First published on plant-terra, April 2020
A new exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) showcases the radical projects and sustainable design of boundary-breaking polymath and innovator Neri Oxman.
American-Israeli architect, designer, academic and inventor Neri Oxman has built a reputation for being at the cutting edge of new design materials and methodologies. Throughout her 20 year career the polymath has conceived of ground-breaking ideas for materials, objects, buildings, and construction processes that straddle disciplines, challenge old frameworks, and push for interdisciplinary—and interspecies—collaborations.
After graduating from Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and London’s Architectural Association, in 2005 Oxman moved to MIT to work on her PhD, where in 2010 she was made an associate professor. Since then she has led the Meditated Matter Group at MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research team working at the intersection of design and biology which focuses on ‘nature-inspired design and design-inspired nature.’ In recent years the team has designed a synthetic apiary that creates a constant spring-like environment for bees; water-based digital and robotic fabrication of biodegradable material constructed from molecular components found in tree branches, insect exoskeletons, and our own bones; and a swarm fabrication system called Fiberbots which can autonomously build architectural structures. From tree bark and crustaceans’ shells to silkworms and human breath, nature has influenced Neri Oxman’s design and production processes, culminating in an exhibition of her innovative designs.
Material Ecology, a new exhibition which opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) earlier last month presents a chance to explore her career to date, showcasing her research at MIT Media Lab.Organised by Museum of Modern Art senior curator Paola Antonelli and curatorial assistant Anna Burckhardt, the exhibition marks the first time Oxman’s work is shown as a collection.
The term ‘material ecology’ was coined by Oxman to create a framework for understanding a new discipline which combines engineering, computational design, art, synthetic biology and 3-D printing to create environmentally-sustainable—and often environmentally responsive—new materials and biocomposites.
Spanning works from 2007 to today, the exhibition features seven experimental projects, amongst them 3D-printed glass structures, which Oxman’s team produced following the 2015 discovery that molten glass can be layered to make a three-dimensional object. Also included are earlier projects like 3D-printed designs injected with a mixture of bioactive materials, like wearable skins and a series of Vespers death masks created by 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys. The first series of masks was designed to contain the wearer’s last breath, functioning as “biological urns”. And the third series are inhabited by pigment-producing living microorganisms, synthetically engineered by Oxman’s team to produce chemical substances for human augmentation, such as vitamins, antibodies or antimicrobial drugs.
There is also the radical Totems project, first commissioned as part of the XXII Triennale di MilanoBroken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival in 2019, which features rectangular prisms of clear resin structures injected with liquid melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives colour to human skin, hair and eyes, and is found across the animal and plant kingdoms—in the brown skin of ripening fruit, feathers, fur and butterfly wings. The substance shields humans from the sun’s UV radiation and also has wider protective properties, such as protecting microorganisms from high temperatures, chemical stresses and biochemical threats. Today it can be chemically synthesized with modern techniques. Someday, Oxman proposes, melanincould be infused inside glass and used to produce environmentally responsive facades that vary with the time of day or the season.
At the heart of the exhibition stands the 9.5-meter tall Silk Pavilion II (2020) made by 17,000 silkworms which have laid their silk to completely cover the structure inside and out. Custom-made for the show, the design is the second version of the Silk Pavilion Oxman created in 2013, and uses a jig machine that rotates the structure. Like a live performance silkworms move across the pavilion to lay silk more evenly.
The work challenges the traditional production of silk, highlighting how the material can be made more sustainable and humane, with still maintaining relatively high levels of control over fibre-distribution. While silk is conventionally manufactured by boiling alive the silk worm in their cocoon, Oxman “hires silkworms as her construction crew,” explains curator Antonelli in a MoMA interview, inspiring sustainable and ethical sericulture practice with silk worms, but also more sustainable cultivation of other living beings exploited by humans for their products, such as bees for their honey. “It is in my mind a vision for cohabitation where the single-family house is not human-centric but is nature-centric. Humans, organisms, materials, the environment, they’re all appropriated and referred to in synergy and harmony. They’re all part of the design process,”Oxman states for MoMA.
That’s the beauty of Oxman’s designs. They present an optimistic vision of the future where sustainable design solutions are found to our intractable modern problems in the fusion of technology and nature, and are grounded in a respect for the natural world.
Neri Oxman: Material Ecology is on from 22 February to 25 May 2020 and is viewable online.