Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights outstanding talent in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert chats with the Argentine contemporary artist Tomás Saraceno, whose show Particular Matter(s) at The Shed in New York City focused on sensory experiences.
Your exhibition, Particular Matter(s), features a giant, interactive spiderweb. What inspired you to make this interactive installation?
Somehow, when people talk about spiders, they forget that some spiders weave webs; [in fact,] they’re very dependent upon their webs. The web is a tool for a spider to sense what’s around them—it’s part of their body, almost. I wanted to build something that allowed a human to be inside the mind of a spider.
At one point, the lights in the room turn off during the exhibit, and you’re just alone on this web, hearing other people moving next to you on the installation.
Some spiders are blind, or some spiders have eyes but their vision is very bad. They also don’t have ears—they can’t hear. They feel vibrations on their web to understand what’s going on around them. The idea was to remove the element of sight, and to force the viewer to become dependent on the vibrations around them, like the spider.
It’s interesting to consider how, for a spider, if their web is destroyed, they’ll die—because it’s their entire livelihood and world. Was the exhibit meant to draw parallels between a spider’s web and a human’s planet? By that I mean, was this a metaphor for how important it is that we don’t destroy our world?
Sort of. Alexander von Humboldt always talks about the web of life. Scientists are realizing that Indigenous groups of people, who don’t drain the earth of its resources or deplete their environments, are right to not center themselves inside the universe. We don’t realize that once one species is gone, that’ll lead to the destruction of everything around us, because we’re all interrelated. Today, only 5 percent of the world is Indigenous and they’re the only population that has successfully maintained 80 percent of their environment’s biodiversity.
Do you consider yourself a climate optimist?
It fluxes and changes—pandemics, wars, they keep changing hope. But if hope and imagination are not there, we have nothing left. It’s an urgent need, to maintain optimism and not give up, but it can feel different depending on the narrative. Take the matter of clean energy transition: it is unquestionable that we need to move away from fossil fuels and yet, we need to remain watchful of that transition so it doesn’t make things worse. In the Salina Grandes region of northern Argentina, local communities are fighting against industrial lithium extraction, which is needed for solar batteries, because of the unsustainable amount of water it uses. They’re doing this not only for themselves, but also for the future, for their children, their grandchildren, for the vicuñas, the air, the salt flats, the diversity and equilibrium of these ecosystems. They can see the immediate effects of extractivism and climate change because they have knowledge about this environment passed on through generations. If those with local knowledge of their environments—those who have lived in balance with the earth—are listened to, then yes, I am optimistic.
Why did you decide to become an artist as a way to examine the earth, as opposed to a scientist or a geologist, etc.—a profession that seems more obviously related to the study of our planet?
I don’t really like categories or boxes. I work with lots of scientists and activists—there is no single discipline that is more important than the other. Why can’t we all work together?
Of all the works you’ve created in your career, which are you most proud of and why?
They all relate to each other! In January of 2020, right before the pandemic, we had the Fly with Aerocene Pacha project in Jujuy, Argentina, supported by Connect BTS, which stemmed from years of research with the Aerocene community. Aerocene Pacha floated free from fossil fuels, batteries, lithium, solar panels, helium, and hydrogen, with the message “Water and Life are Worth More Than Lithium” written by the communities of Salinas Grandes. This was the most sustainable flight in human history and broke 32 world records recognized by The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. It was about imagining alternatives to fossil-free flying, but it was also so much more than that: It is about local Indigenous communities’ long-lasting struggle for land sovereignty and about the fact that we cannot think of the air without thinking of the land, and we cannot think of the land without thinking of its people.
We’ve also collaborated with a local group in Somié, Cameroon. On a trip there, we met [the painter] Bollo Pierre Tadios and a community of spider diviners that practice Nggam dù, a method of spider divination in which a set of binary questions is asked of a spider, whose responses are interpreted by the community diviners. Together, we started nggamdu.org, which is the intellectual property of the community, where people can pose questions to the spiders. All funds raised through this project serve the community through a program of local projects.
What’s up next for you? Can we expect another show inspired by spiders?
I have a new immersive sculpture that will be inaugurated in May in Barcelona, [which resembles] water clouds condensing along the strands of a spider’s web. As they have done since I was a child, spiders keep weaving me into their cosmic and terrestrial webs of life!