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PRINT January 2004

Daniel Birnbaum on Tomas Saraceno

IN THE FALL OF 2003, THE YOUNG ARGENTINE ARTIST and architect Tomas Saraceno made a public announcement, amply quoting Buckminster Fuller, who set an appropriately cosmological tone: “Spaceship Earth was so extraordinarily well invented and designed that to our knowledge humans have been on board it for two million years not even knowing that they were on board a ship.” Saraceno was inviting us to witness an artwork of our own making, Projection, which would be realized on the evening of Saturday, November 8. Time: 6:32 to 8:31 pm est. Place: Planet Moon. It was the day of a total lunar eclipse—a perfect moment for experimentation in the field of radically extended cinema. And indeed, everything came off as planned: “We” projected our earthly shadow on that other, smaller, celestial body. It turned black. For a moment it even seemed to disappear.

Saraceno arrived in Europe in 2001, after studying art and architecture in Buenos Aires and attending a workshop there with the late Catalan architect Enric Miralles. He has since occupied his time studying with the visionary architect Peter Cook (in Frankfurt), assisting the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson in his Berlin studio, and producing his own work, which has been included in any number of shows on the Continent, including the most recent Venice Biennales for architecture (2002) and art (2003). For “Utopia Station” at last summer’s Biennale he designed a poster with a long and perplexing essay that includes a report from a birthday party in the vault of the legendary Max Planck Institute for Brain Science in Frankfurt: “I went into the basement to see Walter Hofer (artist) who runs the Electronic Microscope since 20 years . . . One could see a 20,000 times enlarged synopsis in a rat’s eye . . .—I could see Molecules and Atoms! . . . O boy. . . From the bottom to the top this world is beautiful!” This childish sense of wonder and fascination with natural processes may be typical of Saraceno, but not all of his works involve advanced scientific devices. In fact, many of his projects are attractive precisely because of their simplicity: For his installation ∞, 2001, he installed mirrors on the ceiling and floor of an elevator at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, then removed all the numbers from the buttons. At Belgrade’s “Real Presence” show later that summer he exhibited, in a “gallery” on a public bus, Line 83, 2001, a suite of twenty-three black-and-white photographs of people who regularly traveled on that very line.

Is there a more elemental fantasy than that of weightlessness and elevation? I’m enthralled by Saraceno’s whimsical collages of people lingering in the skies—resting, conversing, perhaps even living and working in the spaces created by semitransparent membranes hovering like clouds. As it happens, Saraceno has patented a new skin for so-called Lighter Than Air Vehicles (patent no. 202 06 527.8 SAR 7940 GM, granted in Munich in 2002). Taken quite seriously by European architects and a few major engineering companies, Saraceno’s invention is based on a pioneering application of Aerogel, a material that, as the artist informs me, has the highest thermal insulation value, highest specific surface area, lowest density, smallest pore size, lowest refractive index, and lowest dielectric constant of any solid. One gram of Aerogel is enough to cover a football field. Saraceno believes it possible to produce very large bodies that could hover in the air for long periods, powered by solar energy alone. His contribution to a forthcoming show in Bonn will include a flying human being, he claims. You laugh, but we’ll see. Maybe next time “Utopia Station” will take place not in Venice but somewhere a few kilometers above the lagoon.

Artforum contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt, cofounded its new Institute for Art Criticism, and also heads its Portikus gallery.