Feature Tomas Saraceno has big ideas for Queensland’s Harvest
Artist Tomas Saraceno’s airy installations are steeped in scientific inquiry that he hopes may shape our future world, writes
ARGENTINIAN conceptual artist Tomas Saraceno is not well known in Australia. In fact his debut Australian commission, for the 2011 Perth Festival, is a career moment he’d rather forget. “Oh no,” he laughs at the mention of it. Saraceno’s was 18 months in the making and promoted as a festival highlight. A silvery balloon sculpture made from fabric encasing a helium-filled bladder, it was 6m high and comprised eight polygons that were in total 27m by 15m wide. On a Saturday evening during the festival, was unveiled, inflated and anchored at Lang Park beside the Swan River with sturdy ropes designed to resist the elements. But the elements had different ideas.
“It flew away by the wind, it was a disaster,” says Saraceno by phone from an airport lounge in Oslo. “But we learn by them.”
Saraceno’s art is steeped in scientific inquiry. Indeed which he did not accompany to Australia, had been intended to “challenge the boundaries of earthly living’’; as that challenge went, the earth won: the huge balloon was tracked to the water off Fremantle.
Undeterred, the Germany-based Saraceno will make his first professional visit to Australia later this month for the exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. The artist will oversee the installation of a collection of PVC balls that will be suspended in the Long Gallery on the ground floor. Three of the spheres are 3m wide, the fourth is slightly smaller, but all of them will fill a large section of the gallery because of the intricate webbing holding them in place.
Webbing is a signature material for Saraceno. While the restraints holding down his works are forged from rope and nylon monofilament, Saraceno admits his real fascination lies in the production of spider webs.
“Many scientists believe if we were able to reproduce the silks from spiders we (would be) able to create a space elevator — a very long thread, 43,000km long — which goes vertically from the earth into outer space,” he says. “You lose gravity already by 100km, and then from Earth it would be much more easy to travel to deep space. I’m fascinated with it.”
Saraceno is an artist of the world: English is his third language after his native Spanish and adopted German. He tackles complex subjects in his work and is occasionally invited to present papers about his ideas at international conferences. In addition to the structure of spider webs, he is curious to discover how they might be harnessed for human use on account of the sheer volume some species create.
“It is amazing the amount of silk these produce, but mostly all the laboratories and all the scientists are working on building (webbing) synthetically,” he says.
Indeed Saraceno praises the work being done at the University of WA’s Symbiotica research facility dedicated to artistic inquiry into so-called life-science technology. Despite its isolation, the long-established unit is internationally reputed as a leading laboratory investigating in-vitro growth and manipulation of living tissue in three dimensions.
While Saraceno’s works are constructed from PVC, he is working towards building them from organic tissue. The original series was launched at Denmark’s National Gallery in 2009 and later that year was installed centre stage at the international Olympiad of conceptual art, the Venice Biennale.
Of the four works acquired for Harvest by GoMA, three spheres are from editions of three — there are two other identical pieces within other installations acquired by museums and public galleries in Norway, Germany, Italy and Denmark. The fourth Biosphere at GoMA is unique and promises to be the most spectacular. Rather unremarkably titled Biosphere 2, the PVC bubble will contain 50 Tillandsia plants and an air pressure regulator and hydration system to support them. Tillandsia is the generic name for plants that survive without roots, absorbing sustenance through their leaves.
QAGoMA curator Ellie Buttrose says rather than attempt to import the flora, which originated on the American continents but can now be found all over the world, they will be locally sourced according to Saraceno’s instructions.
Buttrose is curator of Harvest, GoMA’s big, free winter festival of bounty for which Biosphere is a major installation. “It’s really the finale in the way it’s talking about possible futures,” Buttrose says, explaining the work’s connection to Harvest.
The new installation at GoMA comprises the first Saraceno artworks acquired by an Australian public gallery. Philanthropist Tim Fairfax picked up the bill. Harvest is being drawn mostly from the gallery’s permanent collection with 150 works organised around two themes of objects in circulation and land and labour.
“These works and themes allow us to examine the ways in which farming, food, food products and systems of distribution have throughout history been central to the formation of world views and their artistic expression,” Buttrose writes in the Harvest catalogue.
Among the exhibition’s feature works will be Tracey Moffatt’s pineapple cannery image from her 2008 series First Jobs and Superflex’s unforgettable flooded McDonald’s video installation. The film program will include Gabrielle Axel’s Babette’s Feast, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and for a dose of modern reality Robert Kenner’s tough 2008 food production documentary Food Inc.
A centrepiece of Harvest is Fallen Fruit of Brisbane: Pineapple Express! compiled by Los Angeles artists David Burns and Austin Young, who in May called for submissions from Brisbane locals for ephemera adorned with the spiked fruit commonly grown in Queensland. From email responses more than 150 objects were chosen to go on display in GoMA’s foyer. Items already collated are a handmade pineapple costume, a ukulele fashioned from a pineapple tin, a pineapple-shaped mirror ball and handcrafted pineapple ceramics. The display will also include tins of pineapples collected from far-flung corners of the globe, including Ireland, Berlin and Canada. With pineapple production largely limited to Asia, Australia and South America, Buttrose says the tins will in part be used to tell the story of their production.
Alongside this display Burns and Young are creating a wallpaper to be pasted along the foyer wall in which pineapples in all stages of their growth will be portrayed. The pair recently spent a day at a Queensland pineapple farm collecting fruits to photograph.
“The farmer gave us heaps of pineapples at different stages of growth, from the budding to the very ripe and the guys are photographing them to create a Victorian-style repeat wallpaper,” she says. “They’re also interested in finding pineapples that didn’t necessarily look like the ones you find in supermarkets.”
Food production is also among Saraceno’s