Public architecture has a long history of embodying the ideologies of governments, regarded as a tool with which to exercise power or Utopian reform. Tomas Saraceno, once a practising architect, now prefers to call himself an artist, although if one were to compare the architectural designs of, say, Archigram with Saraceno’s ongoing art project Air-Port-Cities (c. 2001), the gist is the same: a proposed use of space that empowers individuals, relocating them beyond the control of existing authoritative structures.
With his 32-screen video installation Cumulus Saraceno makes a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that is the Barbican’s notoriously difficult Curve Gallery (essentially a long and obstreperously curved corridor). In each of the two films here the video projectors line up a splendid panoramic view of El Salar de Uyuni, a salt lake in the mountains of Bolivia, with differing emphasis on the sky and its reflection. The speeded-up footage of scudding clouds, shimmering light and heartbreaking dusks and dawns initially appears to fuse a painterly landscape tradition with the late 20th-century fascination with chaos theory in a quasi-religious essay or pastoral poem on light and movement. However, beyond this all too immediate aesthetic impression of a technological reconstruction of nature’s magisterial beauty, Saraceno is operating more metaphorically.
The films are intended as an exegesis of Air-Port-Cities, which Saraceno outlined in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist as: ‘a flying airport [...] This structure seeks to challenge today’s political, social, cultural and military restrictions in an attempt to re-establish new concepts of synergy. Up in the sky there will be this cloud, a habitable platform that floats in the air, changing form and merging with other platforms just as clouds do. It will fly through the atmosphere pushed by the winds, both local and global, in an attempt to equalize the (social) temperature and differences in pressure.’ The relationship between the Barbican installation and Air-Port-Cities, then, might at first appear to be one of literal illustration, as the fusing and dispersal of clouds overwhelmingly constitutes the action of the two films. But the meteorological conditions of the salt lake and Saraceno’s recording process introduce a complexity that could be read in terms of ambivalence and the dynamics of power – especially if you consider that a Utopia requires the destruction of an existing order, making it morally ambiguous, emotionally fraught and ideologically duplicitous.
El Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat on the planet, 11,800 feet above sea-level on a plateau over 130 miles wide. For a short while each spring it is filled with a shallow slick of rainwater, perhaps only ankle-deep and as still and reflective as glass. Saraceno camped with his crew by the side of the lake for a month, filming the sky and its sharp reflection in the water with a ring of 32 cameras. The result captures a transitory set of conditions, surgically compacted by the filming process into a short moment that loops potentially for ever. The near-eternal time-frames of geology, the rhythm of the seasons and the compressed cultural time of film are distilled within a single panorama – historically the optimum configuration for social control, as formulated by Jeremy Bentham in his Panopticon prison design. But although Saraceno’s ring of cameras occupy a central position that suggests surveillance and command, the natural phenomena continue their business regardless, reverting human empowerment to ineffectual wonderment and emulation.
The installation itself also makes use of relations between audience and art work. The viewer is immersed in a vast image that dissolves into pixelated abstraction close up, emphasizing the chimerical nature of representation and information. The bookending of the films with a sunrise and sunset, meanwhile, reminds us of the episodic character of narrative and the supra-human duration of the universe (the futility of the man-made is again pressed home, perhaps rather too vehemently). What is more, the almost artificial reflective qualities of the lake seem to offer a critique of bad video art. In Saraceno’s second film the screen is bisected horizontally by the reflective surface of the salt lake, essentially thumbing its nose to the endless production of digitally manipulated doppelgängers. But his mirror is real rather than gratuitous, and its effect wantonly beautiful.