Tomas Saraceno and the Environmental Art Movement

Sophia Lindstrom, Scarlet Staff

Within a giant, 17,000-square-foot courtyard in the Shed Art Gallery in New York City stands a balloon, 95 feet in diameter, encasing two large metal webs. Two mesh nets, one 48 feet and one 12 feet above the ground, appear to be suspended in the air. This metal, otherworldly series of sculptures is called “Free the Air” and is artist Tomas Saraceno’s latest creation. 

“Free the Air”, which runs from February 11th through April 17th, is more of a sensory experience than a traditional art gallery or exhibit. Forty-five people can be admitted at one time and remain in the room for eight minutes. During this period, they lie on the mesh nets while the lights are dimmed; with their vision reduced, they must rely on their senses of hearing and touch just as a spider would as recordings of dust and spider interactions play in the background. 

“The lights go down, and you become blind like a spider because the ones that build webs have poor vision,” Saraceno said. “And you feel the vibrations.”


Saraceno is not only an artist but a scientist as well. He has published scholarly research on both spiders and solar-powered balloons, both of which he is passionate about. According to the New York Times, Saraceno believes that these subjects “offer direct access to the mystery of the universe and provide an escape from anthropocentric, gravity-bound thinking.” 

While Saraceno lives in Germany today, he was born in Argentina. In 1975, his father was imprisoned for nine months due to a military takeover in the country. His family was forced to flee to the Italian countryside. It was during this time of turmoil that his inspiration for future artistic and scientific projects was born. “We occupied the second and third floors of a 500-year-old house with an attic full of spiders,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “You could see the light coming through the windows and dust in the air. The web is like an extension of the spider. It was something that captivated me.”

Saraceno is not the only artist employing an environmental, sensory-based focus to his work. Numerous other visual artists, many of whom produce work that falls under the environmental art movement, use similar methods to send a message to their audiences. Environmental art was pioneered by Light and Space artists Robert Irvin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler, all of whom played with sensory perception in their work. These artists utilize the environment around them and often their scientific studies to engage with public viewers through an experience. All of their artwork is centered around the question of how humanity may have to alter their routines and daily lives to adapt to a changing planet.  

Other environmental artists come from both near and far; their work spans the globe. Olafur Eliasson, one of Saraceno’s close friends, has produced works such as “The Weather Project” (2003) and “Algae Window” (2020). His most famous work, “The Weather Project”, is an experience in which viewers can experience all types of weather while still maintaining a sense of magic and whimsy. Like Saraceno, Eliasson’s studio is based in Berlin, Germany, and his work centers around the planet, particularly climate change. 

Closer to Clark University, the “Interspecies Assembly” (2021) sculpture series in Central Park by the group called SUPERFLEX is another example of environmental art. Founded in 1993 by Jakob Fenger, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, and Rasmus Rosengren Nielsen, SUPERFLEX works to envision a “new kind of urbanism” that prioritizes plants and animals rather than focusing on human beings. This is done through energy systems, sculptures, infrastructure, paintings, plant nurseries, contracts, public spaces, and even beverages and hypnosis sessions. They collaborate with gardeners, engineers, and audience members to make this happen, creating an interactive experience. 

“Interspecies Assembly”, based in Central Park, consists of a series of pink marble sculptures arranged in a circle to represent the brokenness and collapsing nature of biodiversity. Another project, “Hunga Tonga” (2019), is a film made about the Hunga Tonga island in the South Pacific Ocean. 

“Hunga Tonga invites the viewer to experience time like a volcanic island, an ancient microscopic organism, and the ocean,” the SUPERFLEX website explains. “As the island will tell you itself, nature is not static: there is no island outside of time.”

“Rain Room” (2012), another environmentally conscious work of art based around the viewer’s sensory experience, the viewer enters a room filled with pouring rain. However, their movement and general presence in the space affect the rainfall. The rain stops when a viewer enters a specific area, preventing them from getting wet. The work is done by Random International, an artistic duo of Hannes Koch and Orian Ortkrass who consistently mesh art and technology. 

According to the Random International website, Rain Room is meant to explore “how human relationships to each other and to nature are increasingly mediated through technology.” Rain Room has been shown in prestigious galleries in London, New York, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Melbourne, and Busan. 

In the case of Naziha Mestaoui’s work, “1 Heart 1 Tree” (2012), the visitors themselves can make a difference with the environment. This piece allows viewers to plant virtual trees with an app on their phone complete with a personalized message. The tree grows in sync with the participant’s heartbeat. As the virtual tree grows, a real tree is planted on one of five continents. 55,000 virtual trees have been planted since the project’s inception in 2012. 

Mestaoui, a Parisian artist, was inspired by a trip to the Amazon Rainforest. “I lived with a native tribe called Ashaninka,” she wrote. “And I was so amazed by the connection they have to the natural world, to this subtle reality made of material and immaterial and especially to trees, seen as carriers of wisdom.”

All of these new developments suggest a recent rise in environmentally conscious art rife with metaphorical messaging about climate change and our impact on the earth. In his most recent exhibit at the Neugerriemschneider gallery, Saraceno does just that with his work “Particular Matters” (2021). “Particular Matters” consists of a pitch-black room with only a beam of light to illuminate it and the dust-filled air that we breathe regularly. 

The air in the studio is filled with cosmic dust, human-made dust, and PM 2.5 particles, which mainly consist of black carbon emissions originating from burned fossil fuels. These emissions can be absorbed into the human lungs and bloodstream, as they measure 2.5 microns or less in diameter. Thus, the illuminated column of light in the room is filled with these sparkling specks of what seems to be just dust but are, in reality, a stark sign of our imprint upon the Earth. 

“Free the Air” runs at the Shed Gallery in New York City until April 17th, 2022.