“How much does your house weigh?” – R. Buckminster Fuller
The late American architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller was famous for seeing the world through an uncommon lens, a practice he said was akin to “unlearning” what we know about the universe in order to truly innovate. When Fuller questioned the weight of one’s home, he was really asserting that weight equals waste—the more the house weighs, the greater the consumption of resources. Fuller’s advocacy of “lightness” and desire to “do more with less” is an inspiration for the Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno, whose “Lighter than Air” exhibition is on view at UH’s Blaffer Art Museum through August 7.
Biomimicry, or looking to models and processes of the natural world for design inspiration, is also part of Saraceno’s process. Spider webs are a source of fascination for Saraceno, who has worked with arachnologists, engineers and astrophysicists to determine how the spider’s intricate gossamer constructions can suspend weights of much greater density. As an interdisciplinary artist, Saraceno has conducted research alongside scientists with NASA (specifically in relation to NASA’s High-Altitude Platform which uses aircraft as floating laboratories) and cites well-known polymaths like Fuller and Da Vinci as influences. At his artist talk and panel discussion with curator Yasmil Raymond, Saraceno’s energy and idealism were palpable and contagious. He truly believes his ideas can change the world.
The works in “Lighter than Air” are part of Saraceno’s ongoing series, Air-Port-City (2001-present) in which he envisions “networks of mile-long geodesic balloons that provide living environments aloft in international airspace.” In Saraceno’s schema, these floating habitats would be kept aloft using a simple theory Fuller developed for his own geodesic balloon city proposal (Cloud Nine, 1960s with Shoji Sakado): by keeping the temperature inside the balloon slightly higher than the external, ambient temperature, the structures would be “lighter than air” and therefore float. To that effect, very few works in Saraceno’s exhibition even touch the floor of the gallery. Elegant transparent spheres hover in the gallery, not floating through temperature differentiation as Fuller proposed, but rather suspended artificially by a network of tensioned ropes. The hum of air pumps and ventilators fills the gallery, and rubber tubing that connects to the spheres gives the appearance of a delicately-balanced life support system. Saraceno is keenly interested in “closed-loop habitats” of the variety prototyped by international space agencies, which once perfected, could support life on other planets or on an inhospitable Earth. Though many of Saraceno’s works have a science fiction veneer, he is genuinely interested in the practical and scientific applications of his ideas towards self-sufficient housing for the Earth’s rapidly growing population.
The front gallery requires that viewers physically negotiate the web-like ropes that dissect the space and suspend a work titled Net with Transparent Sphere Inside (2009). Intricate polyester webbing hugs a plastic sphere (looking slightly like a glass float used by Japanese fisherman), which houses pools of condensation and a handful of living tillandsia (air plants). On the floor are framed prints of details from installations by the artist. The placement of the prints is awkward, and a reminder that this is an art exhibition and a representation of a laboratory.
The grandest transparent sphere on view is Large Iridescent Planet, which dramatically fills the tall downstairs gallery. At about 20 feet in diameter, the scale of this work comes close to something a human could actually dwell in. Adjacent to the sphere is a mural-size laser print, Liverpool/Flying Garden/Air-Port-City (2008), depicting air currents that could passively propel a floating city.
The upstairs gallery includes prints from the artist’s visit to the world’s largest salt flat in the Bolivian Andes—Solar de Uyuni—a place where an optical illusion creates the appearance of individuals walking on clouds. There is a screening room with Saraceno’s harrowing attempt at creating a space elevator out of a chain of balloons, connected by a filament that also precariously levitated the artist. Within the screening room is a reading space with books related to the exhibition. Systems theory and the inter-relatedness of all things is a theme throughout the selected texts by authors such as Fritjof Capra, Michio Kaku, Felix Guattari and Stephen Webb.
Saraceno’s exhibition is beautiful and evocative, but lacks the hands-on, messier and functional works (powered by wind or solar energy) that were included in the earlier iteration of “Lighter than Air” at the Walker Art Center. The environment that Saraceno creates at Blaffer feels like a laboratory of sorts, but one that is staged. Unlike Fuller, who avowed, “when I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem, but when I’ve finished, if the solution isn’t beautiful, I know it’s wrong,” this exhibition privileges art over epistemic science. But then again it is an art exhibit, and if NASA or other scientific agencies adopt Saraceno’s ideas, it wouldn’t be the first time that whimsical speculation changed the world.
Andrea Grover is
independent curator, artist and writer. In 1998, she founded Aurora
a now recognized center for filmic art, that began in Grover’s living
room as “the world’s most public home theater.” She has been a migrant
curator for apexart, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Dia Art
Foundation, The Menil Collection, and Parkinggallery, Tehran. She likes