Head in the Clouds

With the spirit of an artist, inventor, scientist, and engineer, Tomás Saraceno creates enormous bubbles, giant ethereal webs, and basketball court−size balloons that aspire to be lighter than air

Visitors entering and activating the web of 14 Billions (Working Title), 2010, at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm.


Tomás Saraceno is not easy to pin down. His towering inflatable structures and intricate webs are located at the intersection of art, architecture, and science. They evoke floating cities, neural pathways, and the infinitely expanding cosmos. Yet they can be collapsed into a handbag, making it all the easier for the peripatetic artist to pack up and push off to his next project, which may include working with NASA scientists, balloonists, arachnologists, and cadres of volunteers drawn to his visionary ideas.

“I’m not so interested in defining what I am—artist, engineer, inventor, scientist,” says Saraceno, 38, who was born in Argentina, raised in Italy, and studied art and architecture in Buenos Aires and in Frankfurt, Germany, where he now lives. “I’m much more interested in weaving in between and interconnecting things. I feel comfortable engaging in somebody else’s discipline.”

Such layering of information was evident in his show “Cloud Cities Connectome” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York last year. In a stunning room-filling installation, mushrooming clusters of 12-sided volumes called dodecahedrons were delineated with intersecting black strings pulled taut in midair at each connection point by transparent fishing line attached to the floor and walls. The abutting polygons, hovering inside this giant ethereal web, were in part inspired by an MIT professor’s research into the “connectome”—the map of the branching configurations of neurons in the brain.

For Saraceno, the connectome concept aligned beautifully with his vision of someday building “cloud cities”—networks of linked modular inhabitable structures that he imagines could float freely above the problems of war and overpopulation. In his search for ever more lightweight, high-volume, efficient designs, Saraceno discovered through communications with physicists working in Dublin that the model of soap bubbles—which connect using the least surface area relative to their volume—could be mathematically simulated using irregular dodecahedrons.

If a cloud city sounds like a utopian flight of fancy, Saraceno, who is deeply influenced by the expansive thinking of the architect-theoreticians Buckminster Fuller and Yona Friedman, talks about the idea with a characteristic mix of practicality and idealism. He points out that humans have settled down for only 10 percent of their history and that 200 years ago air travel was just a dream.

“When I think about cloud city, it’s an alternative way of living and communicating,” says Saraceno, who has experimented with self-sustaining floating gardens in plastic spheres and has patented four of his structural and material inventions. “It’s happy, it’s funny. You start to measure all the weight of things you own because you can fly.” Not coincidentally, when he isn’t working, Saraceno enjoys windsurfing, kite building, paragliding, and parachuting.

Yasmil Raymond, now curator at the Dia Art Foundation, offered Saraceno a residency in 2008 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, when she was curator there, and in 2009 organized his show “Lighter than Air,” which traveled to the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston. “Tomás is half Italian, half Argentinean, and I think of him as having the sensibility for narrative of Italo Calvino and the imagination for fantasies of Jorge Luis Borges,” she says. “When he’s dead serious about flying cities, he’s not saying let’s build it this way or that way; he’s saying it’s a state of mind. It’s about proposing a human being as a citizen of the world not bound to a place of origin or nationalism. It’s about planting the seed of curiosity. Tomás wants to function like a virus with these ideas migrating from one head to another.”

Raymond first experienced Saraceno’s work in person at the 2006 São Paulo Biennial. In the atrium of the Oscar Niemeyer– designed pavilion, he installed three gigantic inflated plastic spheres, stacked in a tower three stories high with a vertical tunnel through the core and a rope ladder people could climb. Each landing had a little space where visitors could lounge and socialize. The plastic was transparent, yielding a fantastic bird’s-eye view of the surrounding architecture as well as of the other people inside the structure. The piece imposed a certain degree of cooperation on the people inside, because each time a new person entered the tunnel a rush of air made everything unstable and put everyone in danger of losing their footing.

“Every movement you make has this butterfly effect,” Saraceno says of this and other conceptually similar pieces he’s done, including the 40-foot-high Observatory, Air-Port City, installed on the outdoor terrace of the Hayward Gallery in London in 2008. “It’s an architectural environment where your movement is so dependent on the movement of the others, you look at each other very carefully. I know if I step in this spot I will make you fall down. Twelve meters high in a very thin layer makes it a little scary, but it’s also an enjoyable feedback loop between people, making them feel the responsibility of living in the same environment.”

A similar collaborative and low-tech ethos informs Saraceno’s ongoing project Museo Aero Solar, an ever-expanding balloon, now the size of a basketball court, made entirely of recycled plastic bags and powered by solar energy. “It’s a bottom-up initiative that started in conversation with a group of artists in Italy in 2007 and then spread to different countries,” says Saraceno. He has gathered volunteers in eleven places—including the United Arab Emirates, France, Switzerland, Germany, Albania, and the village of Ein Hawd, in Israel, the first Arab village recognized by the Israeli government. The volunteers collect and tape together plastic bags marked with logos from all over the world. Heated by the sun, the balloon is launched vertically in the air in celebration at the end of each pit stop. A balloonist in Colombia gave Saraceno the idea of shaping it as two pyramids joined at their bases, so that it could be cut and inserts could be added in a band at the middle.

Raymond invited Saraceno to bring his behemoth to Minneapolis in 2008 for the Walker residency, where he tinkered with another engineering issue—how to launch and retrieve the balloon without the tethers he had been using. Working with professors at the University of Minnesota, he developed a Velcro emergency zipper on the balloon, connected to a black box and controlled remotely from the ground, which could be pulled to deflate the balloon. Saraceno and his caravan traveled to the Badlands in South Dakota for a trial run, beyond the eye of the Federal Aviation Administration. While the test was only a partial success—the day was too windy for a sustained launch—it gave him ideas for future explorations.

“All his projects are half failures, but the man doesn’t give up,” says Raymond, noting that an important aspect of Museo Aero Solar is the conversation generated among the volunteers as they tape the bags. “His definition of art is that it’s an always-evolving problem and an ongoing investigation into potential solutions,” Raymond says. “Nothing is fixed. For me, it’s a very poetic and beautiful political position.”

Saraceno’s migrations began early, when his family was exiled from his birthplace in San Miguel de Tucumán by the Argentinean dictatorship. “My father was working in an agricultural cooperative helping underdeveloped countries; anything with ‘cooperative’ sounds communist and was not okay in this political situation,” says Saraceno, whose family moved to Italy, near Venice, for eleven years. He remembers being taken to the city on weekends to see exhibitions and discovering the machines and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. In the 1980s, the family returned to Argentina after the dictatorship was overthrown. “As a kid, being in front of a football field, I was always from the wrong country—not being in the right place at the right time,” says Saraceno. “This has shaped me quite a lot as somebody hopefully who could be flexible in understanding somebody else and diversity of culture.”

In the 1990s, Saraceno studied architecture at the University of Buenos Aires and worked briefly in an architecture firm, but he didn’t have the patience for technical drawing. In 1999, he entered a dual master’s program in art and architecture at the art academy. Two years later, he moved to Frankfurt to study at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende, attracted by the unconventional teachings of Peter Cook, one of the founders of the avant-garde architecture group Archigram.

But he felt more affinity with artists. “I started to feel much more comfortable establishing dialogues with people related in the arts than in architecture, which I found to be more narrow,” he says. While in school, he met the artist Olafur Eliasson, and after his graduation, in 2003, he became Eliasson’s assistant in Berlin. Eliasson introduced him to Tanya Bonakdar, who started showing Saraceno in 2006 and in whose gallery his smaller works and photographs sell for $2,500 to $23,500 and large pieces for up to several million dollars. He also shows at Andersens Contemporary in Berlin. Two major exhibitions of his work are currently on view—at the Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis (through January 9) and at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (through January 15). Next spring he will get his most visible platform to date with a rooftop installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

An enduring motif in Saraceno’s work is the spiderweb. He says he was caught in its structural and metaphoric beauty even before he learned that many scientists use the analogy of the spiderweb as a geometrical model to explain the unknowable origins of the universe. For his 2009 installation at the Venice Biennale, he used black elastic cords knotted in globelike formations to create blooming constellations of spheres within spheres, held aloft by a thicket of more black elastic cords radiating in straight lines every which way to the walls. Visitors wending their way through the piece could be seen either as caught in the web or lost in the cosmos. “I go from micro to macro scale all the time,” Saraceno says. “It’s a lot about positioning yourself and trying to understand from which distance you’re looking at something to be able to perceive it.”

Saraceno built the installation in his Frankfurt studio, using cardboard polygons as stiff templates to knot the cords around. Removing the cardboard, he then suspended each airy spherical volume with more cords connected to the walls, and nested one sphere inside another like Russian dolls. The whole elastic universe, deinstalled, fit into a bag he carried to Venice, where he only had to restretch it in the gallery. Yet in the new space, the tension of the cords shifted, creating somewhat lopsided spheres that he decided to leave as they were. “Sometimes I build 100 percent of the piece and still change it,” Saraceno says. “I like work that allows flexibility—like brain flexibility.”

While the Venice installation used the spiderweb as a conceptual departure point, Saraceno was obsessed with recreating an exact replica of a web. “Try to go to the corner of the room and see all the spiderweb at once,” he says. “You never can really see it; some parts are missing because the light doesn’t hit in the right angles.” He began a quest to make a three-dimensional scan of a spiderweb—which had never been done before—so he could build a large-scale facsimile.

In consultation with an arachnologist in Frankfurt, Saraceno selected a species of black-widow spider for its web, dense and three-dimensional at the top with threads stretching downward to catch prey. He bought a number of small acrylic containers to house the poisonous spiders he acquired illegally through an eccentric German trader. He fed the spiders live flies and crickets through the winter so that they could start spinning their galaxies. Ever upping the ante, Saraceno introduced a second type of spider, the tegenaria, to add its funnel-shaped web to the mix.

The spider’s silk is too fine to be read by a CT scanner. In the photogrammetry department at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Saraceno found enthusiastic collaborators who helped him illuminate the best example of the web, using a sheet laser, moving millimeter by millimeter to take many pictures, and mapping the coordinates of all the intersections. Using the guide he had created, Saraceno radically scaled up his perfect web at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm last year. Photographs of the Bonniers installation show the web activated by visitors moving and crouching inside it like dark inhabitants.

In 2009, when Saraceno participated in an international space-studies program at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, he proposed sending the web to the international space station. His paper translating the constellation of the web into numbers corresponding to the height and angle of the intersecting lines was shown at Tanya Bonakdar.

“When I was at NASA, someone was talking about interplanetary Internet and how we might be able to start linking planets one to another to diminish the time between communications,” Saraceno says. “Everyone who sees the installation at Bonniers who is in technology says it looks like a map of the actual Internet and how people talk to one another. People working in completely different spheres have other interpretations. That gives me a great feeling. The web never stops weaving and repairing and growing.”

Hilarie M. Sheets is an ARTnews contributing editor.

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