A new show dedicated to Neri Oxman's pioneering material explorations opened this week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The MIT Media Lab professor and director of The Mediated Matter Group is known for coining the phrase "material ecology" to describe the way her work brings together materials science, digital fabrication, and organic design to produce techniques and objects informed by nature. The exhibition includes seven major projects created over the past 20 years in a mid-career retrospective.
"Material ecology basically aims to place materials—things that are artificially made or designed—in the context of natural ecology," Oxman explained at a press preview. "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."
Installation views of Neri Oxman: Material Ecology, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The centerpiece is Oxman's Silk Pavilion II which was first developed in 2013 to explore the relationship between digital and biological fabrication processes. Oxman and her team created the underpinning geometry of a geodesic dome using an algorithm that ascribed different degrees of density across the structure, then they released 6,500 silkworms at the base to "fill-in" the remaining gaps like a biological printer. The second iteration of the piece, now on view at MoMA, used 17,000 silkworms and experimented with light and heat to further explore how the behavior of the silkworms can actually impact the resulting architectural form.
This architectural proposal for an environmentally responsive, melanin-infused structure was created for Design Indaba. Rendering by Eric de Broche des Combes, Luxigon; courtesy Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group.
Other projects investigate the bark of birch trees, crustacean shells, melanin, and even the flow of human breath to generate new design and production processes. The process behind each project—including videos, test samples, and various prototypes—is highlighted over the final result. Oxman's work is often heady but seeing the evolution of her philosophy brings her interdisciplinary, interspecies approach into greater focus.