17 March 2020
If they asked us today what the dominant living form on earth was, we would probably answer correctly: plants. This is thanks not least to the various “green” information campaigns all over the world and the XXII International Exhibition of the Triennale di Milano, which have sown the seeds of this awareness in the collective imagination. Driven by this new environmental sensitivity, presentations, exhibitions and meetings on the subject have mushroomed, in the hope that human beings can redeem themselves, accept that there is no Planet B and that only they can save us from the Anthropocene.
The latest of these, Formafantasma’s Cambio exhibition at London’s Serpentine Galleries explores the role of design in translating emerging ecological awareness and behaviours into informed and collaborative responses. The exhibition focuses on forestry practices and production strategies for wood and wood products, and sets out to trace the sector’s tentacular supply chain from the colonial exploits of the 19th century to the mass deforestation we see today. The timber industry is one of the largest in the world, both in terms of associated company revenues and in terms of how it impacts on everyday life. Clothing, furniture, paper, fuel and fertilisers are just some of the thousands of uses to which trees are put, many of which have been felled in some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems in terms of biodiversity.
The Serpentine’s artistic director, Hans Ulrich Obrist, invited the Italian duo – who live and work in Amsterdam – to put the spotlight on ways of seeing, thinking about and using wood, over and above simple products. Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi’s approach was to focus on trees and the economy that exploits them, in a pioneering show driven by a blend of science, conservation, engineering and politics, and reflection on how design could help shape a better future.
The exhibition is all about wood: from its molecular structure to its everyday use, from the ecological and political responsibilities of the global industries that consume natural resources to the extraction, production and distribution of wooden objects (including those made from the pine trees brought down in Val di Fiemme by Storm Vaia in October 2018).
The layout of the exhibition draws on the concentric structure of tree trunks: two rooms in the middle of the gallery are showing screenings of interviews with specialists and films made by Formafantasma which look at wood as a biological archive that logs dates and narratives. The perimeter spaces contain a selection of objects from historic collections and contemporary products illustrative of the way in which the wood sector supply chain currently operates. There are also more in-depth projects that examine the body of trees where, according to the designers, life and death coexist, along with interesting case studies that explore the ways in which trees give life to forest ecosystems.
One thing is certain, after seeing Cambio, we will never be able to look at wooden objects with the same “virgin” eyes again - Formafantasma hopes they will make us think about the long chain of (good or bad) decisions and political, social and industrial practices that have led to their conception. While not claiming to save the world, their hope is that “if you are able to infuse your products with small ideas it can be brilliant, it can have an influence.”
4th March – 17th May 2020