Dust motes, it seems, are born artists. They also have modest stage requirements. Just give them a beam of light at eye level and a dark room and they will spin, sparkle, show off and pirouette so energetically that, says Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno, “people come up to me and say, ‘What have you got in the sky?’” Despite the illusion of prismatic colour, his installation – titled Particular Matter(s) – is “just the dust”.
Mona’s major new exhibition of Saraceno’s work, Oceans of Air, will occupy all three of the lutruwita (Tasmania) institution’s touring galleries until July next year. The dance fabric is in the first of 10 rooms; it’s an effective way to initiate people into Saraceno’s art, which is all about new ways of seeing the world – and hopefully saving.
In this room, the quietly intense artist himself sneaks up on me in the dark. “It’s not all earth dust,” he whispered conspiratorially. We’re all suddenly whispering, but the reduced volume makes no difference to how our bodies and breath reinforce the crazy pogoing moths. “Many tons of cosmic dust re-enters the Earth – one speck hits you every day, I think,” says Saraceno.
Some of the particles are black carbon (soot). “The second leading cause of death in the world is bad air,” he says.
Curated by Emma Pike and Olivier Varenne, and assisted by Berlin’s great Studio Tomás Saraceno, Mona’s exhibition veers off in so many directions that casual museumgoers can become confused. However, those who commit will never forget it. They’ll have to keep pushing the “trick” button in Mona’s The O app, though, because Saraceno isn’t sparing us the complexity. And the rooms are quite dark.
“Move slowly,” cautions Saraceno. “You may not be able to see the walls and – boom!” He laughs. “The intention is to move slowly.”
The exhibition includes drawings inked by pollution in Mumbai; the sonification of meteoroids; 3D models that map cobwebs to cosmic webs (it’s a thing, Saraceno is sure of it); and a wall of pressed poppies affected by contaminated soil. Meanwhile, in a curtained-off room, beneath the glow of a cobweb in a glass box, fortunes are being told by five Tasmanian tarot readers newly trained to use Saraceno’s Arachnomancy cards, which use spiders and webs to the “radical” to celebrate interconnectedness of all things”.
Saraceno believes we have pushed our planet past the Anthropocene and into the Capitocene, a time in which humans are “trapped in the undercurrent of extractivist ethics and the rhythms of capitalism [and] poisoned the air, made it unbreathable for many and imposed new regimes of inequality on us all”.
His work proves his words. In We don’t all breathe the same air, six frames contain neat rows of circles, varying in color from pure white to deep and dirty orange. They may be lunar maps or Dulux paint samples, but they are the filters of air pollution machines set up in six Australian states to suck in the winds and spit out data for two months. “The all-white frame is Tasmania,” says Saraceno. “The quality of the air here is incredible!” But even at lutruwita’s Cape Grim, known to have the world’s cleanest air, pollution levels are rising.
To model one way out of our fossil-fueled mess, Saraceno has donated his Aerocene sculptures—spheres that can float only with the heat of the sun—to a global open-source effort called the Aerocene Foundation. His aerosol sculptures were officially launched at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, and three of the giant beach ball-like spheres now hover above Mona’s main staircase. They are modern inventions, yet they exude a kind of retrofuturistic optimism, from a time when the idea of air and space travel still felt exciting and when most people believed the future would be brighter than the past.
Strapped to a wall is the seed of something that can – will? – be an Australian first if anyone takes on the challenge: the Aerocene Backpack, a portable floating kit awaiting a volunteer pilot. “I’m crossing my fingers, maybe we’ll work together to make a gig?” said Saraceno.
By “we” he means Mona, not me. Or maybe he means me? Any game will do.
The exhibit features footage of an Argentine schoolteacher’s 16-minute flight in 2020, a feat claimed by the aerocene.org community as the most sustainable flight in human history, which is in solidarity with the 33 indigenous communities in the country’s Salinas Grandes was undertaken. region.
“Once upon a time, artists made beautiful things,” says Mona’s owner and founder, David Walsh, about Saraceno. “Now they mostly want to change the world. Of the artists I know, Tomás Saraceno is most likely to change the world. And he makes good stuff.”
And yet, the most beautiful things in Oceans of Air were not made by Saraceno at all. Webs of At-tent(s)ion is a room of transparent boxes exhibiting cobwebs spun in Berlin and transported to Australia, miraculously intact. Some are drooping and translucent, while others look as stiff as the mesh of a fly screen door. From a distance, it could be crystals sowing, or glistening snow on a mountain’s peak. Some have a coppery sheen.
Saraceno loves spiders, but loves their webs more. “I always say ‘I work with spiders,'” he told a Baltimore Museum of Art podcast in 2017. “But I think the spiders, they cooperate with us. Spiders survived on the planet [for] 400 million years, much longer than we’ve been here, and they’ll live on when we’re gone.”
It is immediately clear why Saraceno uses these “interspecies collaborations” to shift perspectives. For at home, like dust, webs are a household annoyance; maligned and swept away. At the gallery we see each web with respect, circling to see each side strand. We don’t need Mona’s trick to understand this: if our homes are also the homes of spiders, we shouldn’t sweep them away. Of course not. And Saraceno knows this is where most people land.
“Thomas’ work, it has all this backbone, complexity and community around it, and the big vision,” says Pike. “But at the end of the day it also hits you in the gut. You can see it and also feel it.”