Designing for the End of the World: The Milan Triennale

Curated by Paola Antonelli, ‘Broken Nature’ offers a few rays of hope amid environmental disaster

On 15 March, hundreds of thousands of young people marched in cities across the world in the Global Climate Strike For Future to demand urgent solutions to impending ecological disaster. In Milan, entrance to the XXII Triennale, ‘Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival’ was free for all protestors. It would, indeed, be difficult to imagine a more natural audience for this exhibition, which seeks to reconnect humankind to its endangered planet via more than 100 works and group research projects that act as antidotes to apathy towards environmental, political and humanitarian crises. 

Curated by Paola Antonelli – senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and an architecture graduate of Milan’s Politecnico University (in 1990) – the show opens with ‘The Room of Change’ (2019). A series of images from the NASA archives projected on two large, suspended screens, these document how climatic and human modifications have impacted various locations over recent decades. Alongside is a 30-metre-long ‘data-driven wallpaper’, designed by Accurat studio, which employs graphic design, geometric symbols and deceptively decorative pastel colours to chart how humans engage with each other as well as with nature, animals, technology, society and science. Each field of enquiry corresponds to a horizontal strip that runs from left (past) to right (future), so that every section – for instance, the consumption of fossil fuel – can be read not only within the context of its own chronological development but of its intersections with other phenomena. This elegant visual formalization manifests the urgency needed to interpret and organize purposefully the critical mass of big data and ‘inconvenient facts and truths’, as Antonelli’s wall label describes them, which currently flood our infosphere.

'The Room of Change', installation view. Courtesy: La Triennale di Milano; photograph: Gianluca Di Loia 

‘The Room of Change’, installation view. Courtesy: La Triennale di Milano; photograph: Gianluca Di Loia

Thanks to Milan-based Studio Folder and Matilde Cassani’s seamless, minimal exhibition design, the Triennale unfolds fluidly, with works, projects and documentation often organized by thematic resonance. One section evokes rising sea levels and ocean pollution: bonfire-fused plastic debris and beach sediment collected in Hawaii by geologist Patricia Corcoran, oceanographer Charles Moore and artist Kelly Jazvac (Plastiglomerate, 2013) are presented next to Aki Inomata’s video (2016–17), which observes how an adaptive octopus finds shelter in the 3D-printed, transparent-resin shell of an Ammonite (the octopus’s primordial ancestor, which became extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs). Maldives/Sandbars (2018–19), a film by MIT Self-Assembly Lab with Sarah Jasmin Dole and Hassan Maahee Ahmed Maniku, illustrates how the same forces that produce coastal erosion – waves, currents, sand – could be used to generate new ‘natural’ barriers around the islands.

If the exhibition has a weak spot, it would arguably be its (mostly Western) postindustrial perspective, rooted in scientific paradigms of our ecosystem. There are, however, some exceptions. ‘La Vega’ (2017–18), for instance, is a series of paintings on paper by Colombian artist Abel Rodríguez, who draws plants and animals from memory then classifies them according to the language and customs of his native Amazonian community, the Nonuya.

It is impossible to enumerate here all 100 projects, which range from installations to videogames, from seed-sowing shoes to DNA-based reconstructions of the scents of lost flowers, from clothes designed for people in wheelchairs to silk pavilions, from corn stover and mushroom bricks to algae-based bioplastics, food-producing bots and organic funeral urns. One personal favourite was a small group of hands-on projects targeting female physiology, including the reusable menstruation products Ruby Cup (2011), by Julie Kjaer Weigaard, Maxie Matthiessen and Veronica D’Souza of Ruby Life Ltd., and Thinx’s Period-Proof Underwear (2017), whose combined potential impact on reducing global waste is gigantic. And I am still haunted by the image of Japanese designer Ai Hasegawa swimming underwater surrounded by a swirl of male sharks, after spraying her wetsuit with a special fragrance designed to seduce them (Human X Shark, 2017). 

Rachel Sussman, Llareta #0303-2B31 from 'The Oldest Living Things in the World' series. Couresty: the artist and La Triennale Di Milano 

Rachel Sussman, Llareta #0303-2B31 from ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’ series. Courtesy: the artist and La Triennale Di Milano

However, the exhibition also makes room for the toxic by-products of present-day politics. The Political Equator (2018), a film by Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, substitutes the regular geographical equator with an imaginary line connecting the most controversial frontiers across the globe, from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Palestine/Israel and Mexico/US borders, where human life, human rights and human survival are broken every day. 

‘Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival’ runs at La Triennale di Milano, Italy, until 1 September 2019.

Main image: Aki Inomata, Think Evolution #1 :Kiku-ishi (Ammonite), 2016-17. Courtesy: the artist and La Triennale Di Milano

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator living in Milan, Italy.

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