“What kind of spider are you? What spider will you become?”
This question is asked of all who visit Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, part of Tomás Saraceno’s Particular Matter(s) exhibition on view at The Shed in Manhattan through April 17. If embracing one’s creepy-crawly side through giant, suspended “spider webs” does not seem appealing, there are other visually encapsulating installations connected to the eight-legged wonders of the bug world. Particular Matter(s), in fact, offers many means to experience arachnophilia in ways that otherwise may not have been acknowledged or felt. Alex Poots, The Shed’s artistic director and CEO, said in a press release that, “Saraceno’s exhibition explores ways of witnessing the environment through ecology, interspecies communication, and environmental justice.”
Tomás Saraceno is an Argentinian artist who has been exhibiting since the 1990s. His pieces, which have been displayed throughout the world, typically run along the lines of floating sculptures, immersive installations, and interactive sensory experiences. At 25,000-square-feet, The Shed show is Saraceno’s largest exhibition in the United States to date. Located in The McCourt, the 17,000-square-foot space formed when The Shed’s movable outer shell is extended to cover the adjacent plaza, Free the Air features two large nets—one 12 feet above the ground, the other 40 feet up—suspended within an air-pressurized, 95-foot diameter sphere filled with mist and a spidery sound installation. Attendees can pick which level they wish to climb to; it just needs to be chosen in advance. The walls are made from a tent-like material with a subtle sheen to it which coexists with the white metal nets. The pure whiteness of every surface, except for the people, has a similar feel to that of Olafur Eliasson’s chromatic Feelings are facts series, a collaboration with Ma Yansong that filled empty rooms with colorful fog.
As Free the Air darkens, it becomes hard to differentiate the back of your eyelids and the space around you. The darkness is meant to illustrate the blindness, or at the least, visually impaired experience that all spiders endure. Once the lights are off, the sound installation begins which the noises are made from “recorded sounds waves produced by spiders building and interacting within their webs.” The first set of sounds resembles that of the muffled “crack” a racket hitting a tennis ball. This noise then slowly begins to play from one speaker to another, jumping across each one to various areas of the nets. As these noises come from the speakers, the associated vibrations also start to shake the nets, which starts a ripple effect.
“With the stage set, a concert for the air and spider/webs begins as the atmosphere becomes foggier, as if particles of black carbon PM2.5 were filling the space between participants and a spider/web.” This description of the fog is located on the waiting room wall text before entering the Free the Air. It is interesting to note that the light fog is made-up of condensed particles of black carbon that fill up the entire white sphere. The use of PM2.5 throughout the 450,000 cubic feet of air space within the McCourt is to demonstrate how we can physically feel the effects of air pollution. The fog did not kick in until the lights went out and it could only be subtly felt. As one experiences the physical vibrations, the fog, the noises, and the lack of visibility, time gets completely lost until it all comes to a shrieking halt, and the overhead light slowly turns on. The entire experience of the noises from start to finish is divided into four 8-minute intervals.
In order to better relate the first-hand experience of the Free the Air exhibition as a spider, Saraceno has various installations relating to spiders on two floors of The Shed. One is Webs of At-tent(s)ion and it shows the beautiful delicacy of actual spider silk webs suspended within glowing display cases that stand out in the dark room. The corresponding installations that focus more on air pollution includes We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air, Printed Matter(s), and Sounding the Air.
Particular Matter(s) is not only teaching us more about what it’s like to be a spider, but how to be a better ecological actor. The experiences of being on the nets, feeling the vibrations of everyone moving around you, heightens the experience of others. The opening question, “What kind of spider are you? What spider will you become?” could also be interpreted as “What kind of person are you? What person will you become?”