Tomás Saraceno: Hybrid semi-social musical instrument Arp87: built by a couple of Cyrtophora citricola—one month—one Agelena labirintica—two months—one Cyrtophora moluccensis—two weeks—and on Tegenria domestica—four months—(turned four times 180 degrees on Z axis, 2015; spider silk, carbon fiber, Plexiglass; 35 ¾ x 35-7/8 x 35-7/8 in.; courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Photo courtesy of Tomás Saraceno and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © Tomás Saraceno.
By Joe Ferguson
When I look at aerial photographs of rural California, I see the tangled webs of agricultural and commercial conquest—winding irrigation canals exiting dwindling reservoirs, plundering gridded-housing divisions at the intersection of an invasive network of freeways and highways, and big-box shopping centers siphoning commerce from small communities. Gripped in the ravages of a 4-year drought, I don’t see views of long-range planning, but short-sighted opportunistic expansion.
It seems unnecessary that we live at odds with the natural world. All living organisms have intention, primarily that of survival. The challenge is to not pit our intentions against nature in ways that, in the long run, become mutually destructive. A provocative perspective on this is the work of Argentine artist and architect Tomás Saraceno.
Currently on display in the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive—BAMPFA—Saraceno’s work is part of Architecture of Life. The exhibit celebrates the opening of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed new home for the BAMPFA, and aims to question architecture’s potential as a metaphor for a variety of life conditions and experiences.
Saraceno employed natural processes to create ethereal sculptures. To create his works, he allowed different types of spiders to spin webs on carbon-fiber armatures within Plexiglas cases. Occasionally, he turned the cases on their sides in an effort to confuse the spiders, or get them to go in a particular direction. At times, he successively used different spider species to create unnatural, hybrid web forms. All of the works were made with species of social and semi-social spiders—in their natural settings, they may live apart but join together to build a shared web and help feed the young.
Saraceno’s works are mesmerizing. Gently lit, they shimmer in their darkened surroundings. Initially I think they are a cage, but there are no spiders there. Then I think they are simply examples of natural wonder, recontextualized in the museum, reminding us that there is beauty outside of human creation. Something seems amiss, however. Some web forms seem different from others, and the general shapes don’t make sense for trapping prey. The placard tells the story—these are carefully-crafted pieces. Saraceno has played a strange Geppetto—his puppets performed to his intentions, but weaved their own strings.
On viewing his works I was, at first, conflicted. I wondered if his works were lessons about humans working with nature to produce admiration and beauty, or if they were examples of exploitation, the work of tiny creatures unwittingly pitted at fulfilling the whim of a larger architect. Saraceno seems to have reverence for his collaborators, though, and in the end I saw his works as inspiration of what is possible. He did not present himself as the sole creator, but rather the hand that gently nudged the construction of objects of form and beauty.
Saraceno’s work reminds us that human endeavors need not advance at the expense of the natural world. We can weave our intentions in ways that are inspiring, respectful, and mutually beneficial.