One to three days: that’s how long it takes a silkworm to produce its one kilometer of silk. The silk pavilion on display in the ground-floor gallery at MoMA took the work of 17,000 silkworms — in collaboration with a robotic arm, and a team of researchers at MIT.
The hyperboloid-shaped pavilion is larger than the sum of its parts, however; it’s representative of the philosophy driving Neri Oxman’s work, on view in a solo exhibition, “Material Ecology,” opening Feb. 22.
As founder and director of the Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab, Oxman (who also happens to be married to Bill Ackman) works at the intersection of technology, biology and culture. At MoMA, the art perspective is at the forefront, but through projected process videos and displays of completed works and experiments Oxman showcases how the discipline of material ecology can be practically applied in different contexts.
“Material ecology basically aims to place material things that are artificially made, that are designed, in the context of natural ecology,” Oxman said during an intimate preview of the exhibition. “And the hope is that in the future we will design with natural ecology in mind, such that all things material will be made, respond, adapt to the natural ecology. The vision, of course, is that in the future one will not be able to differentiate or separate the natural from the artificial, for good and for bad,” she adds. “A moment will come where you will find material ecology singularity — was this made, was it built, or was it grown, and does it matter?”
That is the underlying thought of all the projects displayed in the exhibit, all single material systems with implications for practical design. The lab’s investigations with silkworms, for example, could contribute to creating better textile designs that accommodate for flexibility and stiffness, and UV-shielding melanin — shown sculpturally in the exhibit at MoMA — could be integrated in architecture to protect biodiversity. (Of course, there’s the question of cost: as a substance, melanin is worth more than gold.)
“The dream is that Picasso and Einstein meet in the Cinderella moment at 12 o’clock, where art informs science and where new perceptions of our reality informs how to think about information,” said Oxman, describing the feedback loop of the various disciplines of her work. “And turning that information again into knowledge, and vice versa.”
“Material Ecology” will be on display through May 25, 2020.