A Spider’s Wit: Tomás Saraceno’s In Orbit

A Spider’s Wit: Tomás Saraceno’s In Orbit. Illustration by Nina Hanz

Suspended in an arachnophobia-inducing presentation of engineering, architecture and science, Nina Hanz recalls a summer’s worth of nightmares…

I didn’t always have a fear of spiders. I remember one week in particular when the gauzy canopy above my bed caught four young wolf spiders. They had sheltered from the hot sun somewhere on the third story of our house, and got caught in the sheer mesh descending from my low ceiling – a false spider’s web. Back then, I simply cupped the little creatures in a glass and released them back outside, unbothered by their proximity.

I wasn’t thinking about the spiders as I climbed backwards down the steel cables, but now it’s all I can think about when I imagine Tomás Saraceno’s In Orbit. I am not particularly amazed by the work in itself as I got ready to descend, but rather amazed by the fearlessness it installed in me as I left.

In Orbit is an intricate steel net and permanent installation, suspended at a height over twenty-five metres above the piazza of Düsseldorf’s K21 art museum. It looks like a surreal landscape, with inflatable spheres born out of soapy dreams and delicate tessellations. When I went to view it on the first sunny day of spring, the light shimmered against the near-transparent instillation like silk. And as I explored the framework, I felt as if I were walking on clouds, a dreamscape, five stories above the ground.

“It was two summers ago when my arachnophobia became acute, when arachnids kept crawling into my dreams”

It was two summers ago when my arachnophobia became acute, when arachnids kept crawling into my dreams. They came out of the corners and from under my bed. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny spiders came crashing towards me in a great wave of delusion. But as the black dots darted closer, I lay frozen in bed, unable to move.

Free to walk at my own pace, I floated unharnessed across the layers of steel cables – independent from the other climbers, yet all of us wearing the same grey jumpsuits and hiking boots that the set-up required. It wasn’t until I sat down and felt their vibrations that I became aware of my connection to them. The tension was looser where I happened to stop, and I bobbed at the pace of two men exploring the installation ten metres away from me. Or maybe to the rhythm of the girl my age on the opposite side of the net. Regardless, I felt them. They seemed close. And my sovereign experience was suddenly invaded by a network of moving relationships. We were all out of synch, but still present in each other’s experience. We were cohabiting.

But for a spider, these cobweb vibrations signal something different: an intruder, more prey.

The nightmares had continued for three months. One evening, it must have come through the door, but I don’t remember hearing it enter; a huge spider with the full moon reflected on its dark, shining back. Two large eyes focused on me as the rest of its black beads scanned the room. The frightful creature stumbled over to me until it hung over my body like a blanket – a cage. I couldn’t move, but I suddenly became aware that I was the hunted, the prey caught in a deceivingly strong web.

“I felt my legs go weak… I couldn’t believe they were uncaged and free to roam”

As I left the latticework hanging in sky, I felt overwhelmed by own weight on the concrete ground, how firm it remained, despite my mass. Crimson blood rush to my toes. It was not a fear of mine, the height, but that airborne condition did send adrenaline running to the distant crevices of my build. That’s what made me immune to the live spiders of Saraceno’s second installation, one floor below.

In a dimly lit space covered in black curtains, I found miniature versions of my phobias. In cubed frames that seemed to hover in the air, dozens of tiny white spiders spun webs illuminated by the hanging light. By the time I realised there wasn’t any glass separating us, I felt weak at the idea of invisible spiders running up from my feet, past my ankles and to my knees. I couldn’t believe they were uncaged and free to roam. I tried to shake them off, running my hands over bare legs.

Still, the strength of the steel web asserted some level of confidence that lingered long after I disembarked from the PVC soap bubbles, leaving me with something like courage. My legs were still balancing, so I began to observe the living case studies. For three years, Saraceno studied spider webs and their intricate methodologies with the help of scientists, engineers and architects. They mimicked the spiders’ unique artistic praxis and showed my phobia in new, three-dimensional splendour. It was a slow re-contextualisation, enough for me to let go of some of my fear to allow for a new and unexpected (albeit hesitant) fascination for such creepy-crawlies. In Orbit is as much Tomás Saraceno’s creation as it is the spiders’. And together with biology, the two had outwitted me, my eight-legged dream-state anxieties.

Nina Hanz

Tomás Saraceno’s In Orbit (2013) is a permanent installation at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Germany

Text and illustrations by Nina Hanz

Posted on 31/07/2019 by thedoublenegative