The Milan Triennale once helped to shape the world of industrial design. In 2019 it is asking if we can design a new relationship with nature – before it’s too late. By Priya Khanchandani
A string of exhibitions taking place in the US and in Europe put the environment at the top of the agenda for the design-conscious this spring. Among them are the Pompidou’s Designing the Living, addressing the intersection between nature and technological production, and a Triennale organised between the Cooper Hewitt in New York and Cube design museum in Kerkrade, the Netherlands, which will present ways that design can help to solve the impending climate emergency.
The most anticipated is the Triennale in Milan, titled Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, showing at the Palazzo dell’Arte until September. The Triennale was founded in 1923 as a non-site-specific exhibition. It has a tradition of reflecting on contemporary issues and takes place in a city that is at the cornerstone of our understanding of design. The prominence of the event gave rise to a museum, housed at the Palazzo dell’Arte by Giovanni Muzio, which was open from the 1930s until the 90s, when both the museum and exhibition entered a hiatus. The Palazzo reopened in 2007, with the Triennale exhibition recommencing three years ago. This year’s iteration is the first with architect and editor Stefano Boeri at the museum’s helm, and takes place under the guest leadership of Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s influential design curator, who grew up in Milan.
The choice of subject is a direct response to the environmental crisis, which was clearly apparent as the temperatures hit record highs for winter during the Triennale’s opening week. ‘The issue is becoming more and more urgent,’ Antonelli explains, ‘and politicians are doing less and less, at least in the two countries where I live [the USA and Italy].’ The event is less about design innovation than design as a tool to change how we think about our environment. It is as much an assessment of the extent to which we, as humans, misunderstand our relationship with the planet as it is a politicised call to action. ‘We keep on thinking that we are other than nature, but we are not,’ Antonelli continues. ‘I went from having an understanding of nature, to an understanding of us [as being] inside of nature.’
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Among the Triennale’s two exhibitions and numerous country pavilions, the most critically aware is the exhibition Broken Nature, curated by Antonelli herself, which brings together a body of design – mainly conceptual – connecting humans with the natural world. Unlike a conventional triennale or biennale, the exhibition is dominated by existing works rather than new commissions. Through an intelligent narrative sewn together by the careful selection of works, Antonelli gives us no other option than to acknowledge the damage our species has inflicted on our environment and to demand change in every sphere.
The most compelling aspects of the exhibition are works that try to change the way in which humans think about nature. One is a mural that could easily be appreciated for its graphic design finesse alone. In actual fact, The Room of Change (2019) is a sophisticated data visualisation by Giorgia Lupi of Accurat, which involved months of painstaking research. Though alluring, it charts the damage we have caused to the planet over time.
A set of curated objects aims to obfuscate the vagueness with which periods are considered, demanding them to be more readily acknowledged as a fact of nature. Hiromo Ozaki, the British-Japanese designer known as Sputniko!, presents the Menstruation Machine (2010), a metal device that wraps around your waist and is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that are intended to replicate – for men, children, postmenopausal women or others – the discomfort of a menstrual period. Although so far a conceptual project, its purpose is practical: to allow anyone to feel what it is like to undergo this biological process.
Changing the way we think about the planet are a series of speculations on what could become of it. Charles Moore and Patricia Corcoran’s Plastiglomerage (2013) fuses sediment with plastic, warning us how the fossils of the future will be formed, given the great quantities of plastic waste with which we have littered our planet. Reliquaries (2018) by Paolo Bay and Armando Bruno displays a set of natural objects that we should treat with sanctity – from a handful of soil to a collection of mineral rocks. Also in this vein are an installation that diffuses the scent of an extinct flower and a display of seeds from plants that we have managed to inadvertently kill off.
Aside from the many conceptual interventions, the exhibition includes some with practical application, among which are a handful that address the waste crisis. Atelier Luma’s ongoing research project Algae Geographies has produced a new material based on marine plants that has the potential to replace plastic, absorbing carbon dioxide emissions in the process. Led by curator and lecturer Jan Boelen and initially exhibited at Istanbul Design Biennial in 2018 (which Boelen himself curated), the project has undergone a further research phase in Sardinia in the run-up to the Triennale. In an exciting step forward, it is now being developed for industrial application, with the aim of making it available for designers to create marketable products.
Studio Formafantasma, known best for their experimental work with materials, have turned their minds to electronic waste. Ore Streams (2017-19), their commission for the Triennale, highlights the fact that this is the fastest-growing stream of waste. Recycling such waste is problematic and complex, so Formafantasma have consulted with experts in the field internationally, from designers to manufacturers, and instead dismantled electronic products and reused their parts. Their research responds to a highly pertinent problem. It is only a shame that they could not have used found metal objects to produce something of greater social or societal worth than a range of trendy office furniture.
Some of the recognisable works include pieces from Martino Gamper’s 100 Chairs in 100 Days (2007-17), a set of chairs creatively assembled from found parts, which were exhibited at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan a decade ago.
Christien Meindertsma’s PIG, a book first published in 2007, is also given new relevance. In a unique research project, Meindertsma traces the uses of a single pig, numbered 05049, exposing it as a raw material used in no less than 185 products – inanimate objects as well as food. The book shows that half of the pig is used as meat and the rest for non-edible products, the latter of which end up in a surprising array of everyday things we would ordinarily consider to be ‘vegan’, from cigarette filters to adhesive for sandpaper and also – somewhat disconcertingly for those who avoid consuming pork – as glue to stick together certain cuts of cows’ meat.
Among the national entries, highlights include the Russian pavilion by a team that includes Moscow-based architecture practice Meganom + MARCHI, which relates the life of a river over 100 years. At the British pavilion, curated by the V&A and commissioned by the British Council and Art Jameel, Forensic Architecture show the latest iteration of their research into the genocide of the Yazidi people in northern Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State. The German pavilion, a film installation based on archival images collected by artist Armin Linke, is housed in a normally inaccessible part of the Palazzo, which exposes an intriguing 1960s brutalist staircase that is otherwise hidden. With theatrical style, it opens out onto the museum’s bookshop.
In spite of tackling an ambitious scope that covers animals, plants and even microbes, all at the intersection of design, the Triennale manages to form an incisive narrative through a body of work that ultimately exposes our dire grasp our environment. Bringing the otherwise roving event under one roof contains its intensity and generates cumulative impact under a singular theme. Amid the fanfare of the opening – attended by none other than the Italian President and the Mayor of Milan – it only remains to be seen whether Antonelli’s feat will finally spark action by the world’s politicians.