Arachnid Art at Hudson Yards

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Artist Tomás Saraceno recently spent an afternoon at Hudson Yards at The Shed searching for cobwebs. “Look, look, do you see him? There is one here! he cried, on all fours, peering under a wooden pallet on the loading dock. “He’s an elder. It’s very small. See!” Saraceno wore a blue sweater with light blue running shoes and a KN95 mask; he was covered in dust and his eyes shone with excitement. “It’s so little, look!” An art curator told him handed over an iPhone with the flashlight on.”We’re looking at the spider’s body,” he said, illuminating a web woven by a member of the species Steatoda triangularis. “The spider is not there! But, when you see the spider’s web, you see the spider itself.

Tomas SaracenoIllustration by João Fazenda

Nearby, Emma Enderby, the curator, peered under a stack of collapsible stepladders for more canvases. “Usually the impulse is just to delete,” she said.

“Or sweep them away!” Saraceno added. “But we can stop scaring them away! And we can admire their work. And we can change our phobias from arachnophobia to arachnophilia. Earlier, in preparation for a new exhibit, Saraceno had sent an email asking Shed staffers, including docents, caretakers and curators, to preserve the canvases throughout the building; he then labeled them with “an open letter for invertebrate rights”:

WE WOULD LIKE TO FIRST BY THANK YOU FOR ACKNOWLEDGING OUR RIGHTS TO LIVE AND EXHIBIT IN THIS SPACE AND FOR NOT LABELING US “URBAN PEST” AS MANY OTHERS DO. WE HOPE THAT AFTER THE END OF THIS EXHIBITION YOU WILL CONSIDER ALLOWING OUR CONTINUED BUT THREATENED AND UNLIMITED EXISTENCE. . . DO NOT BE AFRAID . . . SIGNED, SPIDER/STARS

Saraceno, 48, was born in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina, where his father, an agronomist, was imprisoned before the right-wing coup in 1976. His mother, a botanist, moved the family to a five – century-old house in northern Italy. Saraceno spent time alone in the attic staring at cobwebs. “No one lived there,” he recalls. “But, when you looked closely, it was full of life.”

In his work, Saraceno focuses on spiders and sustainable hot air balloons. One project, “Museo Aero Solar“, involves balloons made from reused plastic bags. Two years ago, a teacher named Leticia Noemi Marqués broke thirty-two world records when she piloted another balloon, “Aérocène Pacha”, over the Argentinian salt flats. It was heated entirely by air and sunlight.

The exhibition at the Shed includes a collection of seven canvases presented in glass frames. “I just set up the frame, invite the spider in, they weave the web, then they come out and the artwork is ready,” Saraceno said. He pointed to a work titled “Free the Air: How to Hear the Universe in a Spider’s Web,” a metal spider’s web ninety-five feet in diameter, suspended from a point forty feet above the ground. The guides, after giving a safety briefing, encouraged the participants to climb. “Spiders that weave webs have poor vision,” Saraceno said. “But they are able to perceive the world through vibrations.” He crawled into the web and lay down. The room darkens. “We recorded all of the spiders’ activities and reproduced the vibration,” he said. The web was pulsing. “It’s a cobweb concert! It’s a concert you’re not supposed to hear. I try to change the world of experience.

Saraceno resumed his hunt. He found a spider’s web near the elevators – “Look how it moves! – and a cobweb hanging in a ventilation shaft. He went upstairs to an engine room and shouted, “We’re looking for our friends, the spiders and the webs!”

“We just did some kind of deep cleaning here,” replied a young engineer.

“And you had no webs?”

“I do not think that-“

Saraceno was undeterred. He searched a crawl space behind machinery; engineer scoured pipe distribution area. “I think I have one!” yelled the engineer.

“Amazing! Yes!” said Saraceno. Inspired, he pulled out his phone and asked the engineer to select a digital spider tarot card, part of what he called a “divination process”. The engineer pressed a button and the phone rang. “The spider answered you,” Saraceno said.

The engineer shrugged. “I felt something. I don’t know what the answer was, but it was Something!

Saraceno descended, where he sought help in identifying a canvas atop a doorframe. Louis Sorkin, an arachnologist from the American Museum of Natural History, inspected. “How long has it been there? He asked.

“It’s two weeks old!” said Saraceno.

“It’s hard to tell if it’s a theridiid, which is a weaver of cobwebs, a common thing to find. Or is it an amaurobiid?” — an uncommon indoor find.

Saraceno studied the canvas with admiration. ” I’m not doing anything. I expose the web of spiders. I am curator of cobwebs. He smiles. “Who is the artist? I do not know anymore. ♦

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