Ruinart x Tomás Saraceno

As Maison Ruinart moves towards its 300th anniversary in 2029, the oldest champagne house in the world has chosen to celebrate with a ten-year countdown focused on art, nature, and sustainability. The house will work with a different contemporary artist each year to install a specially commissioned artwork in the grounds of Maison Ruinart to not only mark the historic occasion but also encourage visitors to consider their place in nature and how it can be preserved and protected. Earlier this month Berlin-based Argentinean artist Tomás Saraceno unveiled his work for 2021, and Nicola Leigh Stewart was there to observe the unique event

Daylight is rising over Reims cathedral. It is uncomfortably early but we are at the whim of the weather, especially today. Two hours from now, at 8am on July 2nd, Tomás Saraceno will unveil The Aerocene Project for Maison Ruinart, a collection of flying sculptures which require the energy of the sun to float above the earth. Fortunately we are predicted good weather, a lone sunny day in a month of rain.

In honour of the event, the evening before Maison Ruinart had hosted its first ever dinner in one of the house’s crayères, the almost impossibly deep chalk galleries that lie under the Maison and which provide the perfect conditions for ageing champagne. During the dinner I sat next to Tomás, who spoke with concern about not only climate change and our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels, but also the environment in general, social justice, and the lasting impact of the pandemic on both. It is this worry which has inspired the artist’s latest artistic project. Through flying his Aerocene sculptures Tomás wants us to imagine another form of movement: slowing floating without fossil fuels rather than flying with them. As the evening drew to a close the clink of champagne glasses was replaced with silence as Tomás took to a rocky podium to reflect on The Aerocene Project and the worries of climate change with the group. “We are always thinking about what will happen tomorrow: will it be good or bad weather? But we don’t know what will happen anymore.”

The next morning we awoke to sunshine. After a hasty breakfast of coffee and croissants guests were driven outside of Reims to Maison Ruinart. Almost immediately Tomás gathered us together in a large circle in the courtyard for a moment of meditation. We were asked to close our eyes, observe the sound of the birds, and be present. Tomás’ assistant Lucía performed a reading, a reinterpretation of the essay “Drift as a Planetary Phenomenon” by Bronislaw Szeszynski, in which the professor presents his idea that “drifting can lead us to a deeper understanding of the way that all things move, that move within the extended body of the Earth.” As if to give her words a physical embodiment, Aerocene flight trainer Lorenzo stepped forward to demonstrate the Aerocene. He opened a large backpack which carried inside it the flat-packed structure, crafted from a technical fabric similar to nylon and designed in black to absorb the heat that it needs in order to float. It also comes fitted with high tech GPS tracking device which records the trajectory of its flight. This recording is then transported to the Aerocene app which uses the data to create a line drawing, or what Tomás calls an aeroglyphic sculpture, of the Aerocene’s journey. It is this drawing which is the artwork, a digital piece called Movement that can be seen in the sky via the app’s augmented reality function when a user is in the vicinity of an Aerocene flight. As guests tapped away on iPhones to download the app, Lorenzo and another member of the team prepared the Aerocene for flight, each taking a corner of the fabric and running with it until it filled with warm air and transformed into a dark cloud-like balloon. Tomás took the tether and patiently walked the Aerocene around the courtyard. It was still early but the heat was increasing. So was the height of Aerocene, which now floated above the buildings of Maison Ruinart, no longer a lifeless fabric or even a balloon, but a floating sculpture powered not by fuel, but sun.

After the project’s inauguration in the courtyard we moved to Maison Ruinart’s vineyards a short drive away. Tomás and his team brought several backpacks and unpacked them on a large open field opposite the leafy vines. Two energetic volunteers repeated the process we observed in the courtyard, running with each Aeroecene to fill it with warm air. The sun was now surprisingly strong, too strong for most of the party who shaded under parasols to witness the artistic event. However, with those who did fly a sculpture reporting a unique sensation of being connected simultaneously to both land and air, The Aerocene Project is art to be experienced and immersed in rather than simply observed.

The idea to collaborate with Tomás came from Maison Ruinart’s desire to combine art with science in order to highlight the worrying progression of climate change, whose effects are now reaching every corner of the world, including our own. As Tomás told me over dinner the evening before, for him part of the appeal was working with a name bigger than his own in the hope that the message will reach more of us who need to hear it. The project isn’t the first time that Maison Ruinart has tried to shine a light on the environment and sustainability. Last year the champagne house launched an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional gift box in the form of an innovative paper skin which wraps around each bottle, whilst the 2019 artistic partnership with art duo Cyril Laurier and Maya Maouwad of Mouawad Laurier (Maison Ruinart’s ten-year countdown was interrupted in 2020 due to obvious reasons) also invited the viewer to reflect on the fragility of our ecosystem. However, this latest collaboration feels particularly poignant after an unexpected frost in April, which followed an unusually hot March, wiped out a large percentage of France’s vineyards. Thankfully for Maison Ruinart, Champagne was one of the few lesser affected regions however the threat is always there; in the last 30 years the average temperature in the region has risen by 1.3°C. This increase may sound small but it is enough to cause the grapes to ripen earlier, disrupting the schedule of the harvest and posing a new challenge and concern for winemakers.

Whilst Tomás’ latest artistic venture may seem fleeting – a short flight on a gust of warm air – his work with The Aerocene Project is far from over. The Aerocene Foundation hold backpacks at borrowing stations around the world, including London, for public use, those interested simply need to contact the foundation via the website. Maison Ruinart will also keep a backpack and there are talks to hold more Aerocene flights in the Champagne region, which guests of the champagne house could potentially attend. Visitors will also be able to view the Movement artwork in the sky above Reims by using the app during their visit. During Tomás’ presentation I asked Ruinart’s president, Frédéric Dufour, what was the plan B in case the weather hadn’t been as expected or taken a turn for the worse. “That’s a good question!” he replied. The same question could be asked in regards to climate change but, as Tomás’ work has highlighted, here there is no plan B.

Tomás Saraceno: More-Than-Human

Port travels to Berlin to preview the latest in Saraceno’s hybrid web series, a complex, social, interconnected dance between humans and spiders

“Life is not just about matter and how it immediately interacts with itself but also how that matter interacts in interconnected systems that include organisms in their separately perceiving worlds – worlds that are necessarily incomplete, even for scientists and philosophers who, like their objects of study, form only a tiny part of the giant perhaps infinite universe they observe” 

(Dorian Sagan, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, with a Theory of Meaning, 1934)

In the East of Berlin, a short stroll from where the historic wall still stands, the spirit of the Bauhaus is alive and well. Two former industrial factories built in 1916 for the colour film firm AGFA are now occupied by artists, philosophers, designers, anthropologists, architects, biologists, art historians, glassblowers, astrophysicists – the list goes on – who make up the innovative Studio Tomás Saraceno.

“Tomás works best in exchange with others” notes artist counsellor Martin Heller. Like the varied people the Argentinian artist surrounds himself with, Tomás actively resists categorisation and fervently embraces inter-disciplinary creativity and problem solving. Over a bitter coffee, he exclaims that when he goes to an art gallery he often wants to ask for a student ticket as he’s a constant learner, a perpetual student. Principally concerned with sustainability and how humans inhabit their environment, he has collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Max Planck Institute and had his sculptures presented during the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP21, having broken world records by achieving the longest and most sustainable certified flight ever registered.

Tomás Saraceno, courtesy Alfred Weidinger

Port was recently given a tour of the sprawling, graffiti covered studio thanks to the Rolls-Royce Art Programme, who will be shortly previewing a work by Tomás titled ‘Hybrid Dark solitary semi-social Cluster BD–15 3966 built by: a duet of Nephila edulis – six weeks, a quintet of Cyrtophora citricola – eight weeks, rotated 180°;’. The artwork does exactly what it says on the tin, or rather, within the carbon fibre frame. Forming part of his ‘Hybrid webs’ series, the intricate, suspended galaxy on show is the result of semi-social spiders weaving their webs in a hung cube, building on each other’s work to create an incredibly complex and delicate structure. The preview furthers Rolls-Royce’s recent collaboration with the artist, which saw them act as benefactor for his recent solo exhibition, On Air, at Palais de Tokyo in 2018. It also marks a continued commitment to new work from the Art Programme, who have in recent years supported a number of high-profile artists, such as Isaac Julien, Asad Raza and Yang Fudong.

Wandering through the working spiders room on the second floor of the studio, Tomás refers to them individually in hushed, reverent tones, admiring the golden, sometimes iridescent threads that resemble cosmic constellations and half-deployed parachutes. A web, he explains, is so much more than a home or a trap to a spider. With most web-building arachnids being deaf and blind, their proteinaceous silk can be more accurately thought of as a cognitive extension of themselves, an organic means to experience life and judge space through vibration and tension. Out of roughly 32,000 species, only 24 types of spiders exhibit social behavior. The tiny artists embellishing and bridging each other’s work explores not only interdependency and harmony between animals, but also how humans can better co-exist with them. In 2014, ‘arachnid concerts’ or ‘spider jam sessions’ were created together with the head of music and theatre arts at MIT, Evan Ziporyn, who had his bass clarinet played out in spider-friendly vibrations and vice-versa with a participating spider hooked up to a laser vibrometer. The unusual interaction was a way to relearn and rethink interspecies communication, and for Tomás, an important demonstration of how an artistic process can often be more porous and enriching then straight scientific tools and data.

Courtesy the artist; Andersen’s, Copenhagen; Ruth Benzacar, Buenos Aires; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; Pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa; Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photography © Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2018

This fascination first began from when Tomás, as a child, lived in Italy. Occupying a centuries-old house filled with cobwebs and their inhabitants, he would often find himself musing whether “the spiders were living in my house, or was I living in the spiders’ house?”. Years later, he went a step further and started to explore the parallels between spider webs and the structure of space time, since the Earth itself is set within a web-like structural dimension. The Studio eventually ended up creating a machine that could scan, digitise, and measure a three-dimensional spider web. A historic first-time scan of a Black Widow spider’s web was first presented at the Bonniers Konsthall in Sweden in 2010, together with a physical installation that presented the web on a 1.17 scale spanning 400 cubic meters and composed of 8000 black strings with 23,000 individually tied knots. Visitors were encouraged to view themselves actively becoming a community in a shared habitat, immersed in an interconnected, woven tangle.  

Courtesy the artist; Andersen’s, Copenhagen; Ruth Benzacar, Buenos Aires; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; Pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa; Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photography © Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2018

The Studio recently stated that “In an era of ecological upheaval, there is a perceived imperative for anthropocentric worlds to re-attune to other species and more-than-human ways of inhabiting our shared planet. These artistic and scientific enquiries can enable new hybrid encounters and relationships, involving multiple entities: from spiders to humans, from gravitational waves to particles of dust.” This call to action, to create a “more-than-human way” of sharing our limited space, has never seemed more pressing at a time when temperatures, sea levels and divisive walls are rising. Despite the accelerated upheaval of our natural world Tomás says he remains an optimist, believing that if we can learn from the spider’s in his stunning ‘Hybrid webs’ series, we can achieve a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The House of Rolls-Royce will preview new work by Tomás Saraceno at the 89th Geneva International Motor Show, March 2019