“Tomás Saraceno: Solar Rhythms” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, installation view “Tomás Saraceno: Solar Rhythms” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, installation view (all images courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York)

The centerpiece (in my opinion) of Argentine sculptor Tomás Saraceno’s enthralling exhibition, Solar Rhythms at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, is not in the center at all but instead in the upstairs project room: two black-and-white HD videos, shown consecutively. Both are quite short, stark, lush, and mesmerizing. Both involve exceedingly unorthodox sculptures — inflatable, lighter than air solar sculptures—flying in far-flung places: the Salinas Grandes salt flat in Argentina and White Sands, New Mexico.

These sculptures are the fruits of Saraceno’s ongoing, collaborative, and interdisciplinary Aerocene project, dedicated to fostering, according to its website, “atmospheric and ecological consciousness,” in part by developing flying sculptures that don’t burn fossil fuels, and don’t require rare gases like helium or hydrogen. There is a visionary streak in Saraceno’s art, which posits an ethos in which we are connected with the air, not blithe polluters of it, and respectful of the sun, harnessing its awesome power for beneficial purposes, in this case, to fly.

Tomás Saraceno, “
Diving into the Ocean of Air” (2016), film still from 
single-channel HD video, color, sound
; duration: 6 minutes, 41 seconds
; edition of 3, 1 AP

Roughly pillow-shaped when inflated, Saraceno’s Aerocene Explorer solar sculptures (which commenced in 2016, an example is exhibited downstairs) fit in a backpack and are used by individuals for sundry purposes, for instance outfitted with a sensor or camera, or simply to experience a direct personal connection with the sun and atmosphere. Users can also share their photographs and information on the Aerocene website. Remarkably, Saraceno’s large Aerocene sculptures, again without a carbon footprint, are capable of carrying a person, propelled by the sun and infrared radiation reflected off the ground.

The sites in New Mexico and Argentina are gorgeous and sublime, yet also emblematic of our anthropocentric disregard for, and exploitation of, nature. White Sands is a natural wonder, featuring miles and miles of white gypsum sand dunes. Home to a huge U.S. military base, it is where the first nuclear bomb test (given — amazingly — the code name Trinity) was conducted in 1945.

The Salinas Grandes, a vast salt flat, is another natural wonder, and it has recently become a prime site for the rampant extraction of lithium, used for lithium-ion batteries, an essential component in high tech gear like smart phones, computers, and electric cars. This is all occurring with predictably dire consequences for the indigenous people, the Atacama, living on their ancestral lands. International companies are exploiting a local resource, ravaging the already scarce water supply, and making gobs of money, with impoverished indigenous communities receiving a pittance, at best.

“Tomás Saraceno: Solar Rhythms” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, installation view

Enter the research-based (frequently collaborating with scientists and engineers, including those at MIT) yet very poetic Saraceno. In the video that was shot in New Mexico (“Aerocene, launches at White Sands, NM, United States,” 2016), a buoyant Team Saraceno arrives at sunrise to inflate (via a stationary bicycle) a majestic, partially black hot air balloon.

It looks absolutely stunning in this landscape, fragile yet powerful, forthright yet mysterious, with the sun glinting off its curving surface. A woman is strapped into a harness beneath the inflated sculpture and carried aloft; she looks peaceful and ecstatic up there, a person merging with the air, at home in the sky, temporarily freed from gravity. The sculpture’s shape also loosely suggests that of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion. In effect, Saraceno replaced a devastating weapon with a lovely flying sculpture signaling human harmony with the sun, wind, and sand. He also managed to set two world records, for the first and longest solely solar flight by a lighter than air vehicle.

In “Diving into the Ocean of Air” (2017), shot from on high in Argentina, you see tiny people way, way below on the salt flat. Eight black Aerocene Explorer sculptures, controlled by the people on the ground with long ropes, move slowly overhead. They are a non-military squadron, a mobile installation, a solemn ceremony in the air. They highlight the rugged beauty of the expansive landscape while also bearing witness, you sense, to its exploitation. Both videos document ephemeral actions but they go way beyond that to become entrancing artworks on their own, marked by austere yet splendid imagery merging sculptures, people, the land, sun, and sky.

These two videos set the stage for Saraceno’s elemental, oftentimes transparent, or partially transparent, sculptures made of such materials as hand-blown glass, crystal spheres, Mylar, fishing line, polyester rope, powder-coated stainless steel, carbon fiber, and, in one memorable instance, spider silk, among others. Many of these modestly scaled hanging sculptures seem to be levitating at different heights, and the effect is magical. You are immersed in a floating, ever shifting landscape which also seems celestial; depending on your sightline, multiple elements are constantly converging and interacting. This is likely the most aerial show of sculptures I’ve ever seen: the air is both a sculptural site and an essential art material, although one not noted on the checklist.

“Tomás Saraceno: Solar Rhythms” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, installation view

Downstairs (the exhibition encompasses both floors of the gallery) are two large, inflated Mylar orbs in the middle of the space (“Aerocene Constellation 3/2,” 2018). Half of each is transparent, and the other half metalized, silvery, and reflective; one orb nestles on the floor, connected to an inflating pump, and the other hovers a bit above. You look at these orbs, but also into, through, and beyond them, and it is easy to be transfixed. They conjure giant-sized bubbles but also twin moons or double planets; Saraceno’s sculptures often conflate the earthly and the cosmic. These two orbs also function as indoor models of his solar vehicles.

In “Calder Upside Down 35/20/18/12/10/8/6” (2018) — Alexander Calder, with his mobiles, being an important influence on Saraceno — seven differently sized crystal spheres are tethered by a bit of rope to a rock upon the floor and attached to the ceiling by almost invisible fishing line. In “Aerosolar Lyra” (2017), three transparent crystal spheres seemingly hover in a net of polyester rope and fishing line, with a larger sphere in the middle and two smaller ones above and below it. In “Solar eclipse” (2018), a small, highly reflective crystal sphere dangles above a concave glass disc suspended by three thin pieces of polyester rope and fishing line. All three works are intimate and minimalist, but also implicitly vast, fashioned meticulously in the studio but with an eye toward the universe.

These and other sculptures cast bewitching shadows on the walls, making the basic architecture seem downright wondrous. As you move through the space, your own shadow blends with the others to become part of this panoramic landscape/invented cosmos.

Tomás Saraceno, “Aeolus 57.91” (2018), 
crystal glass, 
17 x 9 x 11 inches

Prior to this exhibition, I did not know that some so-called “ballooning” spiders climb very high, turn on their backs, release gossamer threads from their abdomens, which form parachutes of sorts, and launch themselves into the air, traveling on air currents sometimes a few yards, sometimes hundreds of miles. Saraceno has learned a lot from spiders. He’s making sculptures that also travel on air currents. Maybe one day his sculptures can be used by travelers to navigate considerable distances, even to cross restricted borders or to escape difficult political and economic circumstances, all without damaging the environment an iota.

“Sounding the Air” (2018) alludes to the remarkable natural phenomenon of ballooning. In the darkened back room, spider silk woven into strands (and I have no idea exactly how Saraceno achieved this) forms a delicate and fluctuating wavelength-shaped, horizontal band illuminated by three small spotlights. As this visible wavelength drifts and shifts, shudders and bends, responding to air currents in the room, a video camera transmits images to an audio interface that translates motion into sound — you hear a rhythmic drone, high-pitched sustained notes, and louder low tones that sound like something from deep underwater or outer space. Gazing at this wispy, gleaming spider silk sculpture, while listening to the chaotic yet captivating music, is deeply contemplative, even reverential. It’s like church, without the religion.

Glass abounds in this exhibition, and while it is a new material for Saraceno, it makes perfect sense, given his interest in air, heat, land, the environment, transparency and transformation. Often identified with domestic objects and exquisite crafts, glass is actually nature-based to the extreme, involving sand (created through erosion over hundreds of millions of years), gypsum, intense heat, cooling, and air, especially in terms of breath and lung power. Working with glass involves working with primal forces and materials, and that’s essential territory for Saraceno. Glass is also exceptionally protean. It can assume any shape, become almost anything. That’s prime territory as well for the transformation-minded Saraceno.

“Tomás Saraceno: Solar Rhythms” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, installation view

Upstairs, resting on a long, rectangular white plinth, or dangling a bit above it, are seven of Saraceno’s small Aeolus sculptures (all 2018), made of hand-blown glass. Each is a unique, irregular, and sometimes ungainly shape, with bulges and bubbles, but each is also sensual and resplendent. While these are hand-made sculptures, they also seem organic, or partially so. You’re reminded of soap bubbles and sea foam, meteor rocks and cloud structures, although I doubt Saraceno set out to mimic or represent specific natural forms. In this particular space, beneath the skylight, these glass sculptures form an enchanting constellation, and while heavily material, they also seem ethereal, almost dissolving in the space.

Saraceno, one surmises, is not only smart, but scary smart — delving into deep research in many fields, including physics, aeronautics, architecture, biology, and cosmology; collaborating with experts; and channeling his discoveries and ideas into alluring sculptures. He has a distinctive way of fusing his ideas and knowledge with materials and objects; his thought-filled sculptures are riveting physical and visual forces. You don’t want to just look at them, but instead to be with them, maybe for a long time, absorbing their quiet powers, and doing so with wonder. Saraceno deals in inquiry and challenge, probing our place in the world and in the cosmos, our relationship with nature, and the dire consequences of global warming, while imagining a post-fossil fuel world and how we might function in it. He also deals in pleasure and delight.

Tomás Saraceno: Solar Rhythms continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street) through June 9.

Gregory Volk is a New York-based art critic, freelance curator, and associate professor in the Department of Sculpture + Extended Media and the Department of Painting + Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth...