“Beginnings are apt to be shadowy,” writes Rachel Carson in her visionary book of the sea and its lifeworlds, The Sea Around Us. Like Carson, who breathed poetry into science, artist Tomás Saraceno bends science with the phantom hand of art. It’s fitting, as I wait with others at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) for Saraceno’s exhibition Oceans of Air, that the artist invites us into the show with words that echo Carson’s: “It’s very dark… be careful… walk slowly.”
I tread cautiously along the dusky passageway and, before my eyes have time to adjust, turn a corner into the first room. A stream of light cuts across the space at about eye-height, sculpting floating particles of dust to form a kind of starlike mirage. The light beams from its source at one end of the room and gathers into a moonlike sphere, flat against the black wall at the other end. Although the little moon is right there, my impressions of Particular Matter(s) (2021) are only partially of the astral. The dust softening the light casts the whole room into a submarine gloom.
This first artwork is not just visual but visceral. I see and breathe Particular Matter(s): I swallow this particulate dust, it enters my lungs. In those first moments I fall for the poetics of this gesture, how Saraceno attends to the ecology of the gallery. Its dust is rarely thought of except, I imagine, by cleaners and conservationists who do the work of managing the relationship between art, dust and the space.
But as I read the materials list for Particular Matter(s), I’m disenchanted by its literalness. It doesn’t only evoke a connection between stars and dust: it contains actual cosmic dust, along with PM2.5 (particulate matter), stellar wind, air movement, kinaesthetic feedback and sonic waves. There is a tension between the poetics of gesture and the literalness of the work, the directness or urgency of its “message”.
Saraceno is an Argentinian-born and Berlin-based artist whose work aspires to an ethical collaboration with the atmosphere in the Capitalocene era – a term that names capitalism as the primary proponent of environmental catastrophe. In a general sense, he’s an artist who wants to draw attention to things that supposedly have gone unnoticed. For the current time, he might better be thought of as an artist concerned with restoring some kind of attentiveness and ethics to our eroded perceptual capacity (hello, social media). His work consists of floating sculptures, most notably his fully solar-powered hot air balloons, and international collaboration and community-building, such as his Aerocene Foundation.
In another room, overhead light permeates the atmosphere so it’s easier to see We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air (2022), which hangs on the wall. An iteration of work that has been ongoing since 2018, We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air uses long strips of paper tape that are marked with dots of varying gradients of colour. These strips are arranged horizontally and presented in frames, one for each of the Australian states. They are produced by beta attenuation mass monitors, which measure pollution over time by sucking air through the filter tape, which catches particulate matter. Tasmania’s air creates the lightest-coloured dots, while in Western Australia the air has dots in hues of red.
For legal reasons, the company that made the strips for Saraceno is not able to divulge the exact location of where the air pollution was measured. The red is highly unusual, Saraceno tells us. For me, the red conjures images of the colossal pits of iron ore mines in WA. Even though purity is an ideal loaded with value judgements and assumptions about the world, these dots are a grim reminder of the ecological degradation that is typically invisible to the eye.
Importantly, We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air moves beyond a universalist framework of climate change. The work alludes to the asymmetrical experience of petro-capitalism. Environmental catastrophe does not affect us all equally. The air we breathe is determined by socioeconomic and geographical factors. This work is the most indicative of Saraceno’s engagement with the notion of the Capitalocene.
Evoking the politics of pollution, Saraceno leads us to consider other absent presences around We Do Not All Breathe the Same Air. It invites us to think about extractive industries elsewhere. I walk towards the next room thinking of mining on Indigenous lands, the abhorrent conditions in which Congolese people mine the red earth for cobalt to be used by wealthy countries in lithium batteries, and ecological imperialism. I think these are the kind of connections Saraceno wants us to make, even if he doesn’t make them himself.
His work often balances on the border between the compelling and the merely compulsive. The amount of information Saraceno is trying to convey in his research-heavy practice causes the visually spectacular works to lose some of their immediacy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s a mediation that requires a viewer to take a step towards their own implication in networks of extraction and consumption.
Oceans of Air isn’t only concerned with air (pollution). In the next room, beautiful spiderwebs are encased in large glass display cases. Webs of At-tent(s)ion (2018) consists of webs that have been woven by social spiders. Saraceno provides a metal frame, the spiders come and go and do their thing, and later the intricate tangles of web are placed inside glass cabinets. The web is an easy, almost too-heavy analogy for Saraceno’s practice, which constantly looks for and makes connections between things, though the exhibition themes of air (pollution) and arachnids seem more adjacent than entwined. The webs’ glass housing seems all too like a museum or a zoo, except that it is not the spiders or their husks that are on display but their life’s work. Instead of being drawn to think about the intentionality or creativity of the absent spiders, I leave the space thinking about the ways that perspective and experience are culturally constructed, the museum or the zoo being both manufactured ways of encountering the natural world. Just as the air we breathe is not all the same, neither is the way we see and experience things. Here the museum or the gallery loads the spiderwebs with “value”.
Carson bookends my experience of Oceans of Air. Towards the conclusion of the exhibition’s shadows and webs is Silent Spring 18052021 (2022), a series of four frames with black metal shutters across which is distributed a flattened garland of pressed red poppies. The shutters, Saraceno tells me, are like lens shutters, a reference to the former Agfa factory in Berlin (now his studio) where the poppies were grown and picked. Saraceno uses the title of Carson’s seminal 1962 book Silent Spring to allude to the soil around his studio, which is still contaminated by the chemicals used by Agfa.
I ask MONA’s senior curator Emma Pike if this is also a reference to the opium poppies farmed in Tasmania. Not directly, she tells me, but it need not be, as with much of Saraceno’s work the connection is there if you want to make it.
Saraceno’s work doesn’t reach the level of Carson’s, who is, after all, one of the forerunners of ecological art and literature. He’s not drawing our attention to unknown knowledge or offering a way out of our current ecological crisis. The significance of his work is that it opts for directness without forgoing beauty, reminding us that we’re never outside the messiness or the glossiness of the Capitalocene. With Saraceno, there is none of the moralising that often accompanies eco-critical work; instead he openly negotiates the relations between people and pollution.
Pollution, however unevenly distributed, is who we are – it’s an ecological extension of our interconnected lives, our patterns of consumption, our ways of inhabiting the world; it is both a form and a product of colonialism. Saraceno wants us to imagine that there is another way to do all of this, but stops short of saying that the only way out of the Capitalocene is to abolish capitalism and colonialism. His work provokes viewers to look at ecological and atmospheric miniature from a place of comfort, acting more as a reprieve from ecological trauma rather than mobilising against its perpetuation.
Oceans of Air by Tomás Saraceno is at MONA, Hobart, until July 24.
VISUAL ART Beating about the Bush
Art Gallery of Ballarat, until February 19
MULTIMEDIA Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon
The Cutaway, Sydney, until March 7
CABARET Jamie Mykaela: FLOOZY
State Theatre Centre of WA, Perth, January 23-28
EXHIBITION Treasures Gallery
National Library of Australia, Canberra, until April 30
VISUAL ART Courage and Beauty
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until June 25
EXHIBITION Nalini Malani: Gamepieces
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until January 22
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "The poetics of pollution".
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