For the fourth iteration of the Palais de Tokyo’s ‘Carte Blanche’ series – where a single artist is invited to transform the entirety of the Paris museum’s cavernous 13,000 m2 exhibition space – Berlin-based Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno has conceived a massive black and white parcours. His installations encourage visitors to reflect on their place within the infinitely complex networks that structure our existence, from the minutiae of dust particles and the vibrations of spiderwebs to the collisions of galaxies in the universe. In so doing, the exhibition, which is titled ‘On Air’, explicitly situates itself within the ecologically conscientious conversations around climate change and humanity’s changing relationship to nature in the age of the Anthropocene.
For instance, in one section titled ‘Webs of At-ten(s)ion’, the visitor is invited to consider the aesthetic contributions of non-human producers, notably spiders. In a large, almost entirely pitch-black room, the only illumination emanates from a series of spotlights carefully trained on the silky threads of 76 elaborately constructed spiderwebs. These ‘hybrid webs’, as the artist calls them, are spun by dozens of ‘unrelated solitary, social or semi-social spider species’ that were made to inhabit the same spaces at various moments. With each consecutive ‘spider collaborator’ building off the work of the last, the results are intricate, spectral architectures, vast and delicate like the vaulted naves of gossamer cathedrals.
On the museum’s lower level, the dark and miniscule is exchanged for the bright and monumental, as in Galaxies Forming Along Filaments, Like Droplets Along the Strands of Spiderwebs (2009-2018). The title of this immersive installation, which expands the architecture of the spiderwebs to a human scale, is nearly as poetic as the experience of interacting with it. In a pristine white room, thin elastic cables radiate from the floor, walls and ceiling. They crisscross in space, meeting in the centre to form several complex polyhedron-shaped nuclei. To navigate this space, one must duck and dodge the elastic threads as if they were lasers in a spy film. If you pluck or stroke them, they emit an ethereal electronic music. Different cords produce different pitches, some too high for the human ear to discern and others so low that they cause the floor to vibrate beneath your feet.
In an adjacent room is the Museo Aerosolar (2007–18), another giant, immersive installation composed of thousands of plastic bags, many decorated with little doodles or inscriptions made by the visitors who, over the years, have contributed to its construction. Stitched together, the bags create an enormous, amorphous balloon which swells and floats spontaneously when exposed to the heat of the sun. In the Palais de Tokyo, the Museo is draped over an overhanging mezzanine, giving a sense of its vast dimensions. The visitor can enter into its patchwork interior via a makeshift plexiglas door installed on one side. Like most museums, it professes to be a container of history and culture, preserving the artifacts or traces of previous epochs, only in our day and age it is the non-biodegradable plastic that represents the ‘trace’ that our generation will leave on this planet.
This sardonic and somewhat facile critique of modern society slides seamlessly into the final chapter of the exhibition, entitled ‘Aeroscene’. Comprised of a series of workshops and pocket-libraries, this section allows the visitor to make his or her own little aerosolar balloon or thumb books on radical ecology, and manifestos espousing new ways of ‘living in the air, without borders or fossil fuel’.
While the unquestionable beauty of Saraceno’s work succeeds at conveying nature’s complexity and splendour as something worth preserving, it stops short of a frontal and unambiguous critique of the forces that are truly driving climate change: it isn’t simply man’s inhumanity to man (and spider) or our inability to appreciate the wonders of the universe that drives the crisis, but an economic system driven by the bloodthirsty quest for profit at the expense of all else.
Tomás Saraceno, 'On Air' was on view at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, from 17 October 2018 until 6 January 2019.
Main image: Tomás Saraceno, 'On Air', 2018, installation view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Courtesy the artist; Andersen’s, Copenhagen, Esther Schipper, Berlin, Pinksummer Contemporary Art, Genoa, Ruth Benzacar, Buenos Aires, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; photography Studio Tomás Saraceno