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Neri Oxman’s “Material Ecology”

Aug 11, 2020

Now available through MoMa’s ‘Virtual Views’ programme, Neri Oxman’s latest exhibition not only takes a critical look at the future of architecture and design, but also aims to re-define the role of the designer as the initiator of a process, rather than the decisive form-giver of an object. 

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All Images Courtesy Of: The Museum of Modern Art

Although “Neri Oxman: Material Ecology” opened in New York City’s MoMA in February earlier this year, the exhibition has barely had a chance to be viewed by the public in person (MoMa’s museums and design stores have been closed since March 12th as a result of COVID-19). In an effort to still engage with people beyond the museum’s physical space, the exhibition has now become a part of the large institution’s ‘Virtual Views’ programme — which gives exclusive access to interviews, the exhibition’s catalogue, audio guides and images.

Over the years, Neri Oxman and her research group Mediated Matter have become a force to be reckoned with in the architecture and design scene. An architect by training, Oxman started medical school before following her parents’ footsteps (who are also architected), attending both Tel Aviv’s Technion and London’s Architectural Association. As the founding director of The Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab, Oxman coined the term “material ecology” to describe an emerging field in which humans, automated processes, and nature unite to produce objects and structures that are designed through growth, with no assembly required. Her process integrates advanced 3D-printing techniques with in-depth research of natural phenomena, material ecology incorporates biology, engineering, materials science, and computer science.

The exhibition “Neri Oxman: Material Ecology” is a testament to over two decades worth of work and the collaboration between Neri and the show’s curator, Paola Antonelli [who we also spoke to earlier this year], but is a decidedly small and focused show that is organised around seven of Oxman’s most instrumental projects. Moving beyond the static design exhibitions that most museum’s present, MoMa’s exhibition is grounded in seeing the designer and their work not as a static element, but one that is always changing and in-process — and no work exemplifies this strategy more than “Silk Pavilion”, in which we see silkworms creating a cocoon around a man-made structure. By presenting the works alongside artefacts, prototypes and videos that show the methodology behind their creation, these methods are not kept private – but shared with anyone who wants to learn more. In doing so, each work acts as a “demo” for a library of materials and processes that might someday be available to all architects and designers.

Starting from the point of speculative design, the branch of design that deals with imagining possible futures through design at all scales, Oxman’s projects go being merely imagination and work towards her methodology’s potential implications — offering visions of futures in which objects are in symbiosis with natural materials as well as their digitally engineered reality. Whether they’re created by silkworms or infused with melanin or bacteria, Oxman’s aesthetic works aim to open us up to living in buildings that are capable of responding to variations in light and temperature, or even rejecting the idea that everything must last forever and instead be alright with the fact that things age and decay organically, and that these can be created to return to nature (and not harm it) once they have served their purpose. As Antonelli points out in the exhibition’s catalogue: “Her [Neri Oxman’s] practice is a powerful anticipation of a better possible future, and it is projected toward that future without apparent anxiety, patiently weaving connections between disciplines and between species, slowing down the pace of making by marrying the latest technologies with the most ancient and deliberate of tempos—those of silkworms, bees, and microbes. She engages change using change’s own momentum”. 

Even though it feels strange to be accessing Oxman’s projects through a virtual portal, and MoMa’s ‘Virtual Views’ may still need some work if it really wants to embody what viewers go through when visiting a museum — it still manages to give online viewers access to insights that they may not have been able to have when visiting the exhibition in person (as long as they put in the work, that is). One thing, in particular, that was great to experience was being able to witness and hear about the relationship between the exhibition’s curator, Antonelli, and Oxman — who first met back in 2006 when Oxman was still an architecture student. In nearly every facet of the online exhibition, we see the two interacting with one another, and letting us viewers into their understandings of one another and their practices.

Neri Oxman: Material Ecology” opened at MoMA in New York on February 22nd 2020 and ran until MOMA’s temporary closure. Viewers can now see the exhibition as part of MoMa’s ‘Virtual Views’ here

Cover Photo: “The Aguahoja Artifacts Display: A catalogue of material experiments spanning four years of research shows the range of aesthetics and behaviours we have been able to elicit in medium-to-large-scale prints via performative geometric toolpaths, generative design, bio-composite distributions, and variable fabrication parameters”. // Image Credits: Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Aguahoja I. 2018. Photo: The Mediated Matter Group. Courtesy The Mediated Matter Group

Installation view of Neri Oxman: Material Ecology, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 22, 2020 – May 25, 2020. © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Denis Doorly
Vespers is a collection of 15 3-D-printed masks that explore the idea of designing with live biological materials. The collection consists of three distinct series, each reinterpreting the concept of the death mask—traditionally a wax or plaster impression of a corpse’s face. Taken as a whole, the three series form a narrative arc from death to rebirth. In the first series, Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group looked at the death mask as a cultural artifact. Fabricated using an algorithm that deconstructed polyhedral meshes into subdivided surfaces, the masks were 3-D printed with photopolymers, as well as with bismuth, silver, and gold, and rendered in color combinations that recur in religious practices around the world. Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Vespers. 2018. Series 1, Mask 5, front view. Designed for The New Ancient Collection. Curated and 3-D printed by Stratasys. Photo: Yoram Reshef.
Installation view of Neri Oxman: Material Ecology, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 22, 2020 – May 25, 2020. © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Denis Doorly
Vespers is a collection of 15 3-D-printed masks that explore the idea of designing with live biological materials. The collection consists of three distinct series, each reinterpreting the concept of the death mask—traditionally a wax or plaster impression of a corpse’s face. Taken as a whole, the three series form a narrative arc from death to rebirth. Vespers II represents the moment between life and death. Letting the inner structures of the masks come to the surface, the team employed a Data-driven Material Modeling (DdMM) process that used external, user-generated, geometry-based data sets to produce 3-D-printed objects from diverse materials. Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Lazarus. 2016. Produced by, and in collaboration with, Stratasys, Ltd. Courtesy The Mediated Matter Group.
Installation view of Neri Oxman: Material Ecology, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 22, 2020 – May 25, 2020. © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Denis Doorly.
Over the course of 10 days, 17,000 silkworms spun horizontally across a water-soluble knit draped over a stainless steel frame. As the worms progressed, a rotating mandrel helped guide their spinning motions upward. Changes in heat and light influenced the silkworms’ movement, so that the resulting silk varies in density across the structure. The holes in the knit layer, which were created by silkworm excrement, release some of the structure’s tensile stress. Installation view of Neri Oxman: Material Ecology, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 22, 2020 – May 25, 2020. © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Denis Doorly.
What might constitute sustainable construction methods for the future? Can humans collaborate with other species in the design and construction of objects and buildings, bringing us closer to the exquisite circularity of nature? These were some of the questions that Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group sought to answer with the development of Silk Pavilion I, a silk dome that was produced through a combination of digital (a computer-controlled robotic arm) and biological (6,500 silkworms) fabrication. Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Silk Pavilion. 2013. View through Silk Pavilion apertures as the silk worms skin the structure. Photo: The Mediated Matter Group. Courtesy The Mediated Matter Group.
Melanins are a group of pigments ranging in color from yellow to brown. The term “melanin” often refers to eumelanin, a particular type that is brown-black in color. However, other types, such as pheomelanin (yellow-red in color), also exist. This “library” represents the diversity of melanin, and includes constituent components of the reaction as well as melanin-containing natural materials, such as feathers and cuttlefish ink. Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Totems. 2018. Courtesy Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group.
Architectural proposal for an environmentally responsive melanin infused structure. Created for Design Indaba. Rendering by Eric de Broche des Combes, Luxigon. The glass structure is designed to contain multiple strains of melanin, naturally obtained on site and biologically synthesized at the lab. It provides UV protection during the day, while enabling stargazing upon sunset. A first-of-its-kind biologically augmented facade, the structure is designed to protect endangered species on site and to celebrate the diversity of life on our planet. Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Totems. 2018. Courtesy Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group
In 2015, Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group developed the first Glass 3-D Printer (G3DP), which produces structures made of extruded layers of molten glass. Featuring a dual-heating chamber that functions in the upper part as a kiln and in the lower part as an annealer, as well as a sophisticated cooling system, the printer runs at approximately 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,140 degrees Celsius). Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Glass I. 2015. Courtesy The Mediated Matter Group.
Cover of the catalogue for Neri Oxman: Material Ecology.
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