It was a bad week if you’re the type of person who enjoys a habitable planet. A dire report chronicled how human activities could cause 1 million species to go extinct. But that doesn’t have to happen, and a new exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan and the Cube design museum in the Netherlands looks at how we can pull the emergency brake and maybe even start to undo the damage.
The “Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” exhibition, which opened simultaneously at both museums this week, is the perfect antidote to Monday’s alarming extinction report. The pieces in the show range from art made of corn husks to vertical farms for butterflies that can be hung on skyscrapers. The message they all send is that we may have divorced ourselves from nature in the pursuit of endless growth, but we can start to repair our relationship. They invite viewers to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
The exhibition’s curators identified seven ways designers are already working with the concept of nature that form the backbone of the exhibit. Among the themes are understand nature, simulate, salvage, remediate, and augment it. All put humans squarely in the middle of nature in a way that indicates both a return to the natural world and an acknowledgment that we can’t ever put ecosystems back together like they once were.
“We are nature,” Matilda McQuaid, Cooper Hewitt’s deputy director of curatorial and head of textiles, told Earther. “We’re beginning to realize that and understand that with much greater empathy and depth.”
The first room of the exhibit introduces the theme of understanding nature. Even before you walk in, you can hear the installation tinkling like delicate hail off windows. The noise is the result of handmade bugs—replicas of insects native to New York—dancing inside glass bulbs suspended from the ceiling as visitors approach them. The bulbs keep the bugs separate while allowing visitors to engage with them by watching their movement. It feels fragile and incredibly light, like a return to childhood and catching fireflies on summer nights.
But you can’t keep reality at bay forever, and the pieces in the exhibition don’t shy away from the harm we’ve done. They include Adidas sneakers made of ocean plastic, ink made from air pollution, and a virtual version of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino that died last year. The Sudan piece is particularly poignant as a pixelated digital projection slowly morphs into a rhino while recordings of Sudan’s grunts and huffs play in the background. Scientists are considering ways of bringing back northern white rhinos using modern techniques like cloning, raising thorny ethical questions about where to direct our efforts and resources that the pixelated version of Sudan hints at.
“We can’t even preserve species and yet we’re trying to resuscitate them,” McQuaid said. “What are our priorities and where do we put our energies?”
But in addition to chronicling loss, the exhibit also focuses on what to do with the resources we have in front of us, from putting ourselves in harmony with nature to finding new forms of symbiosis. The exhibit showcases a stunning dress made of glowing silk, the result of injecting silk worm eggs with jellyfish and coral DNA, and a “carbon negative” plastic raincoat made of from algae-based polymers. The algae suck carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow, making the coat both a fashion statement and a stash of formerly airborne carbon.
The show even reimagines our death as getting closer to nature. Jae Rhimm Lee’s “Infinity Burial Suit,” which Lee told Earther “embraces the opposite” values of traditional burial, looks like a comfortable pajama set, but it’s made with mushrooms that aid with the decomposition process while also helping sequester heavy metals and other toxins.
There’s a sheen of techno-optimism, but not in the bullshit space colonies way (cough, Jeff Bezos). Instead, it’s grounded in choices about the the type of planet we want to live on. Do we want to live behind sea walls, retreat from the coast, or plant mangroves to protect against rising seas? Do we want to bring species back from the dead or conserve the ones on the brink? They aren’t easy questions (and they’re rarely binary), but then we never should’ve so carelessly arrived at this point of degraded nature and runaway climate change at all.
Of the 62 pieces in the exhibition, Caroline Baumann, Cooper Hewitt’s director, told me that “The Tree of 40 Fruit” perhaps best exemplified the exhibit’s aim. The tree was still being put together in the museum’s garden when I visited on Thursday, each branch a graft of a heirloom fruits at risk of going extinct due to industrial fruit production. With nurture and care, the tree will bear fruit over the summer and fall. Baumann said that represented to her the approach we as a society need to take if we want to turn the tide. To pull back from the brink, we need to act together.
“The whole show is talking about the power of design to improve our lives together as human beings,” Baumann said. “But it’s not design alone. We can’t just say ‘oh, the companies will take care of it, government will take care of that.’ We all need to think and talk to one another about what we can do to save the planet. [The damage] can’t be reversed entirely but it can be improved upon.”
The “Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” exhibit runs through January 2020.