Standehaus


I love architecture.

But even more so, I love the process of design so I take any chance I get to peek behind the curtain that is the world around us, to see the process behind the final product be it skyscraper or cell phone.This goes for fine art as well and I am as interested in the study sketches and underlying layout lines as the final image.

So it was with great anticipation that I visited the K21 Ständehaus in Düsseldorf, where an amazing two-part art installation by Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno was waiting to chill and thrill me. The old building itself has been nicely renovated into a four story art museum crowned by a domed glass roof. My journey began on the second floor where tucked into a dark room, black curtain blocking out the lobby daylight, hang two wonderfully presented installations - simple box-frames of thin black metal attached to glowing light fixtures above. The real magic though, comes from the tiny artists inside these frames - spiders!

Despite the arachnophobic tendencies of my youth, I was fascinated by the three-dimensional masterpieces created by the little eight-legged weavers. In the smaller frame a few solitary tendrils of silk blossomed into deep translucent clouds, their smooth cotton-candy textures broken only by the remnants of former meals and the occasional cast-off arachnoid exoskeleton. In the larger frame different rounds of spiders had created a complex landscape of disk-shaped webs, some as small as poker chips, others the size of dinner plates. Regardless of size, the disks tended to include a funnel rising up out of the middle like some Saturday sci-fi wormhole. As I studied the gossamer landscape, my mind went back to late night coffee shop discussions of fractal geometries and intelligent design during architecture school. This, of course, was why Saraceno had created this exhibit - the importance of rhythms and forms found in nature influence much of his work. My thoughts were interrupted by a group of German high school students who entered excitedly, then spent the next few minutes trying not to touch the floor as their guide explained that these works were and are being created by live, uncaged spiders. It was at this point I noticed that the tiny artists had "colored outside the lines", as it were, continuing their creation above the frame's light and along a support cable up into the darkness. I am sure that Saraceno would appreciate this extra effort as much as I did!

Mesmerized as I was, I can’t say that I have ever longed to have a Peter Parker transformation so I headed up the stairs, to the top floor of the lobby. Once there, I had to sign away all rights to sue, zip into blue-grey overalls and slip into knobby-bottomed shoes. Then of course, there was the obligatory nod at the right times during the "no jumping no running no spitting" safety speech but then I got to step out into…nothing!

Well, at least it looks like nothing. Spreading out before me was a thin steel web, suspended on cables from the glass roof's structure and I was officially “in orbit”, as Saraceno calls his new exhibit. The strands are at most an eighth of an inch in diameter, pinched into 4 inch diamonds by aluminum and stainless steel hardware. The web falls away in one direction and rises up to second and third layers in another, warped into rolling hills by half a dozen translucent vinyl spheres. One in particular grabs your eye, a 15 foot diameter mylar covered sphere which reflects and distorts everything around it. But my eyes were riveted on the floor some 80 plus feet below me! I wanted to take that next step, before my German colleague, but one hand seemed to be locked in a death-grip on the aluminum stair rail. Luckily, my pride took over, my legs unlocked, and suddenly I was bounding fearlessly across the warped web in moon-landing sized leaps! Ok, maybe not fearlessly, but fascination does push fear aside as you move, and more so as you are moved by everyone else around you.

Pillows were strewn about for those who wished to lounge, but from a distance they look like the husks of forgotten meals of some Shelob-sized spider (Yes, I know Shelob isn't a true spider, but that fact didn't keep me from imagining Her pursuing us relentlessly across the woven steel landscape). One of the surprises in this experience was the interaction between visitors – any step one of them takes on the webs is felt by all of the others, much like a trapped and wriggling insect calls the spider to seal its doom.

We worked our way to the top level, within a few meters of the glass dome, but far more fun was lying on the lowest level - faces pressed against the mesh, fascinated by the unobstructed lobby floor below. Two-legged ant people milled around below, cameras snapping away at the crazy pair laughing high above them. But back to the exhibit’s name, for a second – “in orbit”, coupled with the floating spheres and warped-space look, would seem to have drawn some inspiration from a galactic scale view of the Universe which seems a nice counterpoint to the sub-human scale of the spider webs, so perhaps part of Saraceno’s message is that like fractal geometry, similarity of form can exceed issues of scale. In any case, it felt wonderful being the "fly that got away" as we worked our way back to the stair, marveling at the complexity Saraceno and his team pulled from the simple forms of the spider webs in the room below.

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