Tomás Saraceno 

Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, K21 Ständehaus

Tiny figures teeter and bounce amid looming, massive spheres. Easy to miss from the floor of the Ständehaus’s vast atrium, the incongruous drama flits against a faceted glass roof more than 75 feet overhead. Triangular roof panes recall a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome, as well as his musings on livable environments. But as critic Ronald Jones points out, Tomás Saraceno can be distinguished from earlier futurists because he aligns divergent realms of expertise and industrial materials with a scalable vision to create physically accessible environments. The (real) aerialists and props populating In Orbit recall images of astronauts, both fictional and real, maneuvering outside their capsules in empty space. Only an artist as imaginative as Saraceno, with wide-ranging scientific interests and an awareness of technological possibilities, can so disorient and satisfy us in this age when fantasy-themed parks have raised participatory expectations to absurdly high levels. Curious museumgoers ascended to the uppermost balustrade ringing the atrium. Arriving at eye level with the space walkers, they realized that even the clumsiest participant could not fall from the outstretched layers of net. Tightly drawn metal cables anchored the thousands of square feet of webbing to the perimeter walls. A time-lapse film compressing weeks of highly orchestrated museum preparations documented the collaborative work of scaffolders, pipefitters, laborers, and engineers as they installed the framework of In Orbit.

Tomas Saraceno, In Orbit, 2013. Steel wire and 8-meter spheres, installation view.

Visitors ripe for physical exertion could join Saraceno’s ever-changing aerialist troupe, as long as they were old enough (12 years of age) to sign the liability release form. Then, fitted with non-slip shoes and a jumpsuit to prevent personal effects falling onto spectators below, each participant received verbal instructions and eased into the ungainly wobble. Thoughts of navigating a flexible net triggered childhood memories of jumping on a bed, bouncing on a backyard trampoline, or tiptoeing across slippery river rocks. An adjacent gallery featuring Saraceno’s collection of spider webs elicited related thoughts of colossal arachnids. In addition, In Orbit conspicuously mimicked drawings of neural wiring, as well as conceptual diagrams of wormholes in the time-space continuum. Comfortingly, it also imbedded Newtonian physics and recognizable materials in its construction scheme. 

Saraceno’s other environments include Cloud Cities/Air-Port-City (2010), a cluster of pentagonal and hexagonal, transparent volumes, first sited on the Rossmarkt in Frankfurt. On Space Time Foam (2012), which took shape in Milan’s HangarBicocca, presaged the Düsseldorf project by inviting high-flying participants to bounce and sway on waves of billowing plastic sheeting. 

Science writers explain developments in science and technology, and science fiction writers imagine the consequences. Because science increasingly outpaces our understanding of it, cultural observers have speculated that those who popularize science, whether by demystifying or sensationalizing it, may be our most consequential communicators today. Though primarily a designer and visual artist, Saraceno also popularizes science by enticing us into a technologically advanced, user-friendly future. 

—Mark S. Price