Twin Utopias at the CAC Lobby: On Tomás Saraceno and Zaha Hadid

June 25th, 2016  |  Published in *, June 2016

Last year, when the Contemporary Art Center refurbished its lobby, it seemed to also be changing its identity. Vanished was the vision the center’s architect, the late Zaha Hadid, had realized: minimalist abstraction was traded for comfy chaos. Now, members of the city’s creative class could bond over the mana of overpriced cortados and the miracle of decent wifi. But of course the real shift the CAC was trying to show was an emphasis on inclusivity and community, something Hadid’s controversial legacy has struggled with despite it being the fulcrum of her artistic vision. While her intentions may have been to wed the intimate and the public, many of her imagined projects seem to imply a cold elitism the art world knows only too well. Maybe the Center thought that about the old lobby. With this new look, they suggested, Hadid’s utopic trophy would be closer to being realized. Some might feel the makeover remedied the problem, some that it exacerbated it, and others that it made a new one (of course, most would admit they never saw the renovation as posing any kind of social or aesthetic crisis in the first place).

Now, with the installation of Tomás Saraceno’s new set of sculptures, “Solar Bell,” the lobby will strain to accommodate two urban fantasies. Saraceno’s pieces, which will hang suspended by wire over café tables and carpet until next summer, take the shape of tetrahedral kites the artist has made using lightweight carbon fiber tubing and solar panels. Influenced by Alexander Graham Bell’s foray into manned aviation, the gist of “Solar Bell” is that, lifted by the wind, its panels would act as sails to buoy public spaces—plazas, observation decks, even cities that suffer from overpopulation. Despite the fact that the sculpture is a feat of aerospace engineering—the artist has held residences at NASA and MIT—a kind of subtext exists within the project, the fact that these floating paradises remain teasingly unrealized.

Even though the idea of airborne metropolises is tinged with a sad optimism, pretending is never futile. What it lacks in possibility, “Solar Bell” makes up for in ambition. Both conceptually and aesthetically, Saraceno’s giant mobile achieves an awe that seesaws between the childlike and the intellectual (this is true of the Center’s edifice itself, its oblique facades perfectly balancing monochrome hues with a strangely playful shape that recalls childhood toys—a Lego fortress or a misconfigured Rubik’s Cube). With a surface that looks like it’s been dipped in liquified mirror, the sculpture evokes both the eon of Egyptian pyramids and a shimmery futurism—one that trades the former era’s reliance on cruel slavery for an idealistic, participatory ethos that has dominated contemporary museums lately.

Saraceno’s kinetic installation brings a pinch of populism to the lobby; this is art that most can understand and everyone can enjoy. By fashioning reflective exteriors for the kites, everyone is implicated in and by the art. A child visiting with her family, a lonely freelancer; all bodies within close proximity can experience their presence rippling among the aircraft’s facets. As a shiny, social media friendly object, comparisons to Anish Kapoor’s “The Bean” or even Jeff Koons are perhaps inescapable. But Saraceno’s work—which includes a human sized, three-dimensional replica of a black widow’s web that mimics the cosmos—frequently demonstrates an inclination to implode our perceptions of space and time, a desire to rewrite or break the laws of gravity. Many of his projects also seem to belong in multiple categories—physics, aerodynamics, cosmology, biology, art. This willingness to embrace multiple fields is its own triumph.

Although this commission has been marketed as a collaboration between Hadid and Saraceno, any idea of co-authorship can likely be banished, as the starry-eyed “Solar Bell” does not exactly engage with Hadid’s starchitecture as well as it could. Still, these twin utopias are perhaps compatible. Both Saraceno and Hadid seem to envision a community where social interactions are fluid, mixing economic classes and cultures (it is ironic, then, that Saraceno’s artist talk was open only to paying members of the Center). After the lobby revamp, the exhibit can be seen as a welcome aura of wonder whisked into a shroud of normalcy. Make no mistake: these sculptures deserve to be seen by everyone. They are talismans of hope and radical imagination, future souvenirs from a world that may someday exist.

An online video from a couple years ago shows a team of men, including Saraceno, readying one of the kites in an industrial field in Maasvlakte, a Dutch harbor. The field itself could not be closer to ordinary: a drab stretch of taupe beneath an overcast sky. But as the group carries the kite, it undulates, its solar panels glinting like iridescent scales. One can see why Saraceno has devoted his career, maybe even his life, to projects like this around the minute-mark. It’s then that they hoist the pyramid’s frame skyward. The last man’s hand lets go, and the kite surrenders to the wind, taking flight. It soars.

—Zack Hatfield


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