Tomás Saraceno

Tomás Saraceno’s Oceans of Air is a complex yet wholistic exhibition that asks powerful and fundamental questions, seeking answers in the connections between humanity and natural forces. Spider webs, sustainable energy, and ink made from polluted air join in a revolutionary thesis that asks for change in a frantic world.

Oceans of Air does many things, but all of them revolve around a central imperative: slow down. Tomás Saraceno plunges you into darkness on entering the exhibition, and blinds you with a solitary beam of brilliant crystalline light, filled with dancing, flickering dust motes that emerge into sharp focus as one’s eyes adjust. This is Particular Matter(s), 2021, a sublimely simple work that is nothing more than light and the particles already present in the air. It’s a striking work that does a lot with little, demonstrating clearly what this exhibition needs from the viewer: some pause. Slow down.

The darkness we adjust to as we move inward slowly becomes less of an obstacle, and that’s a good analogy in itself: in the era where a motto for neo-capitalism is “move fast and break things,” this exhibition suggests that we will see more if we slow down, and work with the world in which we find ourselves – which could have far broader implications.
It’s reasonable to understand this exhibition as a form of activism: it is filled with subtle politics and gentle – but firm – provocations, all laterally concerned with air and energy, including the impressive sculptural series Aerocene, 2018. These are balloon-like structures, breathtaking in scope and beauty, that actually work: they are aerosolar, meaning they can derive energy directly from the sun and use that energy to float, and apparently lift; a flight was made by a schoolteacher Leticia Noemi Marquès in 2020, which is documented here in the Fly with Aerocene Pacha series of images, 2020. There’s a tangible practicality to this that makes for a genuine sense of awe at the implied potential here, and at how art can successfully interact with natural forces.

This upbeat work is tempered by others: there are images made from pollution, that use an ink made from carbon extracted from the air in Mumbai, India. There’s a larger room of subtle printed works – We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air, 2022 – that presents readings from machines that record air quality. These machines were placed in locations around Australia, and worked for two months to monitor air purity. The artwork shares the results; the purest air is in Tasmania. The success here is the presentation of data in a way that’s quite accessible. The gradient of colour is due to the actual level of pollution and particles, with the pink tinge in many readings subtle evidence of the pervasive, nation-wide impact of Australia’s massive mining industry: the red dust it throws up really does get into everything. This is the air we breathe, and depending on where you are in the world, this vital necessity that you’re going to breathe in is not clean enough. There are particles everywhere, as Particular Matter(s) shows, yet one place is cleaner than another. The difference in air quality between the Global North and South is made very clear by these works, yet the data is so elegantly presented that the barbaric implication creeps up on the viewer.

Alongside the politics of air, Saraceno presents what’s described as a collaborative work with spiders: Webs of At-tent(s)ion, 2022, a collection of immense webs in vitrines. In an exhibition that really leans into and explores a concept of wonder, these are ineffably gorgeous sights, impeccably presented to draw attention to structures that are everywhere, that we might view as unsightly if we view them at all. Saraceno is clearly entranced by these creations, and wants us to see what he sees: an astonishing phenomenon, made by tiny creatures. There’s potent metaphorical reading possible here, suggesting interconnection that seeks empathy for the spiders that create such marvels, that can be extrapolated out quite easily to all life, all of which needs air. Saraceno does make the audience work, but all elements are there to be gleaned and understood. This is very democratic, welcoming art that seduces with wonder and shares salient, deftly presented facts.

There’s a future arriving; Saraceno even provides a navigational tool in the form of Arachnomancy, 2018–ongoing. This very personal experience is akin to a tarot reading, accessed by a democratic process: one enters into ballot to be allowed entry. The fortunate applicant enters a small, dim chamber, lit only by what appears to another glowing spider web chamber, and meets a focussed reader. This diviner allows you to interact with thirty-three cards, all illustrated with arachnid-focussed images that have esoteric, even occult interpretations. A conversation is held, and a precious opportunity to reflect on life is granted to the participant. This is a core experience of Oceans of Air: more than seeing the art, you interact in a personal way with it, with a direct and singular moment emerging.

Oceans of Air has a tremendous amount to say, and while it is rich with the wonder of the cosmic, it also wants to speak to each of us one at a time – slowly, gently, and carefully. Saraceno’s activism is one of participation and sharing, centred on the most common of all needs: clean air.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62. 

Tomás Saraceno: Oceans of Air
17 December 2022 – 24 July 2023
Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart

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