She spends her days with silkworms and shellfish, robots and 3-D printers. She also produces myriad prototypes she calls “artifacts.” A significant lot of this compendium appears in “Neri Oxman: Material Ecology,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Composed of seven projects and hundreds of objects, the exhibition is organized by senior curator, department of architecture and design, and director, research and development, Paola Antonelli.
Editor's note: The Museum of Modern Art has closed temporarily. An audio guide by Neri Oxman and an interview with curator Paola Antonelli are available on the MoMA website.
The two met in 2006, when Oxman was earning her Ph.D. in design computation at MIT and Antonelli was planning 2008's “Design and the Elastic Mind,” which included six works by the young architect. The current show, Antonelli says, “is a distillation of our decade-long exchange since then and reveals that technology, when used as a tool and not just a goal, helps us get closer to integrating nature as a design co-fabricator.”
For Oxman, now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, it’s a showcase for the Mediated Matter Group, her 15-person team of scientists, architects, and artists that conducts research at the intersection of science and technology, nature and culture to create biologically inspired fabrication tools to enhance the relationship between natural and manmade environments, small and large scale. “A lot of what guides our work is a fundamental curiosity for life,” she says.
The women divided the show into two sections: extrusions and infusions. The former centers on Silk Pavilion II, a site-specific, nearly 16-foot-tall hyperbolic paraboloid formed from the output of some 17,000 living silkworms, a response to the current state of the garment industry (approximately 50,000 silkworms get boiled to death to create a single shirt). “Our passion is biodiversity—maintaining it on the planet and augmenting it,” states Oxman, who had her first child last spring.
A highlight of the latter section is Totems, clear photopolymer-resin columns, their 3-D printed pockets infused with natural and chemically produced melanin, the pigment that defines hair and skin color. Oxman believes melanin can be used to create a first-of-its-kind biological building, one that naturally provides shade during the day, that is “more grown than built.” Adds Antonelli, “We envision these objects, processes, and materials as tools for future architects, designers, and artists to create in a different way.”