In “Particular Matter(s)” (on view through April 17, 2022), Tomás Saraceno focuses on the ecological destruction wreaked by late capitalism, returning to his longstanding fascination with spiders and their webs. Collectively realized in multiple ways, these works connect with the natural and humanmade worlds in unexpected ways. Indeed, the first room of the show features an installation of dramatically lit vitrines filled with gossamer webs.
Webs of At-ten(s)ion (2020), as this group of works is titled, focuses on the spider’s ability to weave the most remarkable structures—three-dimensional line drawings spun of its own silk. Showcased as works of art, they display great beauty and complexity. Saraceno takes a secondary role here, emphasizing collaboration and creative dialogue between human and nonhuman makers and modes of making. It is not all aesthetic appreciation, however. The thick, ceiling-to-floor black drapes covering the walls produce a claustrophobic effect, imbuing the galleries with a funereal air that recalls how environmental damage increasingly threatens many species of spiders. (Air pollution, a major concern for Saraceno in other works, plays a significant role.) The communal energies of these works reminds us that we must find a way of preserving biodiversity—not only for biological reasons, but also for cultural ones. Saraceno clearly demonstrates that we are not the only creatures in the world with the capacity to create. Such an orientation is not eccentric but visionary and forward-looking.
A more lyrical sensibility imbues A Thermodynamic Imaginary (2020), a room-size environment dominated by large, partially transparent spheres and web-like wires. Carefully positioned lights throw shadows on the walls, including the silhouettes of viewers. At once an installation, a kind of planetarium show, and a shadow projection, A Thermodynamic Imaginary offers a vision in which the concept of heat becomes the basis of imaginative exploration. Here, Saraceno relies again on collaboration—between himself and his associates, between the work and viewers. A video on one wall shows the heat principle in more practical application: black aerosolar sculptures (part of Saraceno’s crowd-sourced Aerocene Foundation research devoted to fuel-free flying) rise up from their test site like kites. A Thermodynamic Imaginary, as well as the entire show, might be said to embrace a non-human understanding of art, arguing for a creativity beyond human norms and hands (Saraceno has even used the vibrations of the spider webs as a setting for music, to be played by a string quartet). These innovative works formed in tandem with energies outside humanmade culture act as a corrective for our obsession with ourselves.
The requirements to enter the newly commissioned Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web (2022), a 95-foot-diameter environment, are rigorous: one needs to pay a separate fee, sign a waiver protecting The Shed from responsibility for injuries, deposit personal effects and keys in lockers, and pass a metal detector sweep. These security measures stand in sharp, and ironic, contrast to the environment itself, which is devoted to creating a space of freedom and play.
Free the Air consists of two levels: on the lower level, a circular ledge overlooks a central area made of a spongy, light tan material. Twenty-five feet above, a giant steel wire net hangs suspended over the soft floor. Visitors on the lower level may remain on the stable ledge or step down into the matting whose instability makes it difficult to maintain balance. From there, you can watch others negotiating the web above. Dramatic changes in lighting occur; for a short time, there is complete darkness. Sounds, derived from spiders, intensify the experience. Saraceno’s arachnophile vision and desire to reveal a beauty originating from nature are fully realized in this exhibition. The dramatic and soothing Free the Air links participants to a non-human world, offering an experiential vision of a future free from ecological depredation.