Kristen Hileman, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, talks about a new installation designed to look like spider webs from artist Tomas Saraceno. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)
The artist Tomas Saraceno has been mystified and entranced by spider webs since he was 9 years old. He vividly recalls climbing into the attic of the 500-year-old house in which his family lived in Italy during the early 1980s and finding the room filled with the gossamer nets.
The boy was mesmerized by the intricacy of the geometric structures the eight-legged creatures had created, by their delicacy, formal beauty and practicality. More than three decades later, Saraceno's voice lifts with pleasure as he describes his discovery.
"I just have a memory of how intricate all the connections of the webs were," he said. "I tried to photograph the webs, but it was like trying to photograph the universe or the sky. It was impossible to see it all at the same time."
The artist spent the next three decades studying the spiders' secrets and attempting to re-create their creations on a human scale.
"Tomas Saraceno: Entangled Orbits," a new show opening Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, contains four oversized installations — three that Saraceno designed alone and one with his arachnid "collaborators" — that are filling the museum with color, shadow and light. The second-floor installations are on view through April 29, while the spectacular lobby sculpture will be displayed through June 10.
Partly, Saraceno is acclaimed because his installations are visually captivating, and partly it's because they express great, big, utopian ideas about how future generations might live on this planet harmoniously with one another, with the critters that surround us, and with the natural world.
Saraceno is perhaps best known for his concept of "cloud cities" or ecosystems inhabited by humans that float in the sky. Though the notion has a sci-fi feel, Saraceno is very serious about their potential for becoming a human habitat.
He's working on overcoming the technical challenges that a project of this magnitude represents, and already has one preliminary step figured out. Saraceno holds the world record for the first and longest human flight in a vehicle powered entirely by the sun, a three-hour trip he took in 2015 in White Sands, N.M., the site of the explosion of the world's first atomic bomb.
"I am all the time asking myself where we are and how we came to this part of the universe," he said.
"I am trying to learn different ways we can co-inhabit with other species. I am trying to figure out if we can live on a cloud in the sky and overcome national boundaries by floating freely between countries."
But each architecturally informed artwork that Saraceno creates, each project rooted in environmental concerns can be traced back in some form to that first encounter with spiderwebs in his boyhood attic.
For instance, the centerpiece of "Entangled Orbits" is an artwork commissioned by the museum, a cluster of iridescent plexiglass bubbles extending for two stories in the light-filled East Wing. The modules are anchored by a network of criss-crossing black cables that weave together the space between the walls, ceiling and stairwell.
"It's ethereal and floating and transcends the limits of the earth," said Kristen Hileman, the BMA's senior curator of contemporary art, "but it's also strong and sturdy. You often see in Tomas' work geometric forms that are suspended or held in tension across big spaces."
The sculpture is made of lilac, turquoise, amber and lime panels that change color depending on whether they're viewed from above or below, and that also vary with the weather and time of day. Though individual panels are composed of triangles (a geometric form capable of withstanding a huge amount of pressure), the triangles are grouped together into a rough sphere reminiscent of one of the architect R. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes.
Hileman said that Saraceno is trying to "strike a balance between the physics required to build a livable structure with a roof and a floor, but that at the same time shares visual properties with the organic, rounded forms like clouds that we see in the sky."
On view upstairs are three smaller installations.
In a sculpture from Saraceno's "Zonal Harmonic" series, the artist has used metal, rope and fishing thread to map out the orbits of celestial bodies. The sculpture makes visual the variations in the speed and trajectory at which these big rocks hurtle through space.
Another sculpture, part of the "Flying Garden/Air-Port-City" series, takes up an entire gallery. A sphere made from 80 inflatable plastic pillows floats near the ceiling. Visitors walk inside the installation, weaving their way through a maze of black ropes and gazing up at the complicated intersection of line and color.
"It looks like the heart of a dandelion once you've blown the seeds away," Hileman said, adding that after visiting the sculpture, she usually finds that she has slowed her pace and is calmer and more peaceful.
"This sculpture in particular influences the way you feel emotionally and the way your body feels in space because it's immersive," she said. "It's so rational and ordered, so founded on classic principles of symmetry and harmony, that being inside it feels very optimistic."
But it isn't until visitors enter a small, pitch-dark gallery that they fully grasp the connection between Saraceno's artwork and the webs.
The gallery contains a large, transparent cube on stilts. It's filled with spider webs that under the lights appear to have been spun with gold thread. To achieve the three-dimensional webs he sought, the artist periodically rotated the cubes one-quarter turn. Each miniature, perfect rectangle connects ladder-like to the next. The precision of the structures the arachnids build, constructed without the benefit of rulers or protractors, is magical. (Note to the arachnophoic: the exhibit contains no live spiders, just the products they've created.)
"Some species of spiders are very specific about the geometry of the webs they construct," said Sarah Stellwagen, an arachnologist working at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi.
Saraceno's webs were constructed by seven of the relatively rare species of spiders that will communally weave webs, rear their young and hunt for prey. Spiders generally work alone; Stellwagen said that fewer than 1 percent of the approximately 40,000 species can be classified as fully "social."
The communal nature of the web-building intrigues the artist. The practice seems roughly analagous to human city-dwellers, who live alone or in small groups but who join together daily to create elaborate social and physical structures.
"Every time I watch spiders work," Saraceno said, "I learn something new.
"Some spiders will build on webs that have been constructed by other spiders and rearrange them for their own use. It makes me think how humans could rearrange our existing infrastructure to live in a space built by other people."
The artist is inspired by the creepers' instinctive economy — some species recycle their webs — and sees in it a model for human endeavor.
"Spiders have been around for 140 million years," he said. "They know much better than humans do how to be on this planet."
Stellwagen, who will give a presentation on spiders at the exhibit opening, explained that spiders will often destroy their web after it deteriorates and becomes less able to trap prey, leaving only a strong base thread on which they can reconstruct a successor.
"When spiders take down their webs, they consume a large portion of what they've made," she said. "It gets incorporated into the next day's labor and the process begins again."
Hileman admits that spiders creep her out a little. But, during the three-week process of installing Saraceno's work at the BMA, her attitude began to change.
She'll still sweep away a web in a corner of her kitchen ceiling, or one that binds together two leaves of a favorite plant. But for the first time in her life, she feels a pang of regret.
"I'll take a moment to look at it first," she said. "They're so amazing. Since I've been working on this show, I've become very respectful of spider webs."
"Tomas Saraceno: Entangled Orbits" runs Oct. 1 through June 10, 2018, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Opening day activities from noon to 5 p.m. include a bubble-making workshop and a presentation by spider expert Sarah Stellwagen. Free. 443-573-1700 or artbma.org.