Living Inside Dead Turtles.

What is happening in this image below, badly captured on my phone? Is it a picture of a man under threat from a natural disaster? Is it a warning? If it is, what is it a warning against? The man is vainly holding back the tide, and he will soon be swamped.

The key image in Milan this year was, as it has been before, at the Design Academy Eindhoven exhibition near Porto Romana. Ostensibly a product, it was in fact a sign, both in a literal sense and the way in which it gave an indication of the culture informing the rest of the work around it. Gero Asmuth’s sign project could be read as warning signs. A long literal landscape graphic in the long established block format of road signage shows the everyman figure holding back a tide of blue. Another shows a wave of water rising up in a ribbon to be held by the block figure in his arms. We are so used to being told that mankind is a threat to nature and consequently that nature is a threat to mankind that they could be mistaken for being a warning to man for his hubris for thinking he can control nature.

This is not the case. On one level it is very specific, the Netherlands, of course lies below sea level. You would think that the Dutch would have an acute and ready sense that much of their coastal land has been rescued from the sea by land management – the fabled dykes. Yet Asmuth contends that “few people realise how much work is involved in keeping the nation’s feet dry.”  His signs have been devised to indicate where man has intervened in the Dutch landscape. On one level, it is utterly self-evident that this would be obvious. And yet throughout what much of one sees in Milan it is clearly not appreciated.

Take this beautiful work of textile print design by the spectacularly talented Ying Wu from the RCA. As beautifully drafted and executed as the image is, it tells a story of an apocalypse; of man sheltering inside the skeleton of a giant turtle after environmental armageddon.This is not design as such. It is an art piece celebrating a moment of the thrill of impending doom – like a Mexican Day of Death piece. Indeed the logic of the picture is more in a celebration of death than any political comment. Where it goes wrong is the table beneath festooned with Coke cans wrapped in similar images. ‘You know what will happen if you don’t recycle?’ Wu appear to be saying. ‘Living inside dead turtles, that’s where.’

We aren’t able to contemplate death as our own end, it has to be mankind. At the Be Open Future talks at the Universitario degli Studia, Clare Brass of the SEED Foundation outlined her vision of how food waste could be turned into compost and how it could become a product in a token based economy. Never mind that thousands of allotment owners and gardeners already do this as part of their own informal system, but to address her fundamental belief that – and I quote directly here – “the over-buying of food is a crime against humanity”. Given that any human being who has the ability to over-buy food, does so, this criminalises humankind as a whole.

Certainly no-one like to waste money but it does seem strange that there is a language of criminality around consumption. Perhaps it is worth acknowledging that it was a misanthropic clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus that first drafted this vision of mankind as a stain upon the earth at the end of the 19th Century. His adherents have co-opted that language since. Brass overlooks the fact that food is produced by man’s endeavour in agriculture; by the human act of planting, nurturing and growing on a mass scale. If one is going to adopt the language of sin, and say that the wastage of food being a crime, surely the ability of man to support an expanding population is a virtue?

And whilst it is a perfectly valid experience to design for disaster; one wonders whether applying the principles of design to these events is in fact a means of trying to validate the profession in a time of doubt. Certainly that is the impression one gets from the cumbersome Heat Rescue Disaster Recovery project by Hikaru Imamura at the Design Academy exhibition. This storage drum contains relief goods but can be transformed on-site into a stove to burn any scraps of wood or refuse. “The availability of warmth directly improves the quality of life for refugees and offers them mental solace, as it acts as a social meeting point,” she says. To which one might say, so would a fire….

The Eindhoven show is invariably one of the best events at the Fuori Saloni; a series of ad hoc exhibitions set in temporary spaces and showrooms in the city, away from the main trade event. More than the big show at the fair ground, these small exhibitions provide an opportunity for understanding the ideas that are not only informing the manufacture of the latest products but also the manufacture of a next generation of designers. The Design Academy at its best was always able to articulate and frequently reconcile the tensions between design and its discontents. It’s students explored the dialogue between the production of material solutions to social needs or desires and abstract ruminations on the perceived shortcomings of that relationship through making things.

This year despite excellent work such as Imamura’s other project creating toys for intensive care users and Tom Loois’s App To Explore the Unknown, one felt that the school was in danger of losing sight of the first part of that equation. A salutary corrective was provided by the Japan Creative exhibition that has been made in the shadow of the Tsunami. The stand out piece on show was by Paul Cocksedge working with engineers at Pioneer to create a haunting piece which makes great use of their organic light emitting diode technology, which can shift in colour and tone subtly. There is a certain funereal quality to the Shadowtime clock in which the OLED light is diffused through Japanese paper but it is effectively a marriage between the exuberant and the restrained; the ancient and the new.

It takes a certain quality to keep making beautiful things in the face of disaster, but it is an essential attribute. Writing in the catalogue for the superb Japan Creative exhibition, Fumio Nanjo, Director of the Mori Art Museum Everyone should enjoy proposing new designs technologies production ideas or business models and then making them in to a reality. In such circumstances new possibilities for society open up naturally.” Look again at Gero Asmuth’s graphic at the top of the page and the figure of the man is actually pushing the tide back rather than succumbing to its power.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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