Performative skins 3D printed from the building blocks of nature. Twisted and ethereal masks that contain both life and death. A geodesic dome clad in thread by 6,500 silkworms. These are among the seven multimaterial, interdisciplinary, and interspecies projects that will be on view to the public beginning Friday as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Neri Oxman: Material Ecology. The gallery-scale monographic experience samples from the 20-year (and counting) career of Oxman, a designer, inventor, trained architect, and associate professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab, where she also founded and directs the Mediated Matter Group.
Oxman is recognized for coining the term “material ecology” to describe “her process of bringing together materials science, digital fabrication technologies, and organic design to produce techniques and objects informed by the structural, systemic, and aesthetic wisdom of nature,” notes the MoMA press release for the exhibition. In her work, creativity and imagination seem to know no bounds, and disciplines have no divisions.
The projects on view offer a library of prototypes of original materials and processes that will be available in the future to all designers, envisions Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator in the department of architecture and design, and director of research and development. “[S]peculative designers … have to propose ideas and solutions that are plausible and imaginable, however far-fetched,” she said in an interview with MoMA’s magazine. “Neri is always believable because, while her design is arrestingly elegant and could be enough for anyone interested in objects for their own sake, her science is strong and her technology effective.”
In Silk Pavilion II, for example, the thousands of silkworms operated not only as construction workers, but also as designers with agency to vary the density of their spun silk across a robotically fabricated armature. By extension, these insects could inform the design of nature-inspired architectural forms or sunshades.
In Totems, a transparent acrylic brick 3D printed by Stratasys is injected with melanin extracted from six different species, including a bird and a cuttlefish. (The free-standing sculpture was commissioned for last year’s XXII Milan Triennale Broken Nature, also curated by Antonelli and the subject of a forthcoming MoMA exhibition.) Melanin, which gives organisms their pigment along with protection from UV radiation, can also be chemically synthesized or produced by engineered bacteria. One outcome from this investigation is a proposed structure infused with melanin to respond to environmental and daylight conditions, protecting its occupants accordingly.
Many architects and designers were first introduced to Oxman’s work when she took the mainstage as a keynote speaker at the national 2016 AIA Convention, in Philadelphia. However, she and her research have long garnered accolades and honors from institutions and organizations worldwide. MoMA first featured Oxman’s work in its 2008 exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind.
Neri Oxman: Material Ecology, curated by Antonelli and MoMA’s department of architecture and design curatorial assistant Anna Burckhardt, will be on view Feb. 22 through May 25, 2020.