Dust motes, it turns out, are born performers. They have humble staging requirements, too. Just give them an eye-high beam of light and a dark room and they’ll spin, sparkle, prance and pirouette so energetically that, says Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno, “people come to me and say, ‘What did you put in the air?’” 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 dancing dust is in the first of 10 rooms; it is an effective way to initiate people into Saraceno’s art, which is all about new ways to see – and hopefully to save – the world.
In this room, the quietly intense artist himself sidles up to me in the dark. “That’s not all terrestrial dust,” he whispers, conspiratorially. We’re all whispering, suddenly, but the decreased volume makes no difference to how our bodies and breath intensify the madly pogoing motes. “Many tonnes of cosmic dust re-enter the Earth – one speck touches you every day, I think,” says Saraceno.
Some of the particles are black carbon (soot). “The second biggest cause of mortality in the world is bad air,” he says.
Curated by Emma Pike and Olivier Varenne, and assisted by Berlin’s sizeable Studio Tomás Saraceno, Mona’s exhibition ladders off in so many directions that casual museum amblers may get confused. Those who commit, however, will never forget it. They’ll need to keep jabbing the “art wank” button in Mona’s The O app though, because Saraceno doesn’t spare us the complexity. And the rooms are quite dark.
“Move slow,” Saraceno warns. “You may not see the walls and – boom!” He laughs. “It’s the intention, to move slow.”
The exhibition includes drawings inked by pollution in Mumbai; the sonification of meteoroids; 3D models that map spider webs 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 spider web in a glass box, fortunes are told by five Tasmanian tarot readers who have been freshly trained to use Saraceno’s Arachnomancy cards, which use spiders and webs to celebrate the “radical interconnectedness of all things”.
Saraceno believes we have pushed our planet past the Anthropocene and into the Capitalocene, a time in which humans are “caught in the undertow of extractivist ethics and the rhythms of capitalism [and] have toxified the air, rendering it unbreathable for many and forcing new regimes of inequality upon us all”.
His work proves his words. In We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air, six frames contain neat rows of circles, ranging in colour from off-white to deep and dirty orange. They could be moon charts, or Dulux paint samples, but they’re the filters of air pollution machines set up in six Australian states to suck in the breezes and spit out data for two months. “The completely white frame is Tasmania,” says Saraceno. “The quality of the air here is unbelievable!” But even at lutruwita’s Cape Grim, known to have the world’s most pure air, pollution levels are rising.
To model one way out of our fossil-fuelled mess, Saraceno has given over his Aerocene sculptures – spheres able to float using just the heat of the sun – to a global open-source endeavour called the Aerocene Foundation. His aerosolar 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 stairwell. They are modern inventions yet they radiate a kind of retrofuturist 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 on a wall is the seed of something that could – will? – be an Australian first if someone rises to the challenge: the Aerocene Backpack, a portable floating kit that is waiting for a volunteer pilot. “I’m crossing my fingers, maybe we collaborate to make a performance?” says Saraceno.
By “we” he means Mona, not me. Or maybe he does mean me? Anyone game will do.
The exhibition contains footage of an Argentinian school teacher’s 16-minute flight in 2020, a feat that was claimed by the aerocene.org community to be the most sustainable flight in human history, undertaken in solidarity with the 33 Indigenous communities in the country’s Salinas Grandes region.
“Once upon a time artists used to make beautiful things,” Mona’s owner and founder, David Walsh says of Saraceno. “Now, mostly, they want to change the world. Of the artists I know, Tomás Saraceno is the most likely to change the world. And he makes beautiful things.”
And yet, the most beautiful things in Oceans of Air weren’t made by Saraceno at all. Webs of At-tent(s)ion is a room of transparent boxes showcasing spider webs that were spun in Berlin and transported to Australia, miraculously intact. Some are drooping and diaphanous, while others look as taut as the mesh of a fly screen door. From a distance they could be crystals seeding, or glittering snow on a mountain’s peak. Some have a coppery gleam.
Saraceno loves spiders, but loves their webs more. “I’m always saying ‘I collaborate with spiders’,” he told a Baltimore Museum of Art podcast in 2017. “But I think the spiders, they collaborate with us. Spiders have survived on the planet [for] 400 million years, much longer than we have been here, and they will keep living when we will disappear.”
It’s instantly obvious why Saraceno uses these “interspecies collaborations” to shift perspectives. Because at home, like dust, webs are a domestic irritation; maligned and swept away. At the gallery, we respectfully behold every web, circling to see each silken strand. We don’t need Mona’s art wank to understand this: if our homes are the homes of spiders too, we should not be sweeping them away. Of course not. And Saraceno knows this is where most people land.
“Tomas’s work, it’s got all this backbone, intricacy and community around it, and the big vision,” Pike says. “But at the end of the day it also hits you in the gut. You can see it and feel it too.”
Oceans of Air by Tomás Saraceno is open at Mona until 24 July 2023