Tomás Saraceno: Particular Matter(s)
The Shed, New York, NY
February 11–April 17, 2022
by Sarah-Rose Hansen
Over the course of the eight galleries in Tomás Saraceno’s Particular Matter(s) exhibition, which was on view through mid-April at The Shed in midtown Manhattan, three separate moments introduce lighting shifts that are likely to cause the viewer to pause for pupillary adaptation. In day-to-day life, moments of ocular adjustment are, at best, an incidental inconvenience. In Particular Matter(s), however, dramatic light environments constitute, for Saraceno and Shed curator Emma Enderby, the exhibition’s luminous lifeblood. By harnessing the narrative power of night and day, the Argentine-born, Berlin-based artist’s lightscapes compel viewers to consider both the beauty and the gravity of the exhibition’s “call for environmental justice.”1
Saraceno’s photic narrative begins with the near pitch-blackness of Webs of At-tent(s)-ion (2020), in the first gallery (fig. 1). The shift from the vivid springtime daylight of the exhibition entryway to this gallery’s fully darkened interior is accompanied by the first of the installation’s moments of visual adjustment. After stepping through a weighty blackout curtain, viewers must pause to allow for a moment of “dark adaptation,” a scientific term used to refer to the physiological process of pupil dilation and rod activation that allows the human eye to see at night.2 After this disarming moment, visitors begin to move through the gallery to marvel at seven stunningly intricate, spot-lit spiderwebs, which are dusted with noctilucent fibers and encased in glass displays.3 Through this process, the darkened viewing space takes on an atmosphere of peace and contemplation, allowing the viewer to meditate on issues that Saraceno points to in his co-authored wall texts, such as “the rights of invertebrates” who “feel the harmful, environmental effects of the Capitalocene.”4
A second dramatic light shift meets viewers in the second gallery, where the exhibition’s namesake work, Particular Matter(s) (2020), is visually composed of a light beam plus the “cosmic dust” and PM2.5 it illuminates.5 Upon entry, spectators are briefly, ocularly overwhelmed by the forceful light beam, which is aimed at the room’s doorway. Viewers are forced to undergo a rapid “light adaptation”—the reverse physiological process from dark adaptation—and upon moving out of the spotlight, a renewed adjustment to the darkness, which fills the room beyond its luminous entry point (fig. 2). Once inside this tranquil, darkened viewing area, beholders can stand back and observe the light or approach it from the side and manipulate it. Saraceno suggests, in his wall text, that visitors also consider the pollution on which the gallery’s particle illumination centers its focus. This beholding area reiterates the concept of darkness introduced in Webs of At-tent(s)-ion, suggesting that it is a space for reflecting on serious issues that might at first cause discomfort, but that can ultimately stimulate peaceful contemplation and discovery. This darkness, which in some artistic contexts can function independently of an idea of night, becomes firmly nocturnally linked in the next room through iconographic references to the moon, in pollution-inequality-referencing Shed commission We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air (2019–2022), and the occult, in Arachnomancy Cards (2018–2022).6
After two more rooms of experiencing the nocturnal, with sonic work Sounding the Air (2020) and the red-laser-illuminated spider silk webs of How to entangle the universe in a spider/web? (2020), viewers make their way into the soft-gray lighting of A Thermodynamic Imaginary (2020). Amidst a skyscape of suspended mylar orbs, which suggests the ecological interconnectedness of the entire universe, an inflection point emerges in Saraceno’s photic trajectory (fig. 3). A large projected film portrays the exact moment of a solar eclipse, with a powerful ray of sunlight just beginning to emerge as the video cuts and is looped again.
From this point onwards, the emergence of light becomes a focus of Saraceno’s narrative. In Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web (2022), an immersive installation specially commissioned by The Shed for Particular Matter(s), viewers lie down on one of two ninety-five-feet-diameter webs, which are horizontally suspended one above the other, at forty feet and twelve feet from the ground, respectively (fig. 4). At the end of a darkened, eight-minute symphony, which includes atmospheric and rumbling sounds with accompanying vibrations felt through the suspended webs, a sunlike luminescent orb at the top of the ovoid room brightens to full radiance. Visual adaptation again becomes central; as viewers begin to sit up from the symphony, they must allow their eyes to adjust and take in the luminosity of day.
The final work of the exhibition, which follows the visitor’s exit from Free the Air, gives artistic form to Saraceno’s environmentalist vision.7 Museo Aero Solar (2007), a solar balloon made of crowd-sourced plastic bags—a specific repurposing of the PM2.5 pollutants referenced earlier in the show—is presented in vibrant color (fig. 5). The brightly lit room feels powerfully diurnal and vividly optimistic. With this concluding installation, Saraceno has embraced the full nychthemeron; he has encouraged viewers’ discovery of night’s mysteries and then, in stages, of a daylight call to action. In this incorporation of both nocturnality and diurnality, Saraceno joins a long tradition of scholars and artists who have worked outside a Manichaean characterization of the night as evil, instead understanding the after-dark as multifaceted, with dynamic contemplative potential.8
The effect of this dual embrace is powerfully poignant; Saraceno’s viewers walk away from the exhibition equipped not only with an impulse towards the expansive optimism of daylight, but also, crucially, with a nocturnal pathway to reach that disposition. Saraceno’s vision—sustainable, egalitarian, interconnected—is ambitious, but through Particular Matter(s)’s illuminative journey from night into day, he inspires us to believe it is possible.
Sarah-Rose Hansen is an MA candidate in art history at Columbia University. Her current research deals with representations of the nocturnal in the sixteenth-century Veneto. She holds a Graduate Diploma in the history of art from the University of Warwick and a BA in psychology and Portuguese from Stanford University.
1. Wall text, Particular Matter(s), The Shed, New York.
2. This review makes reference to physiological processes that are specific to beholders who can see; it does not seek to represent the experiences of visitors who are blind or who have low vision.
3. The spotlights are directly listed among the work’s materials on Webs of At-tent(s)-ion’s wall panel.
4. Wall text, Particular Matter(s), The Shed, New York. There is an extensive literature on the Capitalocene outside the context of Saraceno’s work. It is defined in the exhibition’s introductory wall text as “the current era of Earth’s existence characterized by the destructive effects of capitalism on the environment.”
5. Wall text, Particular Matter(s), The Shed, New York. The “cosmic dust” and “PM2.5” descriptors pertain to the room’s naturally occurring dust particles, which are made visible by the powerful light beam. “Cosmic dust” refers to the non-earthly origins of some dust particles, while PM2.5 refers to a specific pollutant, one of the most harmful.
6. Practices of the occult have a long-established tradition of taking place at night.
7. The Shed’s website, and a gallery attendant on the day of this author’s visit, make it clear that the order of artworks described in this review is the order recommended by the artist. In a logistical rearrangement on the part of the venue, however, many viewers are guided to Free the Air prior to visiting the initial six rooms of galleries. The final installation room, in either trajectory, is Museo Aero Solar, but its positioning up an escalator makes it possible to miss. Saraceno’s works are easily compelling enough to stand outside of his exact intended ordering, but the subtle power of the luminous buildup is partially inverted in the rearranged viewing.
8. See, for two examples of more complex considerations of night, Pseudo-Dionysius and Saint John of the Cross.