The sky is no limit: Artist and eco-philosopher Tomás Saraceno pulls energy from thin air in Miami Beach

Emily McDermott

With his latest Aerocene Foundation project, the Berlin-based artist demonstrates how to power the planet sustainably


‘We’re all about air here,’ a member of Studio Tomás Saraceno says during a tour of the sprawling former factory complex in Rummelsberg, Berlin, that hosts the ecologically minded Argentinean artist’s wide-ranging practice. Two others within earshot nod in agreement. Later, Saraceno himself concurs and expands: ‘In all of our projects and processes, we’re focusing on the air. We try to understand and to preserve a medium which isn’t so well understood, even though so many lives depend on it.’

Air, and by extension the organisms it sustains, has been at the center of Saraceno’s art for more than a decade. He has represented it conceptually in series such as Flying Gardens, Air-Port-Cities, and Stillness in Motion ­­– Cloud Cities, a body of site-specific sculptures featuring clusters of geometric cells made of light-catching panels suspended on taut ropes. The largest are functional structures that invite viewers to climb through and envision life in a floating habitat with zero environmental impact. In addition to these aesthetic expressions, Saraceno has explored the science of air through research via his Aerocene Foundation, founded to establish what he terms ‘an ethical collaboration with the atmosphere.’ This week, on the beachfront in Miami and in partnership with the Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet, Saraceno and Aerocene are debuting a new project, Albedo, that combines the artist’s thematic interest in air with practical conservation applications. 

Tomás Saraceno in his studio in Rummelsberg, Berlin, 2018. Photo courtesy of Audemars Piguet.
Tomás Saraceno in his studio in Rummelsberg, Berlin, 2018. Photo courtesy of Audemars Piguet.

Albedo, meaning “whiteness” in Latin, is a multidisciplinary, participatory work featuring sculptures, performances, roundtable discussions, and food, all set within a temporary pavilion composed of 40 inverted umbrellas of various sizes. Seen from afar, the conglomeration appears to be a beautiful, hemispherical object, but it is functional, too: each umbrella is made of a special fabric, black on the outside, silver on the inside, designed to harness and reflect the sun’s energy. Many of the handles can also be replaced with a simple metal stand that supports a pot. By concentrating the sunlight, the umbrellas produce enough heat to cook the pot’s contents – a perfect example of how a household object can be easily transformed to eliminate the need for gas or electricity in the kitchen. In Miami, Saraceno invites the public to join the local culinary incubator Wynwood Yard for a rotating menu of solar-cooked foods every day, December 5–9, from 11am to 1pm.

‘The sun is so strong with climate change and global warming, and this project can help us redirect the weather dependency of human beings in a way that also helps end our dependence on fossil fuel,’ Saraceno explains. ‘We’re being very ingenious with things people have at home, and we put all of the instructions online. It’s not about marketing a product or people buying it; you can do it with your own umbrella.’

Installation view of Saraceno's exhibition 'On Air', at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris through January 6, 2019. Photo courtesy of Photography Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2018.
Installation view of Saraceno's exhibition 'On Air', at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris through January 6, 2019. Photo courtesy of Photography Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2018.

In this way, Albedo carries out Aerocene’s mission, which seeks to foster a democratic reclamation of the air through devices such as the Aerocene Explorer, a billowing, balloon-like apparatus that inflates with air and floats using only solar energy and earth’s infrared radiation. In 2015, an Explore rmade history when it hosted the first fossil-fuel-free human flight. Now, at select locations around the world, people can borrow a backpack that contains an Explorer or access instructions to make one themselves. Albedo extends this ethos, powering an Explorer that will be used for daily performances and a backpack borrowing station, open daily from 12–4pm.

Saraceno, who has studied at NASA and has been an artist in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 2012, becomes animated discussing the possibilities for solar cooking and fuel-less flight. ‘Maybe this is what the future will be,’ he says. ‘Although [my work] is much less about an escapist idea of a new tech fix [and] much more about really trying to understand the atmosphere with people who might not have access to certain technological infrastructures.’ It is important to him that in spite of the large amount of scientific research and technical experimentation – carried out by his studio and Aerocene’s combined staff of 50, plus external collaborators – that goes into creating these works, the final results ‘are very simple, anti-technology, and can reach the hands of many people.’

Saraceno designed the Aerocene Explorer as an open-source flight device that requires no fossil fuels or gases. Photo courtesy of Audemars Piguet.
Saraceno designed the Aerocene Explorer as an open-source flight device that requires no fossil fuels or gases. Photo courtesy of Audemars Piguet.

While Aerocene may be Saraceno’s most enterprising outlet, the artist ­– who studied art and architecture in Buenos Aires, Frankfurt, and Venice ­– brings the same sense of communality and wonder to the delicate sculptures and installations in his current exhibition ‘On Air’, on view at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris through January 6, 2019. ‘From the beginning [of the exhibition], you feel you are part of something,’ Saraceno says. ‘It very quickly calls you to this cosmic scale.’

In ‘On Air’, his largest institutional show yet, Saraceno employs spiders and their webs as a poignant metaphor. Alongside installations like Algor(h)i(y)thm (2018), which seemingly magnifies spiderwebs to an immersive size, the artist is relying on the contributions of more than 400 arachnid species found within the museum to complete his concept. The spider and its web – a form of protection from the outside world – become a microcosm of life on Earth. ‘You see that the universe has been woven by people or spiders or species to keep galaxies out of their homes,’ Saraceno says. ‘But we’re trying to decentralize the perspective of the human and to really enter into another mode of sensitivity and a caring relationship with the universe.’

Installation view of 'On Air' at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Photo by Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2018.
Installation view of 'On Air' at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Photo by Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2018.

No matter the final shape, Saraceno’s art redirects our attention away from our own narrow line of sight to a larger, more transcendent field of vision with multiple perspectives. Through his interactive works, the artist leads viewers into another universe, one in which they are encouraged to actively imagine new and alternative futures – futures in the air, futures that consider life beyond the present, futures without fossil fuels. As Saraceno likes to say, ‘There are no passengers of Spaceship Earth; we are all pilots.’

Albedo, supported by Audemars Piguet, debuts on December 5 on the Oceanfront across from Collins Park in Miami Beach and is on view through December 9. Find out more here.

Top image: an Aerocene Explorer sculpture and flight device developed by Tomás Saraceno. Photo courtesy of Audemars Piguet.