Exhibition Review: Aria – Tomás Saraceno

On hearing the words ‘interactive art exhibition’ it is easy to imagine a proliferation of Instagram-friendly pieces, perfectly pitched for an oft-dismissed millennial audience. There’s nothing wrong with interactive installation. These kinds of shows can get us excited about art, centre installation-based practices, and ask us to think about the dynamic between viewer/artist. Although there is, arguably, a difference between programming Yayoi Kusama and calling an adult ball pit an art installation. Which is all to say that Tomás Saraceno’s (San Miguel de Tucumán, b. 1973) installation work at the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi straddles the line between high-concept ideas and Instagram friendly aesthetics. A combination that seeks to introduce the viewer to climate activism whilst serving gorgeously engorged balls, plant-filled terrariums, and aero-dynamic light displays.

There are two stand-out pieces I’d like to focus on in this review, both of which explore the role of the spider’s body in producing material that can be repurposed in art. ‘Sounding the Air’ (2018) and Webs of At‐tent(s)ion’ (2020) make the most of the silky, bodily expulsions they centre. Using sound, light and recording equipment, Saraceno gives new meaning to the cobwebby, the dusty, and the eerie.

Sounding the Air (2018). Image: Artist & Esther Schipper.

‘Sounding the Air’ (2018) is constructed out of spider silk and carbon fibre with a microphone, transducer, speakers, lights, computer and camera all working to capture something magical. This aeolian instrument is played by the wind and, as we sat watching five delicate silken threads move, I realised they were being buoyed by the audience, too. Three children sat next to me, giggling and shifting in their seats. The impact could be felt on the strings in front of us. As a big group left the room, the threads began to slow and the sound produced become more drone-like. It was a ‘collective creation’ (as the wall text put it) and a beautiful recreation of the way in which spiders move, ‘ballooning’ across spaces as they move between locations. A later work ‘Aerographies’ (2020) also relied on this nuanced audience participation. Balloons with pencils attached are left to their own devices, to be tugged and pulled as the air dictates. As I wafted past one of the balloons it skipped across the page, dragging the pencil beneath it. The idea that we are invisibly connected to all aspects of the world was simply, but forcefully, underlined in this final piece in the show.

It was the work that centred the spider and the spider’s body that had the largest impact. Five metal structures holding intricately woven spiders webs, created by different spiders over time to demonstrate different techniques from different species. The art-world-talk title ‘Webs of At‐tent(s)ion’ (2020) was difficult to grasp at first but the structures speak for themselves. Delicate gossamer filaments and threads, lit like movie stars so that each line glistens. They stand in three-dimensional glory as you rotate around each sculpture. The spider’s web is inextricable from the spider’s body as they create a sensorial connection that send and receive vibrations to the eyes, ears and mouth of each spider, as well as providing its home. Each spider is listed as a collaborator on Saraceno’s website reminding us that nature creates art, everyday. In fact, the woven patterns that we mimic in craft and making practices are a homage to the biological patterns we pass by and through.

In dialogue with our last issue on ‘Witch/Craft’, Saraceno has created his own tarot-inspired cards from nature’s motifs. The ‘Arachnomancy Cards‘ (2019) are a meditative divination tool to consult spider/web oracles. Inspired in part by the practice of nggám, or spider divination, in the Mambila tribe of Cameroon and Nigeria, during which questions are posed to spiders, on the ground, who move the cards with their vibrations. Asking nature questions about the future is a powerful way to question human authority in the world.

Throughout Aria, Saraceno seeks to remind us at every point that ‘carbon emissions fill the air, particulate matter floats inside our lungs while electromagnetic radiation envelops the earth’. Our focus in light of the current pandemic and climate change should be collective action and care. For a show concerned with bio-material, bodies and the transaction between dust, air and space it’s perhaps fitting that Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi will remain closed until 3rd April, due to the Italian authorities decree to stop the spread of Covid-19. Much has been made of the global reaction to coronavirus vs. a perceived apathy towards climate change. That we stockpile groceries, cancel flights and curtail our carbon footprint in the face of potential, individual infection lends greater weight to Saraceno’s comment that we should focus ‘less on individuals and more on reciprocal relationships’.

Aria, Tomás Saraceno is at Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 19th July 2020

Words: Jade French