By 2111 we may be living in houses that grow themselves like trees do, dependent on aquatic sculpture to purify our seawater. Architects and artists are looking to nature for solutions to current engineering and environmental issues. Recent nature-inspired sculpture by Neri Osman and Mara Haseltine exhibits both the light and dark sides of human-nature interaction.
Osman’s oeuvre literally embodies nature’s ability to vary a living form based on the environment acting on it. In “E, X, Y, Z, S, S, T”, Osman reproduces two-dimensional tissue structure at a macroscopic scale, extrapolating the effects of stress, strain, and deformation to human size. The result is a sculpture intriguing for its seemingly random curves, converging and splitting, whose form actually grows from natural processes. What she preaches—and teaches at MIT—is that the field of architectural design needs to learn from nature that “fitness, not form, is what matters.” Architects should employ materials whose properties (such as strength and elasticity) can change as the needs of the structure change, just like a tree or bone might thicken when extra weight is placed on it. She looks to adaptations of mineral-growing processes to create a load-responsive material and Descartes’ “materials that think” for inspiration. Applying this process to architecture might lead to skyscrapers that bend and sway like willows during a tornado and take no damage.
Like Osman, Haseltine uses nature as inspiration, but her artwork is a record of the present, not the future. Haseltine surveyed plankton from waters as varied as an oasis in the Sahara Desert to the Seine, each time finding the same sad result: plankton everywhere caught in small pieces of sun-decayed, human-made plastic. Microscopic plankton lack independent locomotion so are forced to drift with the ocean’s current and make contact with all the flotsam and jetsam floating in the seawater. In Haseltine’s La Boheme: A Portrait of Our Oceans in Peril, she has created human-sized tintinnids—6 foot-tall glowing green vase-shaped plankton—forcibly interacting with plastic, bringing the microscopic to the gargantuan and, she hopes, the environmental issue to the eyes of the human world. Tintinnids are an important organism in the sea’s food chain, occurring near the base, subsisting on phytoplankton and themselves a source of food for crustaceans and fish larvae. However, Haseltine isn’t satisfied with simply displaying the disturbing ocean state in uranium-infused glass: she also builds urban oyster habitats. Her Gill Reef is a sculpture intended as a home for oysters. Given a place to hang their shell, oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, helping to remove pollution from New York’s estuaries making the water, though not the oysters themselves, safe for humans.
Art as biological remediation tool, biomimicry of natural processes to create disaster-proof buildings—these are just a few of the ideas growing from the creative collaboration between nature and human nature in the gallery shows of Mara Haseltine and Neri Osman.
//Image by Yoram Reshef, via MIT.