- Alexandra Vydrina
Что такое вечность — это банька.
Вечность — это банька с пауками.
Если эту баньку позабудет Манька.
Что же будет с Родиной и с нами.1
We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! <…> Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is?
– Can it be you can imagine nothing juster and more comforting than that?” Raskolnikov cried, with a feeling of anguish.
Crime and Punishment (p. 221)
Eternity may well be a black room inhabited by spiders. This is at least what Svidrigailov, that virtuoso swooper suggests to Raskolnikov, trying to find an accomplice for his cynical despair. Without much surprise, and in line with Svidrigailov’s intentions, the perspective of being timelessly stuck in a grimy dark bath house with spiders as only company does not fill Raskolnikov with much enthusiasm.
Differently from Raskolnikov, though, Tomás Saraceno, the author of the Palais de Tokyo exhibition this autumn, rather than hopelessly isolating, may find the situation of such an extended exposure to spiders as inspiring and nourishing for the mind. Through his ingenuity, the spider web is revealed to us as a valuable deposition of solidified thought ready to disclose its richness to the human. To trans-code the spider’s saliva into the signals within the human range of perception it suffices to mobilize the right equipment such as audio and visual sensors connected to screens and microphones. It is true though, that to set these mechanisms in motion one cannot do without the brilliant audacity of Saraceno’s studio: to make the spider webs speak, this equipment needs to be handled with the appropriate amount of psychotic open-mindedness and uninhibited lucidity.
Conquered by the genius of hi-tech and contemporary art, the atheistic nightmare with which Svidrigailov wants to contaminate Raskolnikov loses its stifling power. If the small dark bath house is a home to spider-webs, it therefore encloses an infinite vastness of significance. As there is no true solitude in front of a library’s wall laden with books or in an art gallery, one is no more alone in a room when its corners are entangled with cobwebs, potential partners in a dialogue.
Air and Colours
The black room with the spider webs (not hidden in the corners as Svidrigailov imagined them, but suspended at the height of visitor’s heads and beautifully lighted from below) is the first part of the track entitled “ON AIR”, that Tomás Saraceno made with his team through Palais de Tokyo. In this narrative about air, various dust- and rubbish-like particles and materials, all lighter than air, and therefore making part of it, are there to speak as its representatives. The trajectory is shaped in four general areas: the black, the white, the pearly grey, rounded off with an explosion of color in the end.
In the first black area, the spider webs inhabit the carcasses of cubes suspended at the height of the human sight. The visitors adopt the rhythm of the cobwebs that float in the machine-generated wind, moving cautiously in the darkness, and they take even more advantage of the lighting than the exhibits on display.
The story of this room is about the perception that becomes tangible and visible. It shows the solidity of watching, the gaze as movement that leaves behind tangible traces. The cords of the web seem to softly touch people’s faces while perceiving them. The eyes-tentacles, the cordlike organs of perception venture far outside of the secure chitin confines of the spider’s body. The spider can see through his outward touching and by doing so he leaves a trace in the form of the cord. The cord is projected by spitting into the void and stops the moment it hits and obstacle: another cord, a wall, a fly. Seeing is therefore solidified, it is a visible accomplishment.
The ultimate objects of representation, though, are not the dust-saturated spider webs enclosed in the cubes. These transparent three-dimensional cloud-paintings are rather a medium to display people’s faces, extracted from darkness when they approach them for closer contemplation. The gaze of the eyes on the starkly lit faces is intense and slow. The spider webs scrutinize us in return, and our gaze is absorbed in theirs but fails to capture it, sieving desperately through.
Due to the transparency of the objects on display (sparse agglomerations of cobweb enclosed in metallic cube-shaped frames), the observers find themselves converted into exhibited images. In this art exhibition there is neither the reassuring gloss of the painted canvass, nor the shining solidity of the marble to host the spectator’s gaze. The latter slowly penetrates the cobweb and reverberates on the face of another observer who happens to be on the opposite side, the face picturesquely lit by the lamp from below. You look at your reflection in an imperfect, partly opaque mirror seeing a face equally immersed in watching. The web cloud creates a distance between you and your alienated reflection, but it also ties the reflection to you, being the common non-object of contemplation, a shared failure of capturing by the view.
The tangled tissue of the cobweb shows the spectators to each other and avoids disclosing itself. The eye searches in vain for a regular structure to dwell on. A convex or a concave surface, a line of the cord accompanies for a while your gaze engaged in exploration, but in the end, any hypothesis of regularity and meaningfulness always proves wrong. The onlooker is obliged either to endlessly continue the search or to desist from further questioning in slight frustration. The latter can only partly be assuaged by capturing the elusive image with the iphone, a gesture activated at regular intervals by the self-preservation reflex of the interpretative mechanism that struggles in vain produce a synthesis.
The spider who created the webs in the neglected areas of Palais de Tokyo are dead, but their coagulated perception is now celebrated in one of the biggest exhibition spaces. It now generates images and activate faces in contemplation.
In the following room, the light and darkness ratio is reversed. Up to now, the white was stealthily emerging from the black in ghostly fragile cords. Here, it becomes the absolute blinding dominant, whereas the black has shrunk into thin lines and particles, gaining, though, in focus. The warmth of this room is almost suffocating, with the temperature reflecting the violent activity of the air. The energy of the air sets in motion pens attached to a balloons floating above. The ink in the pens comes from toxic pollution of Mumbai that here, in Palais de Tokyo makes it incomprehensible landscapes. On the walls are more portraits of these pollutions footprints, the negatives of the spiders webs.
The grey room is inhabited by the Tsiolkovsy-inspired constructions gently spinning under the ceiling. In this cosmic utopia, it is the turn of the metal to become lighter than air. The shimmering shapes echo the all-metal flying machines and the space elevator dreamed by Tsiolkovsky. He inspired Saraceno’s projects of flying objects that will be shown in the following room. Here, the black and white have blended, and from this soft collision emanate music and light reflections.
As Gil Scott-Heron justly notes, the revolution will not be televized, and neither will be its more radical version, the apocalypse. There is a chance, though, that, after the things have settled down, there will be some visual coverage of the post-apocalyptic world. It will certainly have to be in color, because Aerocene, the “a new epoch of Earth’s planetary history” envisioned by Saraceno, has taken from the Anthropocene its most bright part – the logotypes of the trademarks.
So far, Aerocene is only an “interdisciplinary artistic endeavor”1, but we can have a glimpse of the afterworld by stepping inside the balloons made of used plastic bags. The Aerocene and its ecologically flying objects, “imagine a new infrastructure, which challenges and redefines an international right to mobility, reversing the extractive approach humans have developed toward the planet and re-examining freedom of movement between countries.”2 In the new Earth’s epoch , the apocalypse survivors (supposedly, mostly artists, philosophers and scientists) will be floating in the air that has no limits, thereby asserting the absence of boundaries and the unity of beings.
To my generation of second-world natives, the advent of Saraceno’s Aerocene has been foreshadowed by the respect bestowed on plastic bags in the households of our childhood. Our mothers and grandmothers, without necessarily being adepts of other aspects of postmodernism, reverently washed and rewashed the plastic bags that were then left to dry on the cast-iron radiators. This particular type of recycling of the poor has, once again, been recycled by art to find its noble place in the realm of Arte Povera.
The landfill landscape of Saraceno’s balloon is a bright but monotonous post-apocalyptic universe. It has, though, the merit of accessibility with a considerable potential of coziness. The hordes of plastic bags with their generous repetition of logotypes are the real homeland for our minds. It is the grid of our unconsciousness (its friendly part), common to beings from all continents. Lidl, Carrefour, Tati, Marlborough, and a multitude of other reassuringly familiar, instantly recognizable labels, will take, to the common relief, the place of other colors and shades, disorienting in their complexity.
What can be more comforting for a tourist doomed to wearily tread the pavements of a strange city than to find his temporary refuge in a supermarket, that harbor of familiarity? After hours of harassment by visual stimuli that, on some vague grounds, demand a reaction of fascination, a visit to a supermarket is an invigorating experience. Re-infused with energy, the passive foreigner becomes again ingenious and resourceful.
The conversion to a supermarket of Teatro di Italia on Srada Nuova in Venice, that “early twentieth-century Art Nouveau neo-Gothic gem”, was a welcome transformation. As promises the official website of the supermarket chain, “the elegant supermarket with its high ceilings and renovated frescoes, makes for a truly unique shopping experience”.3 Besides, this event, yet another act of the “ground rent of art” that, according to Wolfgang Scheppe, structures the life of Venice4 contributes to the optimization of art experience. Art is more digestible as a bonus to buying cornflakes for breakfast or plastic cups for a picnic.
In the recycled balloon of Saraceno, the art-commerce power-relationship shifts even further. The logotypes have conclusively taken the place of art objects; it is a museum that celebrates the colorfulness and the clarity of the generalized junkspace where the stanch and the death of a landfill is deleted as a distanced abstraction.
Here, you are encompassed by a joyful and colorful post-apocalyptic landscape. But the rustling of the plastic bears an undertone of anxiety: your are supposed to suffocate with a plastic bag around your head, aren’t you? No worries, this law, in vigor in the epoch of Anthropocene, is discarded in Aerocene: the end of the world is safely behind and you will not die again.
Maybe, Svidrigailov would be relieved to replace the image of the black stuffy bath house and its spiders with the airy gigantic balloon full of light, air and color; too bad that he shot himself.