From dust to universe: Tomás Saraceno opens at Mona

The global pandemic has heightened our awareness of air in relation to our own biology, but Tomás Saraceno Oceans of Air at the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) encompasses a much broader notion of the essential life-giving element.

Sitting at the intersection of science, technology and intrinsically collaborative practices, Saraceno’s works have long driven explorations of our relationship with the environment and the beings with whom we share this ecosystem.

Weaving through the darkened exhibition rooms are works printed with PM2.5 pollution extracted from the air in Mumbai Printed Matter(s)mesmerizing glass cabinets featuring cosmic networks of spider silk in Webs of At-tent(s)ion and The Politics of Solar Rhythms: Cosmic Levitationa video that replicates a method used to understand the formation of planets from interstellar dust.

Perhaps Saraceno’s best known work is Aerocene Pachaa flight alternative hot-air balloon powered by the sun that could avoid tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the air.

In the Mona exhibition this work is seen as air-fuelled balloons, half transparent and half metallic, occupying the space between the museum’s winding staircases – ethereal, but also filled with purpose. Works from the same series are also currently on view at QAGOMA’s Air summer exhibition.

Owner and Founder of Mona, David Walsh says in the media release: ‘Once upon a time artists used to make beautiful things. 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.’

‘A Thermodynamic Imaginary’, 2022, Tomás Saraceno. Courtesy the artist, neugerriemschneider, Berlin and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Mona/Jesse Hunniford. Image courtesy Studio Tomás Saraceno and MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Senior Curator Emma Pike tells ArtsHub: ‘David is a maths and science nerd who is completely obsessed with evolutionary biology and what drives humans to look at art… Why an artist like Tomás intrigues him is because of the really strong backbone to his practice, which has this big vision, but also the emotional reaction evoked by the works – that feeling really hits you in the guts.’

‘Webs of At-tent(s)ion’, 2022, Tomás Saraceno. Courtesy the artist with Arachnophilia, neugerriemschneider, Berlin and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Tomás Saraceno. Image courtesy Studio Tomás Saraceno and MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Fully encapsulating this sense of beauty and impact is Webs of At-tent(s)ion, which will likely change what many people think of spiders, as it did for Pike. She jokes that ‘they knew how to choose a curator with arachnophobia for a show filled with webs’… but that was pre-Saraceno.

The dazzling luminosity of these intricate webs entices viewers to lean closer, and signals Saraceno’s mission in shifting our perception towards these vital creatures and their complex connection to the world – much like the interconnected webs of human networks.

Later in the show, Sounding the Air (2022) extends to the auditory senses, where a piece of software picks up the movement of strands of spider silk, movement that is determined by the shift in surrounding airflow and temperature.

Oceans of Air also follows Saraceno’s long-held collaborative practice by engaging local First Nations cultural practitioners to make pieces informed by Country. Leaf, Leaves, Life Lives (2022) features a series of dried, pressed and burned leaves on paper, commissioned in lutruwita (Tasmania) by Mona and facilitated by Wakka Wakka cultural burning practitioner Luke Mabb.

A catalog will be developed for Oceans of Airspecifically focusing on the series of works that engage First Nations curators, writers and cultural leaders.

Another Australia-specific work with real-life impact is We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air (2022). Resembling a moon phase calendar, the array of filter paper circles in different hues shows the levels of soot, carbon and other pollutants extracted from the air in different parts of the country – a visual chart that prompts questions regarding the disparity of air quality.

Read: The Big List: the visual arts in 2022

For a Mona first-timer, Tomás Saraceno’s Oceans of Air sits comfortably within the broader scope of the museum and its intersectional displays between old and new, and the crossroads between technology, science and art. In fact Mona itself feels at times like a science museum, in the sense that visitors are guided by their curiosity rather than art movements or historical turning points.

The scope of ‘air’ explored by Saraceno is vast, but ultimately the various elements are interconnected by the desire to discover new ways of knowing, says the artist.

‘All my family come from a background of science, so some of the works represent a transition from one way of knowing to another way of knowing… Increasingly we are establishing a different relationship with the planet,’ says Saraceno.

From a curatorial perspective, what Oceans of Air aims to present is the different perspectives of time, according to Mona’s Artistic Director Olivier Varenne. Part of the low-light exhibition design is implemented with this in mind – so that visitors will tread more slowly to fully experience the works.

‘The works shown go from featuring something infinitely small to infinitely big; it’s really about showing the different time, space, size and scale of Tomás’ practice,’ concludes Varenne.

Oceans of Air is on view at Mona until July 24, 2023; ticketed.

This writer traveled to Hobart as a guest of Mona.