New York

View of “Tomás Saraceno,” 2012.

View of “Tomás Saraceno,” 2012.

Tomás Saraceno

View of “Tomás Saraceno,” 2012.

The sculptures and collages shown in Tomás Saraceno’s recent exhibition belong to a wide-ranging scientific and philosophical project begun in 2002, variously called Cloud Cities and Air-Port-City. At the crux of the undertaking is a speculative metropolis composed of continuously shifting configurations of cell-like modules that float above the earth, the entire process powered by solar energy and wind.

In Tanya Bonakdar’s large downstairs space, various arrangements of polyhedrons made from beech plywood or nylon string—representations of the Cloud City’s component cells—hung from the gallery ceiling among complex webs of more nylon string that were anchored to the gallery’s floor and walls; navigating this floating city required the audience’s full attention, as if to underscore our earthbound clumsiness. The polyhedrons are based on the Weaire-Phelan model of an ideal bubble structure, a three-dimensional armature that minimizes surface area and maximizes volume; in other works, Saraceno has drawn on the webs of the black widow spider and the Millenium Simulation, a computerized model used by scientists to investigate the structure of the universe. The ease with which his artistic practice moves among architecture, science, and philosophy recalls the practices of Buckminster Fuller, Archigram, and Gyula Kosice, who designed the otherworldly Hydrospatial City. (In fact, Saraceno studied with Archigram’s Peter Cook.) Saraceno’s previous knotted works also bring to mind Gego’s “Reticulareas,” with their scientific precision and echoes of what we perceive as chaos in the natural world.

The Cloud City proposal is in one sense anarchic, rhizomatic, and revolutionary—Saraceno sees its inhabitants as united by “cloud citizenship” and predicts “a three-dimensional era of social engagement” and a “planetary feeling of belonging.” But there are darker undertones to this plan, which begin to emerge in a large rendering, spread over a gallery wall, of the Cloud Cities floating above a rooftop that looks a good deal like that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where a larger version of a Cloud City cluster, which viewers can climb into, is currently on view). In this depiction, the modules are connected by ladders and tunnels, at times resembling nothing so much as featureless corporate atria, at others something out of an Escher nightmare. The people inhabiting the cells are caught in the odd stasis particular to figures in architectural renderings—real but not quite—yet amplified by a zany precariousness. (Gravity in the Cloud City is a provisional concept.) Set against New York’s orderly, unmoving grid, Saraceno’s construction is utopian in the sense of the word’s derivation, a “no place.” As the air port in the project’s title suggests, we are never really there, at least in the sense in which we tend to understand “there.” Perhaps the whole notion of “there” is also provisional: fluctuating, dynamic, up for grabs.

The Cloud City is placeless the way the Internet is placeless, a globalized space entirely divested of specificity. The idea of “cloud citizenship” is certainly attractive, but it is hard to ignore the nihilistic streak in Saraceno’s vision, a permanent rootlessness that could be as terrifying as it is meant to be radically new. The construction of the Cloud City is, in a sense, already under way, in the form of the globally cloned sprawl of suburbia, which facilitates rapid movement from nondescript house to car to office to chain store, from one module to another. Neoliberalism has already embraced the kind of mobility that Saraceno’s project proposes. So a question for the artist: Whom does this mobility serve?

Emily Hall