Lost in Space

With the demise of the space-shuttle program at hand and the future of NASA in question, it's been heartwarming recently to see Houston galleries embracing the city's one-time nickname "Space City." The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston kicked it off with "The Moon," which closed in January. Art Palace moved to town from Austin and, perhaps as a housewarming gift, has presented two space-themed shows so far this year. Andrea Dezsö's summer window at Rice Gallery contains a direct reference to Sputnik and NASA's race to space with the Soviets. And now, Blaffer Gallery is riding the rocket with "Lighter Than Air," an exhibition of Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno's eye-popping creations.

Saraceno approaches art from his background in architecture. He's influenced largely by the geodesic domes and spheres of Buckminster Fuller (Epcot Center's "Spaceship Earth") and utopian ideals of sustainability. Saraceno imagines a future in which entire cities float in the clouds, or in space, protected and nurtured by technology and the science inherent in their perfect geometric designs.

While it's space-aged in look, the inspiration for the exhibit is very much earthbound. Saraceno based his designs on close-up photographs of spiderwebs (also on display). His beach ball-size, transparent spheres — contained in netting and tethered to the gallery walls with elastic rope — mimic tiny water droplets caught in the webs. They're like little prototypes for potential living environments, augmented by an aerated water system pumped into the spheres from below. Little tillandsia plants, also called "air plants," live inside the bubbles, perhaps as a representation of the prototypes' ability to sustain life.


University of Houston Blaffer Gallery, 4800 Calhoun, 713-743-2255.

"Lighter Than Air"

Through August 7.

Other works are more sculptural, like Flying Garden/Air-Port-City/32SW, a spherical cluster of smaller spheres, encased in netting. Saraceno utilizes iridescent foil, placed in patches on the surface of the balls (or "elliptical pillows," technically), to give them the optical phenomenon of light refracted in soap bubbles or beetles' shells. The crevices between balloons are stuffed with moss, filling out the work's spherical shape and adding an organic element to its synthetic makeup.

One piece, Net with Transparent Sphere Inside, is a marvel of math and tension. Here, Saraceno abandons the elliptical pillow, creating instead an invisible bubble through a web of nets and elastic cord pulled taut from anchors in the walls, ceiling and floor.

For a show called "Lighter Than Air," the heightened sense of tension on display is surprising. It's definitely illustrated in the wall-size laser print Air-Port-City, an illustration of a fluxed-out sky above an industrial-age rendering of Liverpool. It's an interesting juxtaposition of chaos vs. order — in the same room, Saraceno's gigantic Iridescent Planet floats, tethered to two corners in twin cones of elastic rope. The huge, transparent sphere, 20 feet in diameter, contains a smaller transparent "core" with pentagonal panels attached to the larger sphere's inner surface, suspending the virtual ball inside it. Besides being a spectacular display of design and architecture, it's also the perfect symbol for the World Cup, since it resembles a giant, abstract soccer ball. Saraceno again references the spiderweb, suggesting that the cosmos is made up of layers upon layers of webs, connecting the smallest spheres of water to whole planets — as he suggests in one photograph's title: Galaxies forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider's web. If this is the case, Saraceno is the spider, the industrious architect. In Air-Port-City, he's represented by the city, from which the air is infused with smoke and swirling wind patterns. Perhaps Saraceno is suggesting it's the architect's (or artist's) job to harness chaos, or keep it in balance.

Don't miss the supremely weird Iridescent Planet Colors, the only sphere in the show that isn't suspended in air. It lies in a dark room of its own, draped in iridescent foil, rippling in brilliant color and mysteriously incandescent from a light source inside it. It looks like a giant soap bubble slumped over with a slow leak. Maybe it's an example of what happens when the proper tension can't be maintained — a planet out of balance.

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