It’s a tangled web that Tomás Saraceno has weaved, literally and conceptually. The Argentinian artist has filled a room at the Serpentine with curving, complex, splintered structures built by actual spiders, vast insect architecture that shimmers with life and beauty. Coming off it are countless, twisted conceptual strands for you to pull apart.
He’s collaborated with spiders in his Berlin studio for years, creating an interspecies art project designed to draw attention to urgent ecological issues, confronting viewers with the idea that if we work together – as a planet, not just as a species – we might just be able to make a difference.
He’s not the first person to be inspired by the wisdom of spiders. The first film you see here is about Cameroonian spider diviners who speak to their arachnid mates to find answers to life's big questions, like the octopus who predicts World Cup results. Using vibrations and patterned leaves, they ask the spiders to choose a path for them to follow. The gallery’s even created a web portal – get it? – so you can get the diniver to ask the spider your own questions.
The film in the middle gallery follows Saraceno’s work with indigenous communities in Argentina fighting against lithium mining for phone batteries and launching a manned flight powered only by the sun, all while calling out the economic and ecological injustices of the global north. Outside, Saraceno has built sculptures which double as houses for insects and animals. In the back, a confessional is presided over by a huge spider so you can admit your sins against the earth. There are newspaper publications, reams of information, paintings for dogs, a children’s play area, bicycles you can pedal to power a reading of an ecological manifesto, he’s even converted the whole building to solar power and switched off the AC. It’s dense, intricately woven, full of ideas and lore and concepts.
The whole show is him saying that there’s another way, a better way
A lot of it is also quite silly. The mini exhibition for dogs looks like something from the world’s poshest garden centre, the cycling-powered manifesto is brutally twee, and the big spider confessional is awkwardly overwrought.
Plus, by converting the building to solar power, he’s made it so that bits of the exhibition don’t work if it’s cloudy. Which is a nice idea, but we’re in, you know, England, where it’s always cloudy. It all just feels a bit Spinal Tap.
But the main issue is that the web installation is so atmospheric and fragile, terrifying and beautiful, that nothing else really manages to reach its level. On the one hand you have staggering, jaw-dropping, genuine arachnid beauty, on the other you have some monochrome paintings for dogs.
But the exhibition still works, because while so much ecological art only gestures at action, Saraceno actually uses his art to fight, to question people in power, to support vulnerable communities. By turning the gallery solar (despite the issues), by giving a platform to indigenous voices, by drawing attention to these relatively hidden wrongs, he’s actually doing something about climate change. The whole show is him saying that there’s another way, a better way: if we listen to indigenous communities, if we listen to spiders, we might just be able to get out of this mess.