Broken Nature: Can design help fix the planet?

Curator Paola Antonelli talks to CR about her latest project – an exhibition that contemplates human extinction and the concept of ‘restorative design’

Capsula Mundi, designed by Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, provides an alternative to a traditional coffin or urn. Ashes or remains can be placed inside the biodegradable container and planted in the ground. Photo: Francesco D’Angelo

Paola Antonelli’s latest exhibition takes a rather bleak subject as its starting point. Broken Nature – which opens at the Milan Triennale on March 1 – explores the threat of human extinction and asks how design can help prolong human life (or at least minimise our impact on the planet).

This might sound alarming, but Antonelli believes it’s a topic we need to confront: “Think of it as an individual: nobody likes death – it’s terrifying – but still we all know we have to go through it. Life has a cycle, and at a certain point you start thinking and feeling your mortality, and you start thinking of your legacy. You’re not looking forward to it, but it’s natural, so you might as well make the best of it. As a human species, we’re in exactly the same situation … so we might as well leave a legacy we can be proud of.”

The exhibition was inspired by the work of scientists, writers and philosophers such as Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway and Heather Davis, as well as a growing concern over the state of the Earth (the UN has warned that we have just 12 years to limit climate change to avoid catastrophic flooding and droughts).

Trinitite, the first ever manmade mineral and a product of nuclear bomb testing (more info here)

The show begins with images from NASA’s Images of Change website, which highlights the lasting damage that natural disasters and human activity have had on landscapes around the world, and a handcrafted tapestry designed by Giorgia Lupi, which charts environmental changes over the past few centuries. There’s an art piece from Kelly Jazvac which looks at plastiglomerates – stones that contain a mix of sediment and plastic, which Antonelli refers to as “the fossils of the future” – and a musical piece which evokes the sound of a dying star. All this aims to highlight the beauty of the natural world and the fact that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis.

“These [items] are demonstrations. They’re in your face and they show you – sometimes bluntly, sometimes subtly – what could happen [to the planet]. That’s one part of the exhibition, and the other is extremely practical.”

This practical section features everyday objects and design concepts that have the potential to change how we interact with the environment, from Thinx’s period-proof pants and the Ruby Cup (which provide eco-friendly alternatives to traditional sanitary products) to the Hippo Roller, a device created to improve access to water in Africa. Another section explores the concept of waste and reuse: items include a collection of office furniture made out of electrical waste and by Formafantasma, and a concept for a clothing boutique where customers can bring knitted items and have them turned into a new garment.

Formafantasma – Ore Streams

The show includes several commissions – along with Formafantasma’s office furniture (part of an ongoing research project into electrical waste cycles), MIT Media Lab Professor Neri Oxman has explored possible design applications of melanin.

The exhibition ends with work that aims to evoke empathy with the natural world – including a series of nude self-portraits by the late photographer Laura Aguilar. Shot in the New Mexican desert, Aguilar’s images show her curled up next to boulders and trees, her poses echoing the landscape around her. “That’s the work that has moved me the most in the past few years – those images are just beautiful,” adds Antonelli.

Artist and ceramicist Charlotte Slotte gives new life to discarded objects – shown here is a reworked plastic plate

Antonelli says the exhibition has three key aims: to give people a sense of their role in protecting the planet’s future (“even though our extinction might happen in 1,000, 2,000 years, we’re already part of it,” she says); to make them aware of the complexity of manufacturing systems and to help them understand what they can do to help on an individual level – whether it’s using a Ruby Cup, choosing not to eat meat or avoiding swimming in natural waters while wearing sunscreen.

“It’s not about driving everyone crazy, but once you know how beef is produced, you can choose. You can become a vegetarian, you can buy cruelty free beef – you can make an [educated] decision,” explains Antonelli.

Sun+, a research project by Buro Belen exploring textile alternatives to sunscreen. Photo: Giulia Piermartiri

The show is not an exhaustive look at how designers can fix the planet or create a better future for the world – “it can’t possibly be, but it’s part of a change that is happening,” says Antonelli. “The Triennale is one of many exhibitions that are happening about nature, about our position on Earth and it is one of many efforts by cultural leaders and non-leaders to convince, prove, demonstrate that there really is an environmental crisis…. What I’m hoping to do with the Triennale is to sensitise citizens, because that’s what we can do – we can change minds by showing. Design can change minds, words can change minds, but images and objects can change it even more – they’re so effective.”

Alongside the exhibition, which runs until September, Antonelli and her fellow curators have set up a website and Instagram Feed to share stories of featured projects and concepts. Antonelli – who is also Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art – hopes the website will spark conversations and debate and extend the project’s reach beyond the Triennale.

Studio Folder’s project Italian Limes (shown here at the Venice Biennale) shows how global warming and shrinking glaciers have caused borders to shift in remote Alpine regions. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani. © Studio Folder.

While she admits the show’s themes might seem a little morbid, she hopes it will make people stop and think, and ultimately feel more of a connection with the world around them.

“You know when you see something or you’re a bit low, or your defences are down and you read something in a deeper way? I would like to bring people to that kind of state with this exhibition – a state that is aware but also open. You might feel sadness but then you leave, your sadness fades and then you go home and think ‘I’m lucky’ … and you look at people on the bus, at dogs, at cockroaches and plants in a different way. It sounds a little new age-y perhaps but I’m trying to not be new age-y – I’m trying to look at this in a very real way through design and architecture.”

Broken Nature is on display at La Triennale de Milano until September 1.