May 25, 2023
Tomás Saraceno: Web(s) of Life; Tate Britain rehang review
Serpentine Gallery; Tate Britain, London The Argentinian artist’s captivating
Serpentine Gallery; Tate Britain, LondonThe Argentinian artist's captivating work is at once an urgent call to action and irresistibly optimistic. At Tate Britain, a long-awaited rehang dazzles – and sometimes dismays
To reveal what happens inside Tom ás Saraceno's new show for the Serpentine Gallery is hardly a spoiler. Nothing could lessen the impact. In galleries of pitch darkness, spotlights pick out an unfolding sequence of ethereal silver visions, all of them apparently floating in midair.
One spreads like the Milky Way – points of light gathering in cosmic drifts. Another hovers like spectral morning mist. A third has a gleaming upright disc at its centre, woven of what seems to be the most exiguous gauze of metal threads, held in place by barely visible guy lines.
They appear to be drawings in thin air; and yet they are also sculptures – silk structures so tremulous and fine they shiver in the circumambient air. To learn how they are made (and who made them) is still to know nothing at all of the mysterious workings of the artists themselves – none other than several rare species of spider.
Saraceno is the great spider man of contemporary art. Born in Argentina in 1973, he trained first as an architect, and one senses his profound appreciation of the way spiders create buildings as works of art. So much so that he has not boxed in their structures. There is no glass. Whisper ever so slightly and these webs move with your breath. The wonder they engender is exactly what stops you from reaching out to touch.
These spiders, who create such beauty, have very poor sight. They do not hear as we do either. Visitors can sit in a repurposed confessional box staring closely at a spectacular web that hangs where the priest would usually sit; through the wooden seat run occasional tremors. This is roughly what the spider senses of the world as it works. Saraceno's marvellous installation is a form of synaesthesia as homage: you witness the web while experiencing intermittent vibrations and blinking through a filigree grille.
A riveting film, in another gallery, shows the spider diviners of western Cameroon at work with clay pots and cards made of distinctively incised leaves. These cards are effectively the answers to vital questions asked by local people (or perhaps even by you too, now that Saraceno has built the diviners a website through which you can correspond). The spiders move the cards to give their wisdom. It feels as strange and mythical as the Oracle at Delphi.
By now, having surrendered your mobile phone on entry to some charming artists who return it with a divination card on exit, you will have realised that webs are a metaphor for the way Saraceno works. The spiders have answers that no phone can give; no phone can capture the magical webs. And phones involve batteries that require lithium, subject of another of Saraceno's art campaigns, and of a beautifully shot film screening in the central rotunda.
This concerns the Indigenous communities of Jujuy in Argentina who are fighting for the preservation of vital land and water threatened by the relentless mining for lithium to supply our wretched batteries. The narrative of words, images, protests and interviews is deeply absorbing. And, not incidentally, you will also see a flotilla of black balloons (sculptures, too, in their way) that are powered to fly across the sparkling white salt flats of Jujuy using solar energy. These are another of Saraceno's attempts to find a way, as he puts it, "to levitate without any violence to the earth". His flight in 2020 broke 32 records and was then the longest fossil-free flight in history.
One side of the Serpentine Gallery is entirely open to the green landscape outside. Animals of all sorts are welcome (there is a ladder for squirrels, a house for birds, welcoming sculptures of dogs, deer and hedgehogs). Children have their own secret gallery. The roof is laid with solar panels to supply energy. Pedal the bicycles outside and you power up the voices of Jujuy on headphones.
Saraceno's work is as delicate and involving as the webs he displays. Artist, scientist, activist, philosopher, inventor, composer, he is a Renaissance mind for the 21st century. And what is so striking about this captivating exhibition, in all its generosity, is that Saraceno believes that everyone else is as curious and optimistic as he is: that art can have active agency.
It is 10 years since Tate Britain last reorganised its collection, a decade so turbulent even art institutions could not remain heedless. The new rehang embraces many more women and artists of colour, introduces much more historical context about patronage, society, race, class and politics, and stints (mercifully) on Bacon, Hockney, Freud et al, who scarcely need further enlargement. There are sufficient new names, overdue revivals and close-focus galleries – an electrifying William Blake, a fascinating room of one's own devoted to Woolf-era women – as to educate the mind and eye and renew the experience.
The faults are many and obvious. Above all, this rehang treats artworks as documents. An 18th-century tea party allows for sermonising on tea (imperialism), sugar (slavery) and servants (oppressed), but the picture itself is atrocious. George Stubbs and Samuel Palmer are told off for ignoring rural conditions in their spellbinding harvests and twilights. Annie Swynnerton gets a whole room for her cloyingly awful art because she was a suffragist who painted Millicent Fawcett.
And for a rehang more interested in history than art, it's oddly erratic. Thin on the English civil war, say; Waterloo, the welfare state, LGBTQ+ rights. As for the spelling: Magna Carter?
But the Duveen Galleries are terrific: Vong Phaophanit's 1993 neon rice field in its mysterious glowing dunes; Rachel Whiteread's mind-splitting cast of a double staircase, labyrinthine and vertiginous; Susan Hiller's reprise of the walls of sudden and heroic deaths from London's Postman's Park.
The rooms are jewel-coloured and densely hung. All the old favourites remain – Turner, Gainsborough, Constable, the pre-Raphaelites – alongside sharp recent purchases: the haunting interiors of Iraqi painter Mohammed Sami; Zineb Sedira's superbly wry films (early hit of the last Venice Biennale); Lydia Ourahmane's haunting oil barrel installation – the first artwork legally to leave Algeria since it gained independence in 1962, with its redolent scent and its ghostly inner music, which finally reached here in 2014.
It will all change again – and quite possibly should, in much less than a decade this time. Some of the texts will have dated by then, some of the biases faded. But in the meantime, this rehang opens its arms to the present. The art can hold its own against the preaching any day, after all. Just look more and read less.
Star ratings (out of five)Tomás Saraceno: Web(s) of Life ★★★★★
Tomás Saraceno: Web(s) of Life is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, until 10 SeptemberSerpentine Gallery; Tate Britain, London Tom ás Saraceno Tate Britain ★★★★★