by John JervisMay 11, 2020
Let’s talk about wood, maybe?
The exhibition Cambio by Amsterdam-based studio Formafantasma (by Italian designer duo Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin) plunges deep into the global dynamics of the timber industry through a radical exploration of wood. Exhibited at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, United Kingdom, Cambio kickstarts a much-needed conversation about how design should, and can, shape a better, sustainable future. The exhibition is supported by Flos and Rinascente, and presents an intelligent, research-based thesis, drawing from disciplines of science, conservation, engineering and policymaking.
A lot of what we use every day is fashioned from various parts of trees – paper, fertilisers, fuel, furniture, clothing, and so on. For our daily (over) consumption, many trees are cut down mercilessly, leaving biodiverse ecosystems fragile and weak. “The timber industry is one of the largest in the world, both in terms of the corporate revenues involved, and in terms of the scale of its impact on everyday life.” The multidisciplinary exhibition reveals the vantage position that the design world holds when it comes to timber usage and production. It hopes to create more environmental awareness and change the timber production and design industry in tandem.
Formafantasma’s works appeal to their viewers to question the ecological and political impact of design, along with scrutinising global industries that consume natural resources. Cambio is no different – the analysis-based mix of films, objects, artefacts and samples aims to poke viewers to revaluate our relationship with trees. The collection poses essential questions about the link between design and sustainability, “most pertinently: What can we do better, to understand the connection between objects we use, and the conditions that produced them?”
Formafantasma investigates through Cambio (medieval Latin Cambium which means ‘exchange’, ‘change’) the processes of extraction, production and distribution of wooden products. The timber industries’ supply chain has skyrocketed and has affected the entire biosphere negatively. The duo explains, “The exhibition aims to put into question the role that design can play in translating emerging environmental awareness into informed, collaborative responses.”
Cambio is also the membrane that runs around tree trunks, and produces wood on the inside (a record of the tree’s past) and the bark on the outside (which helps it grow). The exhibition is also designed in a concentric programme, much like the rings of a tree – the central spaces of the gallery present interviews and research, and two films created by Formafantasma in response to that research. The gallery spaces on the perimeter sees case studies that educates one about how wood is sourced and used - all of which provokes viewers to better understand or start to comprehend, the philosophy and politics of plants.
The collection includes specially designed furniture made from a single tree that fell during a storm in northern Italy; samples of wood loaned by institutions such as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Royal Museum of Central Africa. “Smells specifically developed to evoke the wet earth and flora of a forest, and maps of the rainforest made by indigenous communities in the Amazon” are also part of the exhibition, relays the official press statement. These will perhaps invoke a sense of dread, and remind us of what is at stake if we lose trees.
The South Gallery hosts two wooden pieces that reveal the physicality of wood and its properties with a two-screen projection and two sections of a tree trunk, in an ambience filled by the smell of flora and wet earth. The East Gallery presents forensic research carried out by Formafantasma, with several scientific institutions, about wood as an archive. These show that wood reveals records of their origins (as they hold carbon dioxide). The South Powder Room is designed as a visual essay, showing how the timber industry has evolved over the years, through consumerism and exploitation.
The North Powder Room hosts a film that focuses on 'the governance of the timber industry and its structured today.' It also has reading points, with access to a website with reference material collected by Formafantasma over 18 months, including interviews with specialists and research images.
The North Gallery displays objects and images, which have all been sourced from the Economic Botany Collection in Kew Gardens and V&A’s storage spaces. The images, text and film in the West Gallery ‘takes a view of forestry that moves beyond the extraction of resources and attempts to understand the complex ecosystems that forested regions contain.’
Formafantasma explains, "Cambio is an attempt to expand our understanding of what design can be, going beyond the finished object in order to include its disciplinary boundaries; forestry techniques and timber legislations then become tools for designing a better future for our forests; scientific knowledge goes hand in hand with environmental activism in fighting illegal logging, and the equilibrium of trans-national geopolitics is redefined in the struggle between conservation and consumption."
While Cambio is closed to the public until further notice as Serpentine Galleries shut its doors following the outbreak of COVID-19, the thought behind the exhibition continues to raise important questions about sustainable living.