Lost in Space

John Haber
in New York City

Tomás Saraceno, Tom Sachs, and Folly: Curtain

In an ideal world, artists would design entire cities. In an ideal world, art and habitation alike would comport with nature. In an ideal world, art would have anyone lost in the clouds.

In an ideal world, too, that would not take patience and timed tickets, not even for Tomás Saraceno. Cloud City atop the Met takes both, like all the coy theme parks of art today. At the Park Avenue Armory, Tom Sachs only makes things worse, by requiring "indoctrination" into the artist's self-absorbed fantasies. Do not cut class quite so quickly, though, when it comes to Saraceno. His dreams echo in other urban visions and follies, in Socrates Sculpture Park. Besides, like all of Modernism's utopias, he is not altogether dreaming. Tomas Saraceno's Cloud City (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012)

Lost in the clouds

Tomás Saraceno was hard at work one fine spring day, bolting together sixteen polyhedra into a single fifty-four foot structure. Photos show him resting within a chamber, contemplating Central Park—and his handiwork. One can circulate it from below, looking up at scattered reflections and visitors within. The industrial parts include mirrored, transparent, and missing faces, with the minor challenge of deciding is which. They include black rope, which probably does not contribute to the work's stability, but no matter: it surely should.

One can also wait one's turn (weather permitting) to ascend twenty feet above the rooftop café. For all the work's multiplicity, one follows a strict path up, from chamber to chamber, and another back down. Oddly enough, the mazes and playgrounds of South American "relational esthetics" tend to run in one dimension, as for Hélio Oiticica or Thomas Hirschhorn. Conversely, the shapes lack the modularity and symmetry of an obvious point of reference, Buckminster Fuller. They also cease to evolve after opening day, unlike the Met's 2010 summer sculpture by Doug and Mike Starn. Their painstakingly bound bamboo leaned more toward the Romantic sublime—from Frederic Edwin Church in his tropical journeys to Central Park as romantic garden below.

Still, if Cloud City is one-dimensional for a ride into space, that has advantages. It obliges one to puzzle out the disruptions and reflections, including one's own. It reflects the discipline of an artist who studied at NASA's Ames Research Center, although I cannot imagine what. It also refuses a strict break between experiences—on the roof and from above. It even allows for a certain sense of humor, like all good family rides and attractions. This larger version expands on Saraceno's Cloud Cities/Air Port City series (most recently in Berlin), and one could call it music for airports.

One could call it a lot of things. The artist, born in Argentina in 1973, is something of a global citizen—or perhaps a citizen of the art fairs, the art world, and the global city. He does not evoke buckyballs himself, but he throws in pretty much everything else. He describes the work as an orbital landing-take off platform, a foam constellation, a flying museum, a molecular structure of perfectly close-packed spheres, and interstellar distant suns. He invokes the Mayan calendar, "Inter(net)citizenship," and clouds over Central Park. He does not make it easy for art to tell a story that will last.

Not that he can stop trying. At his gallery, scale models worry much less about dazzling and much more about the clouds and city. Polyhedra of blond wood seem to float, air pumped into the space between glass sheets and transparent tape makes the idea of close packing more real, and laminated panels create an interior of refracted color. The bungee cords play a more active role as supporting structures or the polygon itself, and it changes one's perspective to realize that one may step over them. A digital rendering the size of a wall inserts a cloud city and its upside-down inhabitants into a panorama of the Met roof itself. In abandoning the amusement park ride, Saraceno recovers its utopian architecture, and a good thing, too. Then again, maybe his very need to entertain derives from a native idealism.

He would assign that idealism a long cultural history, of trust in observations and visions, and he is not altogether wrong. His sketch at the Met has its own ancestry, back to cloud studies by John Constable, and his models appropriate Modernism's ideals down through solar panels. Look again, and the black polyester is networking. In an ideal world, artists would play fewer games and need fewer metaphors, but hey: come summer, one may as well not worry about it. Line up and join the show.

Science for boys

Between budget cutbacks and Republican ideology, the space program has increasingly fallen to the private sector. As if that were not bad enough, it has fallen to artists. In the process, it has ditched the science and taken on the air of a preadolescent male adventure. It has also shrunk to the scale of the Park Avenue Armory. It is going nowhere fast, but it tries ever so hard to entertain without quite deciding whether to let one in. Houston, we have a problem.

On the good side, it may finally ship Tom Sachs off to Mars. Sachs has staged his "space program" before, its memorabilia visible as "Museums of the Moon" on one way out. If others have given up on a return to the Moon while paying lip service to red planet, though, so has he. Space Program: Mars scatters a forlorn set of props around the vast drill hall, with a space capsule at its center. A crew of thirteen keeps the program going and the art a work in progress, including some odd red shapes on the floor, like Minimalism's moon rocks. Sachs was present, too, on my visit, checking email while doing his best to interact as little as possible.

It this summer's art lost in space? Saraceno has his own module on the Met's roof, as a glass and steel invitation to the clouds. And art at the Armory has a weakness for entertainment as it is. It has invited one to crawl through balloons and stockings, with Ernesto Neto, and had Peter Greenaway simulate art history's ultimate crowd pleaser, Leonardo's Last Supper. One can enjoy the irony that Leonardo dabbled in science and speculation. Now if only Sachs had something of Saraceno's surfeit of ladders, mirrors, and dreams—or Leonardo's reticence and rigor.

In an art scene with far too many boy toys and macho installations, Sachs numbers among the worst. Four summers ago, he enlarged actual plastic toys to sculpture for Park Avenue, and his new components include a stand for (ahem) "hot nuts" and "ignition." Astronauts need to eat and to take off, but one can hear the artist's desires loud and clear. Robert Irwin serves as an obvious guru to the work's madness, although Irwin's California sensibility truly pushed the limits of perception. As a filmed orientation has it, Sachs wants his team to work hard and to play hard, if maybe not too hard. Do not try too hard either to tell work and play apart.

The ambivalence to visitors starts with the artist's welcome, and so do signs of his outsize ego. Before touring the capsule, one must go to the "indoctrination station." One can also, with enough ingenuity, locate the theater. Does that mean that one should start there? Oh, one can start anywhere, an assistant replied, but do look at the movie. With no idea of its length or its beginning, I felt proud to have lasted through about ten minutes of exhortations to "be on time," "be thorough," and other sage advice.

As it happens, the movie lasts about three quarters of an hour, and the part I saw left me thoroughly unprepared for a single question on the written exam, at the indoctrination station. (Just how full should one leave a dustpan?) Had I done better, I could have faced an oral exam, but I settled for my acquaintance with a NASA flag and hot nuts. I had to trust another assistant, who explained that the two-stage capsule has space for work below, with a bed and (yes) bar above. As the film has it, Sachs and his crew do this "because it's hard." If only they knew.

Folie à deux

One can feel at home this summer in Socrates Sculpture Park. And for once that has as much to do with the park's name and mission as with free evening movies. For once, too, the most ambitious sculpture in the city's parks is not by sculptors, and it may not be art. Jerome Haferd and K. Brandt Knapp's Folly: Curtain (Socrates Sculpture Park, 2012)Its urban architecture includes Tree Office, a raised platform with free wifi—although people use it more like a tree house, without laptops. It includes striped poles charting a possible future on the way to the Queens waterfront. And, entering their midst a few weeks later, it includes Folly: Curtain, a twenty-five foot shelter, open only to the elements, family, and friends.

With their folly, Jerome Haferd and K. Brandt Knapp invite plenty of associations as well. Both architects, they sound a little bemused when they recall them. Someone wanted to get married there. Someone else hated the thought of marrying in a jail. I thought first of a greenhouse and then the Crystal Palace, the pavilion that stood in London's Hyde Park from 1851 until 1936—but here without the crystal and without the exaggerated claims of a palace. A New York Crystal Palace lasted only five years after the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in Bryant Park, before burning down, but that was back when people had more faith in the industry of all nations.

Haferd and Knapp sound downright annoyed when asked what this thing is or when hearing that it is art. Their two-part title announces their aim, if maybe a certain ambivalence to go with it. (The park's Web site uses alternately one word or the other.) A folly, they explain, is an architectural fancy without utilitarian function. Granted Saraceno's Cloud City on the Met's roof looks like architecture, but it embraces metaphor. They prefer to speak of systems and structures.

Their folly has plastic chains for walls, some not anchored in the earth so that one can penetrate. In reproduction, they almost dissolve into a shimmering white curtain. They also mark out something like rooms, in quadrants, but with one quadrant displaced to the center of the half facing Astoria. Wood beams hold it all up, while creating gables and at least two peaks. The gazebo's asymmetry becomes more obvious and welcoming the more one circulates. The architects speak of it as porous and transformative.

As for that tree house, by Natalie Jeremijenko, and the poles, by Mary Miss, they have much the same idea. They embody "a vision for Long Island City," as an extension of this spring's show at the Noguchi Museum. Not everyone in "Civic Action" makes it as successfully across the street to the park, but then not everything made much sense in the first place. Even the poles make less sense if one tries to decipher the screens attached and the sounds emanating here and there. These designers are positively bursting with ideas for the community, like it or not. Jeremijenko's AgBags sprout from what would normally hold stage lights or a sound system, while her Greek cross "chars" the grass not far from a "salamander superhighway."

Actual salamanders will have to settle for leftovers from the Saturday farmer's market, and other visitors will have to settle for a less than super walk along Broadway to the N train. Systems are seductive, though, and so are visions. When Haferd and Knapp speak of "twenty-five by twenty-five: and of "four by four," they are speaking, too, about a neighborhood taking shape. They might even be speaking about art. When Immanuel Kant described art as purposiveness without purpose, was he calling it a folly? Maybe not in the same way, but he might still welcome this curtain as art.

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Tomás Saraceno's "Cloud City" stood on the roof of The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 4, 2012, with a show at Tanya Bonakdar through July 27. "Space Program: Mars" by Tom Sachs ran at the Park Avenue Armory through June 17, "Folly: Curtain" in Socrates Sculpture Park through October 21, and the extension of "Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City" through August 5. Related reviews look at that last exhibition in full and other 2012 summer sculpture in the parks, as well as Tom Sachs a few years later at the Noguchi Museum.


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