle of the labyrinthine Asia Cultural Centre (ACC) in Gwangju, South Korea. In the hangar-like exhibition space next door, the Argentinian artist has just unveiled his first solo show in this part of the world. Outside he’s started to unpack an ordinary-looking canvas backpack before a small audience of journalists. It turns out to contain a plastic bottle containing some sort of distinctly homemade-looking electronic gizmo, a reel of rope, what looks like a neatly rolled sleeping-bag, a pair of gloves of the type that an art handler might wear, a clipboard and some pens: all in all, the kind of practical kit a schoolchild might be handed before wandering across some fields on a dreary geography field-trip. Then the sleeping bag turns out to be a hot-air balloon.
Saraceno is demonstrating his Aerocene Explorer, part of his wider ongoing Aerocene project (officially launched during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015), which the website advertises as ‘your personal tool for solar-powered atmospheric exploration: a tethered-flight starter kit offering a new way to sense the environment’. His assistants trot around the courtyard filling the black balloon, which appears to have all the material properties of a large plastic bag, with air. (Indeed, a related project, Museo Aero Solar, 2008–, features balloons made by communities around the world out of accumulated plastic bags.) The trapped air is heated by the sun and the pressure difference causes the balloon to rise. The ropes (now attached to the balloon) are handed to the artist, the balloon catches in the wind, there’s talk of how this technology offers the potential for transportation without the consumption of fossil fuels or rare gases, of how the gizmos in the bottle can be hacked or adapted to measure air pollution, pollen counts, distance travelled, or to explore the atmosphere in any other way you might desire, of how all this might lead to a new perception of and perspective on what it means to be an earthling... And just as he seems on the verge of a Mary Poppins-style lift-off Saraceno’s demonstration ends. The Explorer backpack is part of the exhibition, we are informed. Visitors can borrow it as part of the show. For limited use only.
It’s a bit of an anticlimax, as if the art-work had broken a boundary between the realms of aesthetics and lived experience only to be reeled back in to the space of the imaginary. A promised freedom extended and then retracted at the moment you reach out your hand to grab it. A form of flirting, perhaps. A proposal that seems ultimately indecent, if you like. It feels as if Saraceno’s balloon has hit an invisible limit of the exhibition space, a convenient container that goes beyond the bricks-and-mortar limits of a physical space to exist as a mental space in which we separate art from life, and bounced back to earth.
As we leave the courtyard something has changed in a perception and consciousness of the world around us and the ways in which our bodies interact with it
And yet for all that the experience is not an unproductive one. As we leave the courtyard something has changed in a perception and consciousness of the world around us and the ways in which our bodies interact with it. Of how constrained and conditioned we are by limits both physical (gravity) and social (health and safety regulations). And of how we might reclaim a space (the air), that right now, on the Korean peninsula when rockets are being test- own overhead, is evidently both restricted and militarised (a process that the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk dates back to 1915 and the first poison gas operation launched by the German army at Ypres, a point at which, he also claims, mankind ‘discovered’ the environment). In some way your mind, at least, has been set free.
Between 1992 and 1999 Saraceno trained as an architect, before going on to study art at Frankfurt’s celebrated Städelschule. “I came from architecture to art because I think the role of art is much more undefined,” he explains when we meet in his vast Berlin studio complex a month later. “I get disappointed when the category of art is something that is defined and understood. Life is a long journey to unlearn what we have learned.” Appropriately then, his Aerocene Explorer exists in a liminal position in which it is both a functional, open-source technology (‘tested and developed by a passionate global community of artists, geographers, philosophers, thinkers, speculative scientists, explorers, balloonists, and technologists, and other enthusiasts’) that enables a low-budget exploration of the atmosphere, and a ‘sculpture’ by Tomás Saraceno. The artist makes no secret of the fact that it is the much-criticised financialisation of contemporary art that allows him to push the more experimental aspects of his operation. But one wonders too if the project’s occasional designation as an artwork makes its encouragement of free movement and a new type of occupation of space more tolerable to those authorities and corporations who might not want to tolerate these kind of thoughts or actions. Indeed, while the Explorer is designed for tethered flight (thus better suited to carrying those small devices that measure atmospheric properties and acting as a training vehicle for those with grander ideas of flight), Saraceno has also experimented with larger balloons that enable human flight. The Aerocene is a project that moves beyond the speculative and towards the pragmatic. It moves the notion of sculpture from being a statement (about qualities generated by the removal or accumulation of three-dimensional material) towards a performative act (in that the sculpture acts as a promise of a certain action – in this case flight).
Perhaps it’s appropriate then that inside the ACC, Saraceno’s exhibition, Our Interplanetary Bodies, remains propositional – presenting an image of the world within which we are invited to experience and extend. The dark, open space is dominated by a series of large, glowing orbs, suspended within a network of ropes and overall suggestive of planetary systems – offering the kind of experience that you’d associate with a planetarium, or one akin to wandering into the middle of an orrery or a large-scale model of the solar system. There’s a tentlike sleeping pod hovering near the roof that visitors can enter (once fitted with a safety harness) via a long ladder. Elsewhere in the room the focus shifts from the heavenly to the earthly where a Nephila spider spins its web within a dramatically illuminated glass box. And, then, to things smaller still, via a soundtrack generated by the tracking of dust particles owing through the space. The effect as a whole is to open perceptions (or to decongest our sense of perception) and to connect a series of perspectives on the environment and our place within it ranging in scale from the micro- to the mega-. And, at the same time, the exhibition functions as an index of some of the artist’s key concerns.
Six-hundred square-metres of Saraceno’s studio is devoted to web-spinning spiders
Six-hundred square-metres of Saraceno’s studio is devoted to web-spinning spiders. Indeed, he possesses the largest (and only) collection of three-dimensional spider webs in the world. He confesses that it’s an interest (actively developed since 2008) that was partly inspired by the twentieth century projects of radical architects and engineers such as the German Frei Otto, who developed a series of mathematically complex lightweight tensile structures, and Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s paper architecture for the Japanese pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hannover, all in the pursuit of economically and environ- mentally minimalist ways of living. Saraceno’s ongoing Cloud Cities (2002–) is a series of transformable, connectable, inflatable, inhabitable spaces, while works such as the largescale installation In Orbit (2013) feature micro-cities made up of nets and inflatable spheres suspended 25 metres above the ground.
Saraceno’s interest in webs is as much metaphorical as it is physical. For both the Aerocene and other projects he consistently operates within interdisciplinary networks and communities. The Max Planck Institute, for example, is currently renting space in his studio. At 7am each morning (three hours before the studio itself starts work) a researcher visits the space to record the sounds of the spiders and their webs. He may or may not have any interest in Saraceno’s activities in the field of art. Saraceno himself is currently researching the use of webs as a musical instrument (in part in conjunction with the American composer Ari Benjamin Meyers), in between giving the occasional T E D talk and other educational lectures. Talking to other disciplines is a “beautiful mind exercise”, the artist says. “It extends your perception of the world. People come here to hear some creatures scratching around. It changes our behaviour too,” he adds with a sense of both curiosity and wonder. He’s encouraged the spiders to operate in communities too, exhibiting webs that are made by social and antisocial species and ‘hybrid webs’ made by spiders of more than one type. It’s an example, he says, of the potential of collaboration. “Spiders have characters,” he goes on to state. “It seems that their roles interchange according to the time of day.” After which the artist quips that if Karl Marx had known this he might have had second thoughts about his theories concerning the differentiation of labour. Is Saraceno worried that he might be exploiting his spider labourers? I ask. The artist pauses then laughs ambiguously.
Our Interplanetary Bodies is on show at the Asia Cultural Centre, Gwangju through 25 March. Tomás Saraceno: Entangled Orbits is on show at the Baltimore Museum of Art through 22 July
From the December 2017 issue of ArtReview