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

Editorial #3: Craft, Making, & The Environment

‘Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other – outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women & wilderness, to be used as I see fit.’

Ursula Le Guin, ‘Women/Wilderness’

Assembling our ‘Craft & the Environment’ issue whilst the Amazon rainforest burns thanks, in part, to the arrogance of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsanoro, it’s almost impossible to feel anything but despair as the world lurches ever closer to an irreparable climate catastrophe. In June, Bolsanoro attacked European interference in his administration’s exploitative environmental policies with the proclamation that ‘the Amazon is Brazil’s – not yours’; his statement evokes regressive attitudes that have seen the world carved up and controlled by a capitalist, patriarchal system that set itself above women, people of colour, the nonhuman, and the environment. As we are discovering, the consequences of ignoring the fact that the world is a shared home, a home that we need to cultivate and build an ethical relationship with, are dire. In spite of the gloom, we hope that this issue will serve as a reminder of the ways that feminist art –and, specifically, craft – can reimagine the world and play an intensive role in the regeneration of our environment. Craft shapes our world and exists in an intensely physical dialogue with the environment; it can help build a sustainable future and raise awareness of excessive consumption and environmental exploitation.

Contemporary artists and makers across the globe are connecting the dots of this ecological crisis. Recycling and regeneration form a large part of this practice, from Jasmine Linington’s sustainable textiles made with Scottish seaweed, and Kenyan artist Kioko Mwitiki’s junk sculptures made with waste materials dumped in Kenya by Japan, China, and America, to our featured artists and makers Hala Kiaksow’s hand-woven, naturally dyed fabrics that draw on the richly diverse traditions of Islamic dress and Nnenna Okore’s abstract sculptures made of an eclectic mix of biodegradable materials. Okore’s contemporary practice also presents profound encounters between artist and environment. In her interview, Okore reflects on the varied and transient ways in which the natural world encourages conversation with colour, shape, texture and abstraction within her pieces, which are made from biodegradable and recycled materials.

A sense of global community has been an emerging theme of this issue, and is, of course, central in fighting back against the wilful destruction of the planet. GroundWork Gallery in Norfolk, reviewed here, show how small local gallery spaces are engaging with global artists.  Pioneering marine biologist Rachel Carson’s research into the poisoning of her local natural landscape developed into her ground-breaking work Silent Spring, a text that drew attention to the global, interconnected nature of the planet’s ecosystem. In an interview with Jade French about her Rural Modernism project, Dr Hope Wolf suggests that many modernists were attuned to the way that by looking ‘microcosmically, even myopically, at a place, you begin to see that there are many connections with the wider world’. Modernism has often been viewed as a masculine movement that thrived on the speed of trains, planes, and motor cars, a newly electrified world, and the emergence of exciting new visual technology – or, as Alexandra Harris points out, ‘the wasteland, and not the herbaceous border’. Yet the ecocritical turn in modernist studies combined with a new focus on marginalised modernist artists and modes of making is creating a shift in how we understand the nature of modernism. Hattie Waltersreview of the enchanting ‘Botanical Modernisms’ conference, which took place in the idyllic surroundings of Virginia Woolf’s garden at Monk’s House in Sussex, highlights innovative work currently being carried out on horticulture in modernist texts, such as Katherine Mansfield’s ‘vegetal encounters’; the garden emerges as a sensory, material space that shaped the modernist imaginary.

Like Hope Wolf’s Sussex modernists, Scandinavian artist Hannah Ryggen turned to the rural landscape of her adopted Norway. Weaving fiercely political, anti-fascist tapestries from local wool hand-dyed with organic materials, Ryggen’s art reconceptualised our relationship with the nonhuman, creating ethical art works that remind us of the bonds that connect us to each other and our environment, even in the darkest moments. The Royal Academy’s current Helene Schjeferbeck exhibition, offers a fascinating perspective on another overlooked Scandinavian artist who was intimately in touch with the environment around her. Jenni Raback’s review shows us how, through Schjerferbeck’s airy, atmospheric compositions, we enter into light-filled spaces of her physical world. 

Contemporary writer Marianne MacRae similarly opens up modernist art to new, ecologically-minded interpretations: in her poem ‘“A Kind of Fretful Speech” for Marianne Moore, MacRae ‘[dives], headfirst through the thirsty crest of a wave’ with Moore, bringing into focus the arch modernist’s Moore’s proclivity towards animal otherness and the natural world. Moving away from the traditional centres of modernism reveals further surprising and inspiring encounters with the natural environment. Elsewhere, sisters Holly Froy and Willa Froy play with myth-making and the figure of the sun as a scorned (or scorched) forgotten lover whose temperature rises. Their poetry and accompanying illustrations interrogate a current-day ambivalence and disconnect with the natural world, as temperatures increase, icecaps melt and rainforests burn. 

There is always a risk of essentialising both the environment and craft as the ‘natural’ home for women. In the experimental work featured here, we instead suggest that craft opens up a difficult and important dialogue between human and nonhuman, where the relationship formed isn’t easy or expected but rather worked for and respected. As Donna Haraway notes in ‘Situated Knowledges’, a reconception of nature not as passive matter or an object of study, but as an active subject, is central to the process of revising our actions and our language towards our ecosystems. In this issue, we see artists, poets and curators working with (rather than taking from) the environments around them, returning us to the wilderness that is both our home, our equal and our responsibility. 

Review: ‘Water Rising’ at GroundWork Gallery

In appropriately apocalyptic weather, I ducked into GroundWork gallery. The pouring rain provided the perfect atmosphere in which to explore the exhibition ‘Water Rising’ (9th March-1st June 2019) at the UK’s first gallery dedicated to the environment and sustainability. Past exhibitions have included Dutch artist Jan Eric Visser who transforms inorganic household waste into sculpture, as well as specific shows focusing on environmental features such as wood, birdlife, fire and ice, and sunlight. GroundWork are leading the way with what a local gallery space can do – broadening Norfolk’s horizon’s to engage with global artists.  

Tucked away by edge of the River Ouse in King’s Lynn (Norfolk) ‘Water Rising’ exhibited a series of artists to explore the nuances between calm and storm, plenty and drought, power and flow. Overall, the effect of a group show organised around a defining element served to bring together practitioners in photography, film, ceramics, glass and jewellery under one unifying theme.

Three pieces stood in for the ways they engaged psychically with the environment. Peter Matthews’s durational large-scale drawings explore the isolated power of the Sublime. He makes his pieces by walking along the coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, stopping to draw directly in the water. With material lapping into the ocean, the resulting painting and drawing takes on a ritualistic repetition. Marks are made in time to the movement of the water, bringing together an experimental take on the relationship between an individual and their environment.  

On a smaller scale, Annie Turner also works directly with a source of water, the River Deben, a tidal river in Sussex which washes up all manner of fossils, sharks teeth, feathers and more. Turner collects these to create memorialising sculptures. What looks like woven baskets on closer inspection are revealed to be delicately hand-made from stonewear. These archaeologically inspired ceramics, although modern, retain the look of something found and rusted. Turner creates a new brand of natural-industrial in works like ‘Tide Line’ and ‘Flotsam’.

Perhaps narrowing the scale even further, Helga Mogensen’s hand-made jewellery brings the environment to the skin working with silver, steel, copper, brass, driftwood and fishskin to create beautiful wearable objects. Drawing on lived experience, her work palpably draws on the Reykjavik environments she’s inspired by. Colour, shape and texture work in harmony to evoke beaches full of driftwood even as she contains her found materials in the form of necklaces and brooches. The spiny threads that hold each element together poke out haphazardly, defying neatness and convention.

Helga Mogensen. L: Royal Madness. Driftwood, thread, paint. 2016.
R: The Red Thread, Names of Places 3. Driftwood, thread. 2015.

Their current exhibition ‘Fragile Nature’ (running until 15 September) is an intergenerational conversation between artists Elspeth Owen, Paca Sanchez, Lotte Scott, Emma Howell. Titled ‘Fragile Nature’, each artist explores a different medium. There’s Sanchez’s modernist explorations, which abstract natural forms such as seeds, flowers, stems and twigs into geometric patterns alongside Lotte Scott’s feminist geographies, which experiments with charcoal, lime, soil to explore place, time and material. Emma Howell taps into grief and loss in her work with colour, providing a robust counter to melancholia, whilst Elspeth Owen creates egg-shell thin ceramic vessels to explore fragility in a different way. 

Words by Jade French

GroundWork’s current exhibition ‘Fragile Nature’ runs until 15 September.