The luminosity of Neri Oxman – the MIT professor of media arts and sciences, who also comfortably straddles the realms of architecture, design and invention in her work – too often precedes her. Known for her groundbreaking research in materials, buildings and construction processes, the breadth of Oxman’s work has not been easy to quantify, that is until now.

‘Neri Oxman: Material Ecology’ at MoMA

Opening this week at the Museum of Modern Art, ‘Neri Oxman: Material Ecology’ is a compelling look back at the scientist’s 20-year career. Named after the term she coined to describe her approach of fusing organic design, material science and digital fabrication technology to produce new techniques and objects informed by nature, the exhibition highlights seven research projects that Oxman has created along with the Mediated Matter Group, which she founded and directs at MIT, to propose a new biotech future that is truly within our grasp.

Material research from Neri Oxman
Aguahoja I by Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, 2018. The Aguahoja Artifacts Display: A catalog of material experiments spanning four years of research. Photography: The Mediated Matter Group. Courtesy, The Mediated Matter Group

Neri Oxman at the exhibition preview

‘Ecology is the science that defines relationships between organisms and other organisms, and/or organisms and the natural environment,’ Oxman explains. ‘Material ecology basically aims to place materials; things that are artificially made i.e, designed, in the context of natural ecology. And the hope is that in the future, we will design with natural ecology in mind, such that all things will relate, adapt, respond to the natural ecology. The vision, of course, is that in the future, one will not be able to differentiate or separate between the natural and the artificial, for good and for bad.’

Lazarus Material research by Neri Oxman
Lazarus by Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, 2016. Produced by, and in collaboration with, Stratasys, Ltd. Courtesy The Mediated Matter Group

She adds, ‘We are now at a very exciting moment where we can design nature herself. So with the appearance of tools, techniques and technologies associated with synthetic biology, we can basically re-envision, reimagine, augment, make better, heal the environment and nature as we know it. Where does design stand in this crossroads and what are the technological and ethical implications of this? I think my team and I stand in that crossroad physically, but also mentally challenging some of the questions that design and designers face at that intersection between biology and technology, nature and culture, and the melding and fusing of the two.’

The seven projects on display, which date from 2007 to the present, showcase several examples of Oxman’s line of inquiry. Inspired by the observations of sources such as the configurations of bark on birch trees, the characteristics of crustacean shells, and even the nature of melanin, each project makes a compelling case for the future of building and design on its own, but even more so when the viewer can envision them overlapping with each other.

‘Silk Pavilion II’

The most dramatic articulation of Oxman’s research is undoubtedly the show’s centrepiece, ‘Silk Pavilion II’ – a site-specific commission for the museum, which builds on her original fabrication of an architectural structure that harnesses silkworms’ ability to spin silk from 2013.

This new iteration throws kinetic manufacturing into the process - working over ten days, a swarm of 17,000 silkworms were deployed horizontally over a water soluble knit draped over a stainless steel frame. A rotating mandrel guided their spinning upwards as they progressed, while changes in light and heat helped to manipulate them into creating different degrees of density to suit the tension and form of the structure. Not only does the piece express the relationship between digital and biological fabrication at an architectural scale, it builds upon that by taking into account the natural behaviour of the silkworms, which further influences the architectural form, while also treating their metamorphic process in the most respectful and humane way possible.

silk pavilion by Neri Oxman at MoMA New York
Silk Pavilion by Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group, 2013. Pictured here is the view through Silk Pavilion apertures as the silk worms skin the structure. Photography: The Mediated Matter Group. Courtesy, The Mediated Matter Group

Paola Antonelli on Neri Oxman’s ‘Material Ecology’

‘There are seven projects for which these beautiful artefacts are demos,’ says MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, Paola Antonelli. ‘You see here a pavilion that might not have a precise function yet, but it’s function is to demonstrate how you can actually work with [thousands of] silkworms, have them lead a happy life, and do something together that is copacetic, not only with human beings, but with silkworms and nature.’

‘We have not included some of the final embodiments that people might perceive and better understand as the design object, which at this moment I so greatly appreciate and admire about Paola,’ Oxman reflects, ’It was the right thing to do and I am very, very proud of bringing process to the level of product and allowing the visitor to appreciate and gain respect for how things are made and why they are important.’ §