Tomas Saraceno and the environmental art movement – The Scarlet

In a giant 17,000 square foot courtyard of the Shed Art Gallery in New York stands a balloon 95 feet in diameter, enclosing two large metal webs. Two mesh nets, one 48 feet and the other 12 feet above the ground, appear to be suspended in mid-air. This series of otherworldly metal sculptures is called “Free the Air” and is the latest creation by artist Tomas Saraceno.

“Free the Air,” which runs from February 11 to April 17, is more of a sensory experience than a traditional art gallery or exhibition. Forty-five people can be admitted at the same time and remain in the room for eight minutes. During this period, they lie down on the mesh nets while the lights are dimmed; with their reduced vision, they must rely on their senses of hearing and touch like a spider would as recordings of dust and spider interactions play in the background.

“The lights go out and you go blind as a spider because the web-builders have poor vision,” Saraceno said. “And you feel the vibrations.”

Saraceno is not only an artist but also a scientist. He has published scientific research on spiders and solar balloons, which fascinates him. According to New York TimesSaraceno believes that these subjects “provide direct access to the mystery of the universe and an escape from anthropocentric and gravity-bound thinking”.

While Saraceno now lives in Germany, he was born in Argentina. In 1975, his father was imprisoned for nine months due to a military coup in the country. His family was forced to flee to the Italian countryside. It was during this turbulent period that his inspiration for future artistic and scientific projects was born. “We occupied the second and third floors of a 500-year-old house with an attic full of spiders,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “You could see the light coming through the windows and the dust in the air. The web is like an extension of the spider. It was something that captivated me. »

Saraceno is not the only artist to use an environmental and sensory approach in his work. Many other visual artists, many of whom produce work within the environmental art movement, use similar methods to send a message to their audiences. Environmental art was pioneered by Light and Space artists Robert Irvin, James Turrell and Doug Wheeler, all of whom played with sensory perception in their work. These artists use the environment around them and often their scientific studies to interact with the public through an experience. All of their works center on the question of how humanity may have to alter their routines and daily lives to adapt to a changing planet.

Other environmental artists come from near and far; their work spans the globe. Olafur Eliasson, one of Saraceno’s close friends, produced works such as “The Weather Project” (2003) and “Algae Window” (2020). His most famous work, “The Weather Project”, is an experience in which viewers can experience all types of weather while maintaining a sense of magic and fantasy. Like Saraceno, Eliasson’s studio is based in Berlin, Germany, and his work focuses on the planet, particularly climate change.

Closer to Clark University, the “Interspecies Assembly” sculpture series (2021) in Central Park by the group called SUPERFLEX is another example of environmental art. Founded in 1993 by Jakob Fenger, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen and Rasmus Rosengren Nielsen, SUPERFLEX works to imagine a “new kind of urban planning” that prioritizes plants and animals over human beings. This is done through energy systems, sculptures, infrastructure, paintings, nurseries, contracts, public spaces and even drinks and hypnosis sessions. They collaborate with gardeners, engineers and members of the public to achieve this, creating an interactive experience.

“Interspecies Assembly”, based in Central Park, consists of a series of pink marble sculptures arranged in a circle to represent the broken and crumbling nature of biodiversity. Another project, “Hunga Tonga” (2019), is a film made on the island of Hunga Tonga in the South Pacific Ocean.

“Hunga Tonga invites the viewer to experience time as a volcanic island, an ancient microscopic organism and the ocean,” explains the SUPERFLEX website. “As the island itself will tell you, nature is not static: there is no island outside of time.”

“Rain Room” (2012), another environmentally conscious artwork based on the viewer’s sensory experience, the viewer enters a room filled with pouring rain. However, their movement and general presence in space affects precipitation. The rain stops when a spectator enters a specific area, preventing them from getting wet. The work is produced by Random International, an artistic duo made up of Hannes Koch and Orian Ortkrass who constantly mix art and technology.

According to Random International’s website, Rain Room aims to explore “how human relationships with each other and with nature are increasingly mediated by technology.” Rain Room has been exhibited in prestigious galleries in London, New York, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Melbourne and Busan.

In the case of Naziha Mestaoui’s work, “1 Heart 1 Tree” (2012), visitors themselves can make a difference with the environment. This piece allows viewers to plant virtual trees with an app on their phone with a personalized message. The tree grows in sync with the participant’s heartbeat. As the virtual tree grows, a real tree is planted on one of the five continents. 55,000 virtual trees have been planted since the project was launched in 2012.

Mestaoui, a Parisian artist, was inspired by a trip to the Amazon rainforest. “I lived with an indigenous tribe called Ashaninka,” she wrote. “And I was so amazed by the connection they have with the natural world, with this subtle reality made up of material and immaterial and especially with trees, considered to be carriers of wisdom.”

All of these new developments suggest a recent rise in environmentally conscious art, filled with metaphorical messages about climate change and our impact on the earth. In his latest exhibition at the Neugerriemschneider gallery, Saraceno does just that with his work “Particular Matters” (2021). “Particular Matters” consists of a pitch black room with only a beam of light to illuminate it and the dusty air we regularly breathe.

The studio air is filled with cosmic dust, man-made dust and PM 2.5 particles, which consist mostly of black carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. These emissions can be absorbed into human lungs and blood, as they are 2.5 microns or less in diameter. So the illuminated column of light in the room is filled with these glittering specks of what looks like dust but is, in fact, a clear sign of our imprint on the Earth.

“Free the Air” is on view at the Shed Gallery in New York until April 17, 2022.

Dora W. Clawson