Argentine artist Tomas Saraceno is internationally renowned for his ambitious sculptures and installations that take the form of webs and interconnected spheres or bubbles. Frequently created through weaving and looping elastic rope into complex geometric forms they often resemble spider webs or clusters of galaxies.
Taking his cue from architects such as Frei Otto (famous for designing the Munich Olympic Arena based on experiments with soap bubbles) and R Buckminster Fuller (the avant-garde architect who popularised the geodesic dome), biological systems inform the formal qualities of Saraceno’s work. In an ongoing body of work entitled ‘Air-Port-City’, the artist presents installations as designs for interconnected floating cities that function like clouds separating and coming together, thereby blurring political distinctions between nation states.1 In this body of work, architecture moves away from bricks and mortar and becomes malleable and responsive to specific issues at hand.
Tomás Saraceno ‘Biosphere 02’ 2009
Each of the four Biosphere works recently acquired by the Gallery demonstrates the artist’s signature technique of intertwining rope, in this case weaving it around transparent, inflated bubbles. Their architecture is similar to that of geodesic domes. In parallel with ideas of interconnected floating cities is the artist’s ongoing interest in the structure of spider webs and their flexibility in a changing environment. Biosphere resembles a spider’s web — each threaded and knotted piece of rope within it is equally important to the structural integrity of the whole form, acting as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of ecosystems.
Saraceno is influenced by ideas of networking and ecology, and by philosophers and social theorists who look to the systems in nature in order to provide new approaches to thinking about the world.2 He is specifically taken with the way that French philosopher Felix Guattari in The Three Ecologies (1989) ‘extends the definition of ecology to encompass social relations and human subjectivity as well as environmental concerns.’3 Saraceno suggests that we:
. . . start talking about the aesthetics and ethics of the economy, social ecology, politics . . . I think we should learn from the principle of ecology as a system of cohabitation of different cultural areas and understand the need for a principle of cooperation.4
This is apparent in his artworks, where the political and the aesthetic come together to reimagine the way we live.
This group of works also takes inspiration from the ‘Biosphere 2’ experiments in Arizona in the early 1990s, which analysed the possibility of humans living within closed ecological environments. While the overall experiment was ultimately abandoned, the research undertaken continues to be drawn upon by practitioners in various fields of study. Saraceno’s Biosphere 02 sculpture contains Tillandsia plants — a type of bromeliad that is native to the Americas. They receive all of their nutrients from water and air so are perfect for a closed ecosystem, like a floating garden. Looking at Saraceno’s ‘floating gardens’ we are invited to imagine industrialised cities with similar floating bubbles containing gardens hovering on the skyline, thereby making green parks accessible in places where they had not previously been.
Watch | Installation of Biospheres
Tomás Saraceno ‘Biosphere cluster’ 2009
Hungarian-born, Paris-based architect Yona Friedman and the British group of architects Archigram are also key influences on the artist. Friedman and Archigram created designs for futuristic modular and mobile buildings, many of which were hypothetical designs that remain unrealised. This is similar to the way that Saraceno presents his installations as designs for possible dwellings but ultimately chooses not to realise them in the architectural field. Rather, Saraceno draws from these architects to profoundly rethink the parameters of architecture and its nexus with art.5
Though the forms and ideas found in Tomas Saraceno’s Biosphere sculptures are layered and complex, the art works have a sense of physical lightness and wonder. The experience of weaving through the threads of rope extending out from the works and of looking up at the Biosphere works appearing to levitate in the air gives a wonderful physicality to these ideas. While the proposition of clusters of biosphere cities in the sky may be utopian, it is a reminder that contemporary art provides space in which we can imagine a profoundly different new future.
1 It is evident that the artist was inspired by R Buckminster Fuller’s Cloud Nine c.1960 — a free‑floating sphere that Fuller proposed could be inhabited by various groups at one time.
2 Key thinkers include French sociologist Bruno Latour and German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.
3 The artist quoted in Tomás Saraceno. Distanz Verlag, Berlin, 2011, p.42.
4 The artist quoted in Tomás Saraceno, p.46.
5 This not to say that Saraceno is not interested in real‑world outcomes. For instance, he patented and made freely available a type of Aerogel — made from helium, hydrogen and other gases — that is lighter than air.