I want to believe in Tomás Saraceno’s dreams of floating cities. Several years ago, I was first in line one morning to see and climb through his installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was unconvincing, I thought. The structure was too sturdy to let me think about floating into the clouds.
So after several longs days of work in Düsseldorf last summer, I was happy on my last afternoon there to have a chance to climb into, walk around, and then think about Saraceno’s huge steel mesh installation, In Orbit. (It’s still on view at K21. The exhibition was extended until June 2016.)
I had imagined lying down on a surface firmer than a hammock, but softer than a floor. I had expected to feel both sheltered and supported by it. But I wasn’t. Mostly, I was just afraid.
A guide held my hand delicately as I walked all around the installation, and she cautioned others (who were running and bouncing and having a great time) to notice that die dame was heading their way. She said something like “we are all in this together,” echoing Saraceno’s claim that the work is really about communicating through the vibration of the mesh, as spiders do. (Did it cross my mind then that perhaps a fly doesn’t want to communicate with a spider?)
The guide came to my rescue after noticing that I was having trouble standing up and gaining a footing. The mesh wasn’t as tight as I’d expected. The tension varied from one place to another, so it wasn’t obvious how springy the surface would be until I stepped on it. Parts of the installation – including the entry point – were steep, creating the effect of climbing on a narrow path beside the face of a cliff.
But the biggest problem for me was that when I looked down at the floor far below, I was very nearly convinced that my visual experience couldn’t be trusted. It seemed entirely impossible that I could be where I was, walking on a springy surface that I could see through.
On exiting, I told a second attendant that I was amazed by how frightened I had been while I was inside the work. He replied, calmly, peacefully, “Das ist normal.”
I’ve sat on this post for months and re-written it again and again, trying to figure out why the experience was so disquieting and ultimately so disappointing. One problem was that I was trying so hard to remain vertical in a space that clearly would have rewarded lying down and looking up into the sky. I was mad at myself. But I was mad at Saraceno, too. For making what had seemed so appealing way too difficult? For not realizing that someone like me might want to be there? For telling the guards to be too nice? For creating a metaphor of floating that required so much work and so many turnbuckles? Or just because he scared me?