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Arriving early for my appointment with Tomás Saraceno, I kill time in a café close to his Berlin studio. The place turns out to be part of an indoor climbing outfit, and I am riveted by the sight of people clinging walls designed to replicate cliff faces. Some scurry up and down with spider-like élan. Others cling, wriggle then thud to the padded floor.
This masterclass in flying and falling is the ideal epigram to an interview with Saraceno. The Argentine artist is renowned for launching his sculptures into the air. However if the weather refuses to co-operate, they fail to take off at all. As likely to be found soaking up quantum wizardry at Nasa as showing art at the Venice Biennale and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris — where he is currently enjoying a solo show — Saraceno’s muse is indeed the spider. He has even developed a machine that allows him to scan their webs in order to create precise 3D models.
In his studio, a three-storey edifice which used to be a photo-chemicals factory, minutes from the River Spree, Saraceno employs between 40 and 50 collaborators, including biologists, arachnologists, anthropologists, art historians and other artists. Most visually beguiling is a room where nimble-fingered associates assemble the skeletal polygons that are the distant cousins of the cradles woven by the eight-legged insects. Some are still in embryonic stage but many are already suspended from the ceiling, where their weightless, airy facets lend the room a fourth, near-cosmic dimension.
Saraceno proves if anything harder to tether than his creations. Our interview is scheduled for 5pm but nearly half an hour later, the artist — a picture of blonde, tanned sangfroid in jeans and a covetable teal-green sweater — is still magnetised by a work in progress.
When I finally steer him to a table he seems perplexed by my presence. “And this interview is for?” he asks me, his head on one side like a wary sparrow.
I explain that it is to highlight the new piece of sculpture he is making under the patronage of Audemars Piguet, whose annual commission appears on Miami Beach, during the Art Basel fair — of which the Swiss watch company is a sponsor.
A long silence ensues. Finally in a whisper-soft voice he explains that he is concerned that sponsors sometimes promote themselves at the expense of art. “They are a good company,” he continues — later he says they have been “amazing” — “but it has to be the right equilibrium . . . the right message. The artist comes first.”
Given the profit-driven impulse of the contemporary art world, Saraceno’s idealism is surprising. Does he really believe that it is possible to take large amounts of money from private corporations without any compromise at all?
“If you are clever enough,” he replies.
Asked how much money he has received for the commission from the Swiss firm, he professes not to know. He also says that he “does not believe in being rewarded by the monetised system of today” and that, until now, all his previous financial support has come from museums.
He believes that if you are “smart enough” it’s possible to “repurpose a system” — he means capitalism — “to which we are addicted”.
But this transformation requires collective endeavour. “All of us — you, me and them — we have to move one step beyond our own practice and then something interesting happens. That’s what we do in the studio.”
For Miami, Saraceno and his team have dreamt up “Albedo”, an installation comprised of 40 reflective umbrellas, which will roost on the oceanfront. Assuming Apollo is on side, this natural suntrap should harness enough solar energy to hoist one of Saraceno’s “Aerocene Explorer” sculptures — essentially balloons (Saraceno describes them as “aerosolar balloons”) — into the air. If the weather gods are sulking then the “Explorer” will remain grounded. “It’s like waiting for Godot,” he says, sounding faintly nervous. “Something might or might not happen.”
I assumed that the Art Basel fair was the bait that lured “Albedo” across the Atlantic. But it turns out that what really matters to Saraceno, who is quietly messianic in his passion for the environment, is that “Albedo” is launching in the US. “In America it is a critical situation,” he says, adding that President Trump’s rejection of the Paris Agreement is a “huge failure of art and science” which now must “rework and renarrate a story” about global warming that is much more “compelling”.
Saraceno is a restless soul. “When I do transcendental meditation is the only time I’m at peace,” he admits. His train of thought is as non-linear as his beloved spiders’ webs. But just like those complex yet efficient organisms, his boffinesque disquisitions, which include many mentions of “discourses” and “systems”, are far from tangled.
Like many intellectually less-ordinary people, he is also easily bored. On the subject of lighting the “Albedo” project, he exclaims: “I say ‘The stars and the moon are very good! They’re bright enough and maybe let us see other things’.” His voice takes on a note of exasperation, “But there’s a health and safety issue that people should have the minimum amount of light.”
He sighs at such mundane obstacles but then explains with renewed enthusiasm that this is an opportunity for yet more exploration into sustainable energy solutions. “So we are . . . asking can we communicate with solar panels and give back to the grid?”
He’s less tolerant of my attempts to question him on a more private level. Asked if he was, like so many artists, one of those children who was always drawing, he replies: “Maybe.” Then his brow furrows. “Why are journalists always so interested in the past?”
I explain that a modicum of personal narrative adds a spark of humanity to otherwise dry concepts.
“Yes,” he replies. “But it becomes a bit like a TED talk format.” He pauses then murmurs. “I have done a TED talk.”
From someone else, this might sound grandiose. But Saraceno seems almost detached from his own ego. Rather, he is immersed in the abstract, horizonless prairie that is his inner image bank.
It turns out that science is in his genes: his mother was a biologist, his father an agronomist. (The latter was jailed by the military junta in Argentina and the family spent 12 years in exile before returning in the 1980s.) Finally, he admits this early imprint “might have influenced” his artistic practice.
But essentially his mind seems to float as rootlessly as his balloons. “I am always studying,” he says. “I’m studying all my life. I think we should be granted free passes for people who are wanting to learn,” he takes a breath. Then, with a contradictory swerve typical of his conversation, he opines: “[The poet Fernando] Pessoa said life is a long process to unlearn what we have learnt.”
As we say goodbye in high good humour, Saraceno admits that he prefers interviews, like ours, where there is friction. I concur — though I, too, might practise a little meditation tonight.
The Audemars Piguet commission is on Miami Beach from December 5
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