Lightness or Heaviness? Saraceno vs. Kundera

“Is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?” (Kundera, 1983)

In a first moment, the work of Tomás Saraceno says yes. Effectively, the lightness of his works, the incorporeal, diaphanous semblances of his fluttering pieces are appealing and inside of us they are consolidated in a desire for equality: I want to be like that, lightweight, loose, a sheet of iridescent plastic levitating in the air; I want my eyes to elevate themselves, I want them to see the world from high above, on the threshold of earthly existence, close to another stellar, universal, cosmic existence.

The artist gives to man the possibility of raising himself, of ascending. Art, and the art of Saraceno, is an exercise of ascesis. Also political, also social, also ecological. But, above all, spiritual, aesthetic. We ascend to beauty. We release ourselves from the ground and ascend to the supracelestial place. Or almost: as he reminds, there is a layer in the atmosphere that changes the physical condition of levitation and does not go any higher without a mechanical resource.

Air and sun. Wind and light. Agitation and shadow. These are the fundamental elements of Saraceno’s work, always with the man and his complex existence on Earth serving as background. They will be analogous, certainly, and, as mentioned, they start from a discomfort and displeasure regarding the planetary state in disaggregation: the urban, economic, environmental, political issues. But there is a larval latency in the work of this artist, which is rooted in the burden of existence, in anxiety and stress of daily life on Earth. The work seems to relate more to an ontology of man, than to his politics or ecology. The desire to flee, to escape, is inevitable. To build something greater, in the clouds; to fix the past and mistakes.

And yet again: “But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?” (Ibid.)

In the Poetic Cosmos of the Breath (2013), the lightness of the installation leads to absolute awe. Beauty is stated in rupture, in opposition to worldliness. It is not subjectively Beautiful. It is objectively Beautiful. But it is also vaguely fugatious. And fleeting. A breath. In fact, the strength of Tomás Saraceno’s work lives of this ambivalence and the impermanent state of life and art. “The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.” (Ibid.).

As a response to these and other questions that Milan Kundera includes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1983), the artist does not get bothered and commits himself: “lightness, without a doubt”. And even though the response is ambiguous, perhaps it is understandable in the following context: bearing the immense burden of life without an escape, without a transgression, will be a direct route to madness, to self-annihilation. And art can offer salvation. Or, alternatively, the escape.


Graduated in architecture, Tomás Saraceno positions his own practice between art and architecture. “I’m always trying to get them together”, he tells us. “Architecture can find new expressions for art; science, new practices for architecture and art as well.” He tries instead to “Create new disciplines, new practices, an ecology of practices, as Isabelle Stengers mentions”. He works on the edges, on the limits of several fields of knowledge. On contamination. Even if this means leaving the “comfort zone of the art world. The Aerocene (2015), what is that? A foundation, a work of art? I’m not interested in my name. Sometimes it is important to step back and let others get ahead.”

“The world of art is purely about the ego. And I’m sometimes interested in losing the comfort zone. It is essential to explore other ways, other places, that we do not know because we are too much protected by the establishment of the art system. Which is incredible! We have museums, the directors, the curators, the galleries… But, out there, people interpret things differently,” stresses Tomás Saraceno.

In this perspective, the collaborative work is of utmost importance and essential to understanding the dimension of the artist’s thought. The studio is a place of sharing, of confluent visions, of communion. Art steps in, architecture steps in, engineering, science, philosophy.

The exhibition Um Imaginário Termodinâmico, at Sala Oval of MAAT, does not give us access to this constructive process founded on experimentation and dialog among peers. The exhibition appears to be (apparently) finite, when in fact it is changing. The glance, the time and the performativity of the body in space continuously inform new perceptions, new hypotheses – endless combinations and discourses. “Art extends the form of perceiving objects or phenomena; it delays the understanding of things. It lets see us the same thing, but from another angle”, the artist says. The works have different temporalities, a reflection of a construction divided by different periods, several rhythms, layers, but also because the activation of the observer is also syncopated and marked by movements, paces and expressions. It is a twofold communion: in its conception between studio and museum and in the perpetual transformation between those who see, sense and scan it.

“I drew one, two, three models. When I arrived here, I changed everything. Horrible! Because only here we can perceive the space, light and darkness. I am always trying to find the project. And sometimes we get lost and somehow we find a shadow that changes everything and makes the work unbelievable!”

Like Isabelle Stengers advocates for politics – or for cosmopolitics – Saraceno proposes an art to slow down. The Portuguese language has the particularity of combining two meanings in the word time. Time can refer to the chronos, the time of history, of cosmos, and it can also mean the weather. Many of his works rely on this double relationship of what time means.

“Aerocene is deeply dependent on the wind. But also on the work of Sol Lewitt, in the middle of the desert. We are always waiting for the storm to come. Believing that it comes… and this profoundly changes how we perceive the objects and works”, he reminds us. Nature reacts to its expressions and presentations, the experiences that we take from them and the perception itself. The elements are absolutes and the dynamo of his art. And, this way, the open-source project Aerocene (2015) slightly synthetizes the work of the artist to reconcile the global community with this concept of total ecology.

Um Imaginário Termodinâmico [A Thermodynamic Imaginary], in turn, is an interpretation of the words both from Stengers and Latour, to formulate a vision of possible futures within a planet saturated and diversified, far from a mononaturalism or an anthropological blindness that puts the man as the dominant and domineering species. There is not a universe, but a pluriverse. Saraceno’s geometries are spaces shaped in accordance with the possible natural means, made by a man in sync with nature, passive in his existence, one with the elements: “become wind, stillness in motion,” says Saraceno, retrieving the name of a 2016 work. However, what those authors will choose as a principle of life remains unknown: weight or lightness?

The exhibition proposes a regeneration through imagination. Underlying this, the annihilation to be. There is no colour. The dream, the imagined image, is monotone and depleted of saturation. The work that the artist exhibits are shadows, objects reduced to its two-dimensionality: lines, points and orbiting planes on the oval walls of the gallery, spinning in accordance with a centripetal force that could very well be the visitor. The work is an orbit of shadows, not so much the apparent platonic solids or the edified balloons. There are flickering reflexes, inflated levitating masses to occupy an immense lot of the gallery.

Possibly, Saraceno chooses lightness, but life presumes the two opposing poles described here and the mysterious contradictions that they generate. And what is positive, after all? Weight or lightness? White or black? The lightweight utopias succumb to the heavy principle of human existence and corruption. (But in Aerocene, black and amorphous balloons float in the air.) The cosmicity of the world relies not only on gaseous principles, but also on liquid and solid ones.

We are back to the beginning.

In a first moment, Saraceno’s work seems to be lightweight. In a second, after the weight of the perceived body that returns to worldliness and to the frustration of not being able to fully be air, there is no way to be sure.

Existence is rough. The work of this artist is not. What, then, Saraceno purposes: an escape, a utopian commitment or a heavy combativeness?


“It was no sigh, no moan; it was a real scream. She screamed so hard that Tomas had to turn his head away from her face, afraid that her voice so close to his ear would rupture his eardrum. The scream was not an expression of sensuality. (…) Her scream aimed at crippling the senses, preventing all seeing and hearing. What was screaming in fact was the naive idealism of her love trying to banish all contradictions, banish the duality of body and soul, banish perhaps even time.” (Kundera, 1983).

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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