Tomás Saraceno, Thermodynamic Constellation, 2020, Mylar balloons, rope. Installation view. Photo: Ela Bialkowska.

Tomás Saraceno, Thermodynamic Constellation, 2020, Mylar balloons, rope. Installation view. Photo: Ela Bialkowska.

Tomás Saraceno

Each of the nine spaces of Tomás Saraceno’s exhibition “Aria” (Air) is introduced by one of the thirty-three cards making up the artist’s Arachnomancy Cards, 2018. Previously presented at the 2019 Venice Biennale, the work is inspired by nggàm, the practice, developed by the Mambila people of Cameroon and Nigeria, of using spiders for fortune-telling. Subverting the roles of critic and curator, these cards introduce a magical element into Saraceno’s practice; the prophecy foretold by the spider and its web (an extension of its senses) guides us in our understanding of the exhibited works.

Under the aegis of Card 29, the Anarchinist, for instance, the installation Thermodynamic Constellation, 2020, occupies the building’s courtyard. Three Mylar balloons filled with air float above viewers’ heads. Anchored with ropes, however, they can neither transport us nor break free into the sky, and are limited to mirroring (and distorting) the rounded arches and the colonnade of the Palazzo Strozzi, a jewel of the Florentine Renaissance, symbol of humanism and therefore a point of departure for our Anthropocene epoch. Contextualized thus, Saraceno’s structures represent the three-dimensional proclamation of the “aerosolar” city that, according to the artist, would house Homo flotantis, the nomadic man of the air in a future era known as the Aerocene.

The sculpture How to entangle the universe in a spider/web?, 2020—with Card 20, Hidden Paths—presents the spider’s web of the universe itself in view of its similarity, demonstrated by scientists, to the web of an actual spider, a composite example of which has been masterfully created by Saraceno from three-dimensional scans of the work of numerous arachnids of different species. The complexity of this mirror of the cosmos is rendered visible by every nanometric movement of a red laser that passes through it, revealing an infinity of two-dimensional planes. Card 9, On Air, accompanies Sounding the Air, 2020, where we jump, by contrast, into a micro-perspective: Five silk threads, made by real spiders, are illuminated from below as they run across the whole length of a room in darkness. They dance in the air, impelled by invisible forces and particles: not only the room’s fluctuating temperature and the breath and movement of spectators, but also dust and static electricity. As if they were thin guitar strings, their vibrations are recorded and translated into abstract music. Their grace and apparent fragility seem unattainable.

The day of the opening, Saraceno also introduced his latest undertaking at the Cinema Odeon, a movie theater nearby: Fly with Aerocene Pacha, 2020, is a twenty-eight-minute video documenting the flight of a hot-air balloon in Salinas Grandes, Argentina, on January 28, 2020. An advanced version of the spheres in Thermodynamic Constellation, it was lifted only by the warmth of the sun and carried only by the wind, letting a passenger travel some 1.6 miles without the use of fossil fuels, batteries, or helium. From an altitude of nearly six hundred feet, the camera looked down on a lunar-seeming landscape threatened by lithium extraction.

Inevitably affected by our awareness of Covid-19 as well as of the repeated cry of “I can’t breathe,” the exhibition enables new interpretations of Saraceno’s works and political practice. Walking inside the Palazzo Strozzi and guided by Arachnomancy Cards, we meet not only a possible abstract future, the so-called Aerocene, but the necessity to broaden our vision, to deepen our breath. “We need to distinguish utopists from utopians,” reads an epigraph from Henri Lefebvre in a book on his friend Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon, a project for futuristic cities without boundaries, suspended above the earth. There, Constant hoped, Homo ludens, the ancestor of Saraceno’s Homo flotantis, could move about in a creative, regenerative drift, without restrictions imposed by the market, race, or national borders. “Utopist thought explores the impossible,” Lefebvre continued, “while utopian thought unleashes the possible.”

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.