Up in the Air: Tomás Saraceno at The Baltimore Museum of Art


An exciting new work greets visitors entering the East Wing lobby of The Baltimore Museum of Art. Entangled Orbits (2017), by internationally acclaimed artist and trained architect Tomás Saraceno (b. 1973, Argentina), enlivens the museum's modern entryway, filling the usually arid space with a complex network of lines, forms, and colors. Those already familiar with this area of the museum will be pleasantly surprised by the elaborate installation. Those visiting for the first time might feel as though they’ve set foot into a different dimension. Either way, it's a wonderful way to enter a museum.  

Saraceno is inspired by the systems of nature: bubbles, clouds, planetary orbits, and spider webs, for example, inform his practice. Though essentially abstract, allusions to nature’s complex processes and intricate formations weave through his work. In Entangled Orbits, which looks like diagrammatic models of Weaire–Phelan structures writ large, variously sized polyhedrons hang from nylon cords extending from the atrium walls. These multifaceted, multicolored modules are made of translucent Plexiglas sheathed in an iridescent film that allows sunlight from a large South-facing window to illuminate Saraceno's Orbits throughout the day. As the Sun makes its journey across the sky, colorful splashes of luminescence slowly shift across the lobby walls, bathing the space with ephemeral abstractions composed of light from 91 million miles away.  

Ephemeral abstractions of sunlight from    Tomás Saraceno   's  Entangled Orbits  (2017) fill the East Wing lobby of The Baltimore Museum of Art.

Ephemeral abstractions of sunlight from Tomás Saraceno's Entangled Orbits (2017) fill the East Wing lobby of The Baltimore Museum of Art.

Whether intended by the artist or not, the supplementary effect of natural light takes Entangled Orbits to a whole other level. As mentioned before, Saraceno's work is essentially abstract. That is, it does not explicitly represent anything found in nature. Direct mimesis is not to be found here; nature is merely suggested. And while one can appreciate Saraceno's work on purely formal grounds alone, the radiance by sunlight extends both the aesthetic and conceptual brilliance of Entangled Orbits, suffusing its space with warmth and beauty while reinforcing its connection to nature. This makes for a more enjoyable experience of the installation, which accentuates its space without dominating it. Climbing the stairs from the lobby to the second-floor galleries, one feels as though they are pleasantly floating into some sort of Apollonian realm filled with Platonic forms

While natural light shines through and bounces off the many surfaces of Entangled Orbits during the day, its exteriors become rather opaque as night falls and electric light takes over. Though they remain somewhat translucent after sunset, the surfaces of Saraceno's installation act more like mirrors when lit by artificial light. It's fun to view Entangled Orbits at night, when its many faces reflect and distort the movements of museum visitors walking around the lobby below or descending the stairs from above. Their bodies, mildly warped in the sculpture's many reflections, appear as if in fun house mirrors. Once again, light–even when artificial–plays an important role in Saraceno's Orbits.

Tomás Saraceno   Entangled Orbits , 2017

Tomás Saraceno
Entangled Orbits, 2017

One gets a better view of the modules from the second level of the lobby. Closer examination reveals their complicated cores. The outer structures appear to repeat themselves inside each module, suggesting nuclei. Just as when contemplating nature, one begins to wonder just how far down things go. Are there even more structures beneath or within the ones just visible through the outer surfaces? Of course, the very Plexiglas which Entangled Orbits is made of is itself made up of chemical compounds, which are in turn composed of atoms and so on. So, just as light extends the piece outwardly in the form of reflections, the intricate structure of Entangled Orbits draws one's attention inward, inspiring the second meaning of the word reflection. This dual nature of perceptual forces, the centrifugal and the centripetal, makes Entangled Orbits a very dynamic work of art.  

Saraceno has a few other works currently installed at the BMA, but they are somewhat removed from Entangled Orbits in the East Wing. One must walk through the European art galleries to get to them. Saraceno's three other works have been installed in spaces that are usually devoted to early- to mid-nineteenth century European painting and sculpture. This may seem a little jarring to visitors to the museum seeing as his work appears to have no connection whatsoever with the other works in this area. In the middle gallery, a rather modest dual sculpture made of steel and thread hangs from the ceiling. Zonal Harmonic 2N 110/13 (2017) suggests planetary orbits, albeit in a highly stylized form. Off this central gallery to the right, a larger, more imposing sculpture composed of what appears to be clear plastic spheres hangs from nylon cords attached to the gallery walls, floor, and ceiling. 80SW iridescent/Flying Garden/Air-Port-City (2011) fills the cube-like space, inviting visitors to walk around the piece.

Tomás Saraceno   Zonal Harmonic 2N 110/13 , 2017 (L)  80SW iridescent/Flying Garden/Air-Port-City , 2011 (R)

Tomás Saraceno
Zonal Harmonic 2N 110/13, 2017 (L)
80SW iridescent/Flying Garden/Air-Port-City, 2011 (R)

Lastly, in a darkened space off the central gallery, Saraceno's strangest work of all is installed. Entitled Hybrid solitary semi-social SAO 90734 built by: a solo Nephila senegalensisone week, a duet of Cyrtophora citricolathree weeks, a quartet of Cyrtophora citricola juvenile–two weeks (2017), this work consists of several real-life spiderwebs, spun by three different species of spider, contained in a glass box suspended over a single electric light on a tripod. While this might sound kind of creepy (it was up during Halloween,) it's not. The actual spiders are not present –they're back in Saraceno's studio in Berlin, Germany. Not only is this natural artifact alluring in its own right, as a final stop it helps to tie the other works together. The arachnid architecture recalls the intricate system of nylon cords supporting Saraceno's Orbits in the lobby. 

Further, there seems to be a little pun worked in here. As mentioned above, walking from Entangled Orbits in the East Wing to Saraceno's other works in the European Wing, one must pass more traditional art. The paintings and sculptures in the historic galleries seem rather stuffy by comparison and, in another setting, might be covered in dust and spiderwebs. As with the effect of light on Entangled Orbits, it's hard to say if this curatorial pun was deliberate. Nonetheless, it presents a bold juxtaposition and announces a new direction at The Baltimore Museum of Art. Along with Saraceno's installations in the historic galleries, Entangled Orbits represents the early phase of Director Christopher Bedford's vision of installing contemporary work in all areas of the BMA. Bedford, who joined the museum in August 2016, is a strong proponent of contemporary art, and has made it his mission to expand the museum's offerings of current work by living artists such as Saraceno –and, as it were, spiders.

Tomás Saraceno   Hybrid solitary semi-social SAO 90734 built by: a solo Nephila senegalensis – one week, a duet of Cyrtophora citricola – three weeks, a quartet of Cyrtophora citricola juvenile–two weeks , 2017 (Photo by Wes Stitt.)

Tomás Saraceno
Hybrid solitary semi-social SAO 90734 built by: a solo Nephila senegalensisone week, a duet of Cyrtophora citricolathree weeks, a quartet of Cyrtophora citricola juvenile–two weeks, 2017 (Photo by Wes Stitt.)