Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, came to the Lenfest Center to deliver a talk on her recent exhibition at the Triennale di Milano, Broken Nature, and discussed it with Amale Andraos, Dean of the Columbia School of Architecture. Tl;dr, a big chunk of the exposition is coming to MoMA in 2020 and it seems cool enough to be worth going to.

Carol Becker, Dean of the Columbia School of the Arts, introduced Antonelli after touching on the theme of the lecture as part of the Year of Water, which is some sort of initiative about water or the environment or something that the School of the Arts is spearheading. Antonelli, after thanking proceeded to jump right in, showing us a picture of a glacier in a blanket and telling us that “human survival right now is less relevant than the survival of the planet,” kicking off a lovely evening of letting go of our fixation on our own mortality, I guess.

Antonelli’s exhibition (part of which will soon be coming to MoMA in 2020) was initially in the Trienniale Building in Milan, taking her back to her roots, as she grew up in Milan and had her first big job as a curator in the very same building. Broken Nature, she says, was built on “the idea that we will become extinct,” and she raised several core themes: extinction, restoration, restorative designs, and reparations– reparations to nature, the concept of which, Antonelli says, was controversial from the start. She said she tried to talk more about restoration than reparations due to the term’s other connotations… but she also drew some weirdly direct comparisons between the struggles of enslaved Black people and how “we have enslaved nature,” so it seemed like she had some more thoughts on that front that she wasn’t completely sharing. This tone-deafness, while she didn’t take it as far as I was briefly worried she would, was somewhat accentuated when someone later pointed the relative dearth of indigenous voices in this exhibition about nature and the environment, besides Abel Rodriguez, an indigenous Colombian artist, and she pointed to him and then to Sardinian and Japanese artists’ pieces as “indigenous” artwork… which is obviously not quite what was being gotten at. Some of the criticism of the exhibit at the time it went up was for its relative focus on scientific post-industrial Western perspectives, and that showed through a bit in her remarks.

Anyways, she then showed and discussed a series of major pieces and commissions that had been featured in the exhibit, including a silk pavilion spun by live silkworms, sleek futuristic furniture made from e-waste, NASA satellite imagery as before-and-after photos of various environments, and the weirdest of all: a clear acrylic cast of the shell of a fossilized ammonite (a prehistoric cephalopod), in which an artist had forced a small octopus named Mercy to take up residence, and then was all like, “look, she yearns for her ancestral home.” I’m no marine biologist, but I’ve watched Blue Planet, and I’m guessing Mercy just wanted somewhere to hide or explore in her otherwise empty tank, rather than yearning for the shell her ancestors cast off millions of years ago. (And I’m pretty sure the artist was also not a marine biologist, and was probably making some kinda bullshit inferences from the behavior they observed from Mercy.) However, it was extremely adorable regardless.

Artists from north of 20 countries participated, and Antonelli mentioned that children used the Trienniale and the exhibition as a rallying point during the climate strike. Once she was done showing us some of the highlights of the exhibition (data-driven wallpaper, artificial coral, and the exosuit that that dude who tried to live as a goat wore were among some other examples), Dean Andraos came out for a brief conversation and a few questions. She started slowly, talking about how “design is linking systems” and “modernity” (I began to lose hope and consciousness for a moment), but then she hit us with one of the heaviest sentences I’ve ever heard in my life: “Once you move beyond the panic of your own death, you can actually be creative.” Oof. Paola said some more stuff generally agreeing with this and the fact that humans as a species are probably hosed, either in the near term or the far future (but probably the near term), and I noticed how weirdly sparkly the jug of water they had was in the spotlights. She also said design was “the Meryl Streep of the arts; never the prettiest–” outrageous insult to Meryl– “but the most courageous, and they have a sense of humor and they know what they need.” (A bit of an insult to the other arts– but Paola Antonelli came here to curate exhibits and roast some motherfuckers, and right now she’s all out of exhibits.)

After switching back to her previous target (I was ready to throw hands if she kept hitting Meryl) and taking a few more potshots at the future of the human species (“You think you’re not gonna die?”), another guy in the audience with no scientific background (and even less of any other kind of background, given his age) said that he’d heard the dinosaurs weren’t actually killed by a meteor (???), and asked if she saw any indications that we weren’t heading towards extinction. She said “No, I don’t,” but “I love to see the effort– it makes me love human beings, this attempt.”

It was weird and I felt a little disappointed that we hadn’t really lived up to the extinction fire-and-brimstone I was expecting and instead basically just got a few sprinkles of the Twitter feed of a depressed field biologist, but it definitely made me want to go see the parts of Broken Nature that are coming to MoMA in the next year. The art is weird and contemporary and cool, even if the message isn’t necessarily groundbreaking (more or less “we’re probably screwed, look at how screwed we are, but like, try to help the environment, guys”).

In conclusion: Move beyond the panic of your own deaths, and love your fellow human beings for their attempts, everyone.

earth via NASA