Tomás Saraceno “How to entangle the universe in a spider web?” (detail), (2018) (courtesy the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles © photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2018)

FLORENCE, Italy — Tomás Saraceno wants us to notice spiders and their webs. He doesn’t want us to sweep them away, but instead look at them, for the spiders’ sake and our own. Set against a background of a near catastrophic global decline in the numbers of invertebrates (which include arthropods such as insects and arachnids), Saraceno’s new project “Arachnomancy” tries to draw attention to human beings’ dependence on these nonhuman lives and encourages us to stop killing and start learning instead.

As part of his major, and recently reopened, retrospective Tomás Saraceno – Aria at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Saraceno has created a series of installations in co-production with spiders, where arachnids are introduced to a metal frame in which they spin their extraordinary webs. The creatures are not removed from the sculptural objects, because, as a wall text explains, the web “can be considered an extension of the spider’s senses and even of its cognitive apparatus: The external world is perceived by the spider through the tensions and vibrations of its web.”

Tomás Saraceno “Webs of At-tent(s)ion” (2018) installation view at ON AIR, carte blanche exhibition of Tomás Saraceno, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2018 (courtesy the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin. © photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2018)
Tomás Saraceno “Arachnomancy Cards” (2019) (courtesy the Artist © photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2019)

The inextricability of spider and web offers a powerful metaphor regarding the impossibility of isolating any one element from an ecosystem — including human beings from our environments. Saraceno explores this symbolism throughout the Strozzi exhibition, using the interconnected, non-linear web as a structuring principle. Saraceno uses the phrase “spider/web” to encapsulate some of the ideas he associates with spiders’ woven homes, encompassing neural networks, the internet, and the centrality of the non-human.

Tomás Saraceno – Aria installation at Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze; (photograph ® Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio 2020)

Saraceno has also expanded the life of the exhibition beyond the fortified walls of the Strozzi, creating digital hubs via a website and an app, and encouraging visitors and non-visitors alike to engage with the project, regardless of their geographical location. The app, titled “Arachnomancy,” can be found on iOS and Android, and constitutes a digital extension of “Arachnomancy Cards,” a deck of 33 cards depicting varied webs designed as an instrument of meditation and divination. The app allows users anywhere to receive their own spider/web oracle reading. You are prompted to pick a card and then search for an existing spider’s web wherever you happen to be. After photographing it, you ask it a question, upon which the app conveys an oracle “reading.”

Tomás Saraceno “Arachnomancy Cards” (2019) (courtesy the artist © Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2019)

It’s an intriguing idea, encouraging users to become aware of the many nonhuman lives with which they share their homes, workplaces and streets — it’s amazing how many spider webs you find once you start looking. The app and the cards are both useless without the unpredictable, autonomous actions of spiders, again highlighting human dependence on nonhuman others.

Installation view of Tomás Saraceno – Aria at Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze (photograph ® Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio 2020)

The project gives something back to spiders too, as it’s part of a wider attempt by Saraceno to use mapping as a tool to combat species loss. Drawing on the idea of the “animal internet” — the collection of collaboratively generated, geotagged online data that scientists use to map various animal populations — the photos of webs uploaded to the Arachnomancy app will contribute to a greater understanding of the geographical distribution of different types of spiders. The location-based data will be added to a broader picture of spider populations, helping us to recognize, understand, and hopefully avoid patterns of extinction.

Installation view of Tomás Saraceno – Aria at Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze (photograph ® Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio 2020)

A closer look at the lives and creations of spiders reveals how completely ecologies are entangled and spaces are shared by our nonhuman companions. Arachnids, and the whole panoply of species on which they rely, are essential for our survival too. Using what Saraceno sees as “counter-cartographies,” the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition and its web of contingent projects helps visitors and distance participants alike recognize this essential entanglement, a recognition that is essential in an era of catastrophic species loss and climate breakdown.

Tomás Saraceno – Aria continues at Palazzo Strozzi (Piazza Degli Strozzi, Florence, Italy) through November 2020. The exhibition is curated by Arturo Galasino.

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Anna Souter

Anna Souter is an independent art writer and editor based in London. She is particularly interested in sculpture, women's art, and the environment.