As the swelter of summer descends, we long to escape: to the air-conditioned darkness of the movie theater, to the pool, the lake, to wide open space, to outer space. Atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art glints one such vision of deliverance; a 8,5-metre high futuristic steel, mirror and plexiglas amalgam of 16 interconnected 12 and 14-sided polyhedrons. Cloud City is the latest (and largest) in Argentinian Tomás Saraceno's Cloud City/Air Port Cities series, which explores the potential promise of floating or flying communities. Though Saraceno's experimental installations have been shown extensively throughout Europe and the United States, the Metropolitan installation — two years in the making — marks the artist's first major US commission. For the past 15 summers, the Museum's roof garden has been the setting for sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly, Jeff Koons and, perhaps most notably, Doug and Mike Starn's 2010 interactive installation Big Bambú. Upon seeing Saraceno's work at the 2009 Venice Biennale, associate curator Anne L. Strauss was convinced that "given his unfettered inventiveness, Tomás would be the ideal artist to create something for this site."
Saraceno's insatiable curiosity is immediately apparent; the tick of the seconds and the click of his slides seemingly unable to keep up with the rapid fire pace of his thoughts. At the 31 May panel "Artist as Innovator: Visions of a Floating City," Saraceno seems at ease amidst an a-list astrophysicist, an astrobiologist, an arachnologist and an architect. Here, his affinity for Buckminster Fuller comes as no surprise: trained as an architect, Saraceno's art dips freely into chemistry, biology, physics and engineering. His inspirations are equally varied: bacteria, neural networks, bubbles, spider webs, the cosmos.
This is a man who enlisted a sizable team of scientists, photographers and computer programmers to scan and build the first human-sized three-dimensional model of a black widow spider's web. The resulting form, which physicists believe holds clues to the origins of the universe, is entitled 14 Billions and sits characteristically between science and art, micro and macrocosm, reality and fiction. Describing the curatorial voyage of Cloud City, Strauss speaks of Saraceno's two initial proposals: a 280 square metre mirrored pneumatic inflatable enclosure; a massive balloon tied to the roof — both of which found themselves deflated by "feasibility concerns and budget issues." But the "unfettered inventiveness" that won Saraceno the rooftop commission was, in the end, too much for the Metropolitan. The poetic fragility of much of the artist's work is lacking here, and though Cloud City is not entirely a lead balloon, one cannot help but feel its fettered-ness.
In the dog days of summer, the daggers of sun that refract off of the structure's mirrored surfaces pierce even the darkest of sunglasses, making midday explorations of what the New York Times terms "fun-house formalism" not nearly as uplifting as the thought of the adjacent pergola and its beckoning drink cart. Cloud City's utopian vision of futures — possible and imagined — refracted and reflected in myriad ways, seem disappointingly diminished on the rooftop; subordinate to the beauty of the skyline and our obsession with our own reflections in its surface.
Despite its shortcomings, there is an undeniable beauty to Saraceno's creation; its sense of hope in the unknown, the thrill of the search and the anticipation of discovery. "This story will end where it began, in the middle," writes theoretical physicist and author Jana Levin in A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines: "A triangle or a circle. A closed loop with three points. A wayfaring chronicle searching for a treasure buried in woods, on the streets, in books, on empty trains. Craving an amulet, a jewel, a reason, a purpose, a truth. I can almost see it on the periphery, just where they said it would be, glistening at me from the far edges of every angle I search."
Saraceno is not the only artist who has devoted the last two years of his life to concocting a scientifically-fueled escape plan. A short distance from the Metropolitan Museum, the MacGyver of the contemporary art world has transformed the dark cavernous expanse of the Park Avenue Armory drill hall into a plywood and duct-taped cosmic mission to the Red Planet. Tom Sachs, known for his bricolage approach to rebuilding technologically complicated objects, makes no pretense about Space Program: Mars: "Ours is crappy," he says of the Armory NASA expedition; "but that's why it's magic."
Like Saraceno, Sachs was trained as an architect and approaches his art with scientific rigor. "Work is my religion," he affirms 1 June during a public talk with co-curators Anne Pasternak and Kristy Edmunds. Indeed underlying and overlaying the DIY science fair aesthetic is an almost spiritual devotion to professionalism. Sachs, who spent months researching at NASA, enlisted a team of 13 young and eager artistnauts to help achieve his mission. The resulting 50 sculptures, five short films and countless zines attempt to cover all of the life-sustaining gear necessary for the colonization and scientific exploration of Mars. The geeky sincerity of the mission control unit, mobile quarantine facility, Landing Excursion Module, self-cooling space suits and astronaut gym is infused with the satirical humor of the Kool-Aid Indoctrination stand, a Japanese Tea House and the "Hot Nuts Delivery System (HDNS)."
Though entirely different in feel, Sachs' Space Program can be seen to possess its own hipster style of fun-house formalism. Sachs' team — who for the past three years have adhered to the strict dietary, exercise and methodological rules outlined in the five training videos — devotedly run the mission throughout its month-long duration. Uniformed in skinny ties, lab coats, or white shirts with the American flag and the words "It won't fail because of me" emblazoned on the back, they travel by skateboard and communicate via walkie talkie. "We choose to go to Mars not because it is easy, but because it is hard; because the goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our skills," Sachs solemnly states in one of the training videos, echoing president Kennedy's statement about NASA's 1969 lunar voyage. The Financial Times aptly summed up the Space Program as having "the wry, self-mocking style of Stephen Colbert."
The 2012 Mars mission, however, is far more than a fun-house game. Beneath the spectacle and the satire, Sachs can also be seen to be presenting the viewer with a fragmented mirror. By its very nature, Space Program: Mars causes us to question to what extent the Apollo Space Program was itself a colossal piece of performance art. Beyond this, perhaps the most lasting impact of both Cloud City and Space Program: Mars is that they have us become what Buckminster Fuller called "passengers on Spaceship Earth." By asking us to look at other worlds, ultimately both Sachs and Saraceno lead us to look more closely at our own. "Science is a comparative act," Sachs concludes: "We look to Mars to analyze ourselves."