Cartophilia, in Two Exhibits at SFMOMA

Two new exhibits at SFMOMA reveal a love of cities, either from the top down with climate change in mind, or from the bottom up.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the lone security guard inside Tomás Saraceno’s exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was working overtime. One minute, he was telling a man in his early 30s to stop breathing heavily at Saraceno’s Cloud Cities Thermodynamics of Self-Assembly/005 — an inflatable work that was moving in the air, held on its base by thin wires that were barely visible. “Don’t blow on it,” the guard told the man. “Just don’t blow on it.” The next minute, the guard was telling a mother to keep her young son, who looked to be 10, from slithering on his stomach under the tangled wires that held Saraceno’s other sculptures aloft in the air. “You can walk through,” the guard said, “but please don’t walk under.”

So it is with “Tomás Saraceno: Stillness in Motion — Cloud Cities,” a visually sumptuous exhibit of black wires and connecting, mirrored sculptures that practically begs gallerygoers to do what the guard is there to prevent: Immerse yourself in their tangles and openings.

Set in a large gallery where the floor and walls are entirely white, the 10,000-node sculptures become like a floating world of giant webs and objects — and, in a way, Saraceno wants to give viewers the perspective of a spider looking out at the spidery silk it created.

Saraceno has a history of creating arachnid sculptures from real webs, and “Stillness in Motion — Cloud Cities” features a small example of this glowing work, made with silk from spiders classified as Linyphidae and Cyrtrophora citricola. But in that work’s same glass enclosure is a video of Saraceno’s long-term project: “Aerocene.” This involves huge, floating structures that travel in the sky, powered by sunlight and infrared radiation, and with no real carbon footprint. The film shows a bunch of testers in the New Mexico desert preparing one of Saraceno’s creations as it flies into the atmosphere — and stays there.

Saraceno, an Argentine with a background in architecture and visual arts, has held a residency at the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (the French government space agency) and has a current association with the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology. Saraceno says he has seen the future, when people may live in “cloud cities.” And his new exhibit at SFMOMA, which opened Dec. 17, is an artistic push to get visitors thinking about that future.

“We can learn how to float over the earth without burning any fossil fuels, without using energy and resources that are running out,” Saraceno tells SF Weekly by phone from Argentina. “It’s about aerodynamics. It’s about the choreography of the dance between the Sun and the Earth. It’s appealing to a completely different way of living and being.”

Inventors, artists, and scientists have long imagined mankind’s future in space. By connecting sets of spiderwebs with floating cities in the same exhibit hall, Saraceno also emphasizes the “community” support and “interconnectedness” that he says is imperative to keep humanity going with a less destructive effect on the environment.

A utopian vision? Sure, Saraceno admits. But it’s also art. With its sleek set-up on SFMOMA’s sixth floor, he says his exhibit has aesthetic similarities to Stanley Kubrick’s films of the 1960s, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which tried to foreshadow the decades to come.

“You have to experience for yourself what it means to be connected,” Saraceno says of “Stillness in Motion — Cloud Cities,” where the sculptures’ mirrors reflect people from elsewhere in the gallery. “It plays with the level of engagement and the way people interact with the structure. You see things you don’t expect. You have a lot of connection that happens through the surfaces.”

A year ago, Saraceno was exhibiting his floating sculptures in Paris, near the site of the United Nations talk on climate change, where leaders from almost 200 countries agreed to reduce carbon emissions. Art has a place in world governance and in reflecting issues of the environment, he says, since “the environment is a social and political issue.”


Mapping the world can also be a political issue. Just two floors down from Saraceno’s exhibit is a new SFMOMA exhibit by Japanese artist Sohei Nishino, whose maps of prominent cities are obsessive-compulsive masterpieces of cartography, photography, and personal geography. Nishino spends weeks and months exploring a city with his camera: taking public transportation, walking down streets, climbing buildings, meeting strangers. Then he assembles and edits his more than 10,000 photos into maps that resemble the city’s physical contours, seen from above. But the maps are really pastiches, patchwork quilts of black-and-white cutouts like jigsaw puzzles that have been put back together in odd but mesmerizing ways.

In the maps that compose “New Work: Sohei Nishino,” the tones don’t quite match from one small piece to the next. The skies and seas in a scene have different fragments. A building is represented by separate panels, or by a single window instead of an entire structure. Like “Stillness in Motion — Cloud Cities,” “New Work: Sohei Nishino” compels visitors to get close up and immerse themselves in each map’s labyrinth. Nishino made a San Francisco map for the exhibit, his first solo showing in the United States. The map is the 20th of Nishino’s “Diorama Maps” project, and Nishino puts himself in it — in a selfie. It’s next to a photo of the Haight Street Victorian that has blow-up legs sticking out of its second-floor window, which is next to photos of people Nishino met in the area.

“Everyone has a map of certain cities in their minds, depending on their experiences,” Nishino told SFMOMA for the exhibit. “That’s what I’m trying to capture.”

For most of the world’s history, maps have been subjective (and distorted) portraits of distant lands and people. One of history’s finest map series, Dutch cartographer Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior from 1665, places elephants, alligators, and other animals atop Africa, making them as big as that continent’s biggest mountains. The West Coast is depicted as a slanted coastline that stretches not northerly but almost sideways into the Pacific Ocean.

But Blaeu also admitted to his biases in the work’s introduction, writing in words subsequently translated from Latin into English: “A powerful love binds us to our own country or place of birth; should any fail to find their own in this work or demand to see it in a fuller and more accurate depiction, we beg that they will be kind enough to send us any new maps, observations and descriptions in their possession.”

Nishino has turned that idea on its head. He doesn’t much need other mapmakers’ help — not even from those at 21st-century search engines. And he got San Francisco right with his new map. Everything from tourists and cable cars to the homeless and the wealthy are wedged into the crevices of his giant diorama — all together, side by side. The closer you look, the more this “cohabitation” is apparent. Even the city’s seagulls are there, hovering over the city in a way that Tomás Saraceno would surely appreciate.

“Tomás Saraceno’s: Stillness in Motion — Cloud Cities”
Through May 21 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., S.F. $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or

“New Work: Sohei Nishino”
Through Feb. 26 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., S.F. $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or

Jonathan Curiel has covered art and culture for SF Weekly since 2010.

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