Studio International

Published 16/03/2022

Tomás Saraceno: Particular Matter(s)

This show is a marvel of art and science in which the artist literally draws you into his web to share his love of spiders, even allowing you to experience what it is like being one

The Shed, New York
11 February – 17 April 2022


On entering The Shed in Hudson Yards, you are directed towards a desk to sign a waiver that might set off a flicker of alarm, making you wonder what you are getting yourself into – at least, it did when Tomás Saraceno’s Particular Matter(s) first opened. Since then, it has been one of the most talked and written about shows in town. Happily, everyone has lived to tell the tale. This is the Berlin-based, Argentinian artist’s most ambitious project to date in the US, although he has long raised the multidisciplinary bar to another level, his practice including architecture, social and environmental activism, sound, and, decidedly not least, a scientific expertise that is no mere window dressing. He was the inaugural visiting artist in 2012 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Art, Science & Technology, where he scanned spider webs in 3D using a technique he pioneered, his arachnophilia, also not merely a passing fancy, predating that stint. Organised by Shed curator-at-large Emma Enderby and assistant curators Alessandra Gómez and Adeze Wilford, the exhibition takes a deep, deep dive into many things arachnid, focusing on the species’ technologically brilliant web-spinning.


The practical applications of that skill are intriguing as well as game-changing, from innovative and better building materials to illuminating the structure of the cosmos. Spread across two floors (level 2 and 4) and the Shed’s vast McCourt space, it is a marvel of an art and science project (who says that science isn’t also art?) and a crowd pleaser, even if spiders creep you out (although no actual spiders are included in these presentations. In fact, many of us who have read EB White’s Charlotte’s Web, an American children’s classic, are rather predisposed in their favour, seeing them as creative, literate, industrious and noble creatures. Their webs, incidentally, are antiseptic and can be used for cleaning wounds.)


In darkened galleries, the exhibition’s opening gambit presents, among other displays, lighted crystalline webs of dazzling beauty housed in glass vitrines. Constructed on frames in the artist’s studio by different species of spiders, which he monitored, it was a collaboration between the two. Other galleries feature the movement of webs translated into sound and light, at times using laser scans that create a kind of red shift. The labels are well-written and essential to parsing the exhibition, but labels, especially lengthy ones, are always a bit of a turnoff in a visual exhibition, diverting our gaze from the display. An on-demand audio explication would have been better, so the viewer could look at the work while simultaneously listening, something that neither the labels nor the comprehensive catalogue that accompanies the show allow for. 


Air pollution is another subject that engrosses Saraceno, and includes the Shed commission, We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air. It measured, over two years, on seven large sheets of paper, one for each state it documented, the degree of pollution across the selected region, demonstrating how that occurs along racial and other socially inequitable divides. The show’s title here is a pun on particulate matter, the tiny specks of waste in the air that we breathe in and are hazardous to the health of life forms in general, not just humans.


There is also a related installation called Museo Aero Solar, in another space in The Shed. A merry patchwork of colourful recycled plastic grocery bags, it is a grounded, gigantic balloon that can be walked into and part of his Aeroscene Foundation, a global not-for-profit organisation committed to the development of flying without fuel, propelled only by wind and light, ushering in the clean-air era of the Aerocene to save us all from extinction.


The showstopper, however, also a commission, is Free the Air: How to Hear the Universe in a Spider/Web, the latter part of the title perhaps a nod to William Blake, taking up the entirety of the colossal shape-shifting McCourt. On two levels, one at six metres (20 feet) up (which has a wheelchair accessible viewing platform) and the other at 12 metres, a tight but still open-weave stainless-steel-mesh net is stretched across the space, 29 metres in diameter, above which is an enormous white spherical dome. You can choose which level you want to enter, but if you opt for the upper, which requires climbing eight flights of stairs, you must check anything loose on you into lockers before, so you won’t inadvertently drop something on viewers below. Also, no high heels.


Once you enter, the doors are locked for the 20-minute cycle. It takes a moment, maybe more, to acclimate to the trampoline-like bounce in the net. It is also disorienting to be able to see below in a straight plummet to the ground. Some of us walked upright and some skittered across on our rears. Soon, the light dims and goes out, the total blackness sharpening our sense of sound, the volume rising, picking up movements in the air, a snap, crackle and pop here and there, but lulling. Vibrations in the net also seem to increase although the effect is more soothing than otherwise. It is haunting, and too short, an experimental music concert that simulates a spider’s perceptions while on the ropes, a mesmerising, provocative, multisensory extravaganza that is playful – with a deadly serious message.

Speaking of accessibility, which The Shed often does and its desire to reach out to less privileged communities, that accessibility is also a monetary matter. At $35 a person to visit Particular Matter(s), is there a solution to that? After all, the spiders spun their nets for free.

For other recent works by Saraceno (without charge), there is Silent Autumn, a less daunting but equally ravishing, equally absorbing exhibition about the complex relationships between humans and non-humans, and the worlds in which we all must live, at Tanya Bonakdar, his gallery in Chelsea, on view until 26 March.