The startling news that the universe is structured like a sponge was revealed when astronomers discovered that galaxies cluster into filaments and wall-like sheets, leaving huge voids of nearly empty space. In his dramatic installation Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web (2008) Tomas Saraceno applied another analogy inspired by that finding: the comparison between our ‘spongy’ universe and a complex spider web in which groups of stars and other matter are strung like shining beads of water along invisible strands. Saraceno, a former architect known for following in the tradition of other maverick designers who have developed provocatively inventive projects with the goal of changing human behaviour and living conditions – such as Buckminster Fuller, Archigram and the Ant Farm group – also has a knack for presenting his conceptual projects in ways that capture the imagination.
Along with a Fuller-esque collapsing of the micro- and macro-cosmic, the idea of energy spanning vast expanses of time came into play. Sitting near a window in the entryway was Planet Earth, 500 Million Years (Working Title) (2008), a vaguely planetary agglomeration of eye-like solar-powered lamps that gathered energy from both the sun and the artificial interior lighting to illuminate the gallery at night. Next was the show-stopping Galaxies Forming along Filaments …, a lacy, bulbous shape formed of, and suspended from, interwoven elastic rope that stretched to the floor, walls and ceiling – picture an almost mystically delicate celestial loofah. (It also resembled a human brain’s neuronal network, another smaller structure to which the universe has been compared.) The room was flooded with light, and that stark brilliance combined with the unevenly spaced, perspective-demolishing, radiating strands of elastic was initially disorienting. To pass through the main ground-floor gallery in which the piece was installed to reach other works in a smaller room behind it, one had to choose a path and duck under or step over the ropes in the way. Bumping into one meant sending shivers throughout the skeletal cosmological web, but clumsiness worked to the viewer’s advantage, providing this surrogate universe with a sense of tangible interconnectedness and mutability.
If this spiky web was somewhat menacing and other-worldly, it was also poetic, an adjective that has often been applied to Saraceno’s buoyant creations and one that Fuller (who saw Albert Einstein as a great poet) embraced. The importance of playful, intuitive experimentation to his project was made even clearer in a selection of photographs and smaller sculptural works. These tied the giant web to such projects as Air-Port-City (2002–ongoing) a vision for cell-like airborne cities – Saraceno has compared it to a flying airport – that can separate and come together like clouds or nomadic tribes, erasing political, social, cultural and military boundaries. The title of Flying Garden/Air-Port-City/12SW (2007), a cluster of PVC balloons joined with elastic rope and fabric webbing, relates to another aspect of Air-Port-City, its incorporation of rootless plants, native to Africa and South America, that take in all their nourishment through their leaves. Hydrogen Cloud Explosion (Working Title) (2008), a Perspex geometrical structure housing another network of black elastic – an enclosed, miniature variation on the installation in the first room – suggests an elegant, ship-in-a-bottle-style model of galaxies in the throes of birth. And in Air-Port-City Cloud Classification (2008) white-paper dodecahedrons arranged on the floor hinted at how the cloud-like platforms might join together, while they also called to mind the ancient equation between this topological form and the universe, as well as another astonishing recent scientific theory: that the universe may, in fact, be shaped like a dodecahedron.
Does it matter whether Saraceno’s proposals are practical? Unlike many technology-besotted art works generated in the early part of this century, which flirted with a creepily decadent disregard for real-life implications, his futuristic visions are, for the most part unobtrusive, idealistic and likely to inspire other outside-the-box thinkers. But there is also something undeniably sad about his overarching awareness of the need to escape what Fuller – who hoped that we would be able to head off the current global-warming crisis by deploying technological innovations to tap renewable energy sources – lovingly called ‘Spaceship Earth’. Saraceno’s own brand of optimism can be as contagious as his creations are visionary and thought-provoking, and perhaps it’s not too late for such architect–poets to save us. At the same time his radiant webs, bubbles and clouds are a reminder of darker, perhaps intractable realities.