New York

Tomas Saraceno

Gardens that fly, aircraft powered by the sun, cities that change and meld like drifting clouds, gravity as a “physical psycho-social relationship.” These are some of the ideas with which Tomas Saraceno, a peripatetic Argentine artist currently based in Frankfurt, has lately been obsessed. Just as Saraceno is a postnational individual, moving freely between continents and cultures, he might also be termed a “postartist,” working as he does on interdisciplinary projects derived largely from architectural—rather than painterly, sculptural, or photographic—practice. A recent show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Saraceno’s US solo debut, served as a concise introduction to his recent projects.

One of Saraceno’s models is Buckminster Fuller, the visionary architect and inventor whose work centered on questions of housing and transportation but extended into larger questions of human survival. Saraceno adopts Fuller’s utopian stance but abandons earth for life in the sky. His hypothetical “Air-Port-City” posits airborne platforms or “habitable cells.” Realized projects include Sobrevolando Chile (To Fly over Chile), 2005, a “Solar Balloon” designed to lift an individual passenger off the ground, and a video (here represented by Cumulus, 2006, a sequence of projected stills) made on the site of the world’s largest salt lake, the inch-deep Solar de Uyuni in the Bolivian Andes, which reflects the sky, giving the visitor the illusion of suspension in the clouds.

Included in the show at Bonakdar were two Flying Garden models (both 2006). One is made of clear plastic balloons held together with delicate elastic netting, kept floor-bound by a stone and draped with bits of Spanish moss (a plant that derives its nutrients from the air rather than from soil). The other is a small mass of cardboard food-shipping boxes that have been shaped into polyhedrons recalling Fuller’s geodesic dome. This work hints at how globalization has changed consumption, and quietly acknowledges notions of sustainability. In Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Flying in Space, 2003/2006, a screw, attached to a stapler by a length of string, is suspended in the air above a table lamp containing strong magnets.

Saraceno’s objects are well crafted and often ethereally beautiful. The issue is how to reconcile their visual elegance with the artist’s purported “higher” goals. The leap from plastic balloons and optical illusions to real, livable cities actually floating the in air is, after all, enormous. And conjuring Fuller only complicates things. The geodesic dome achieved mainstream acceptance and was utilized in real situations—even if other projects, like the flying Dymaxion car, sputtered into oblivion. In this show, conventional art presentation reigned, and even if the objects therein were freighted with utopian ideas, it was difficult to ascertain to what extent they were meant to function as models for practical, Real World projects. Perhaps what is most interesting in Saraceno’s practice is the blurring of these distinctions, as well as the referencing of Fuller as an iconic figure of utopian futurism both in art (Olafur Eliasson, Jules de Balincourt, and others have made a similar connection) and outside of it. Environmental conditions may have altered substantially since the architect’s heyday, but the question of sustainable human habitation is more pressing than ever.

Martha Schwendener