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"It is always hazardous to rely too much on the contemporary world, on the emotions it arouses and that risk clouding our view; it is almost impossible not to wonder about the abrupt awakening of a nature that is no longer just contaminated, but is itself capable of contaminating our human world."

Towards the XXIII International Exhibition

by Stefano Boeri
March 18, 2020

Towards the XXIII Triennale Milano International Exhibition

We have come from an exhibition, the XXII Triennale, so wonderfully curated by Paola Antonelli, in which we asked ourselves about the ominous effects caused by the objectification of nature by humans and about possible ways of correcting it. A nature that is broken, compromised, denied, and contaminated by the hand of man – by the “human stain” as Philip Roth put it. Broken Nature was the title of an exhibition that included a study, which is still under way, that examined the means – art, technology, and design – to be adopted to heal a broken relationship between the human world and that of nature. To restore respect and recreate a balance between these two living spheres, starting once again from great trust in the positive potential offered by the anthropocentric culture of design, and of enlightened rationality – the indisputable nobility of which is recalled today by authors such as Steven Arthur Pinker. This means trust in our capacity for self-criticism and in the remedial potential of design culture. This view has so far guided not only the disciplines of design but, long before that, also the environmental sciences and those fundamental branches of scientific knowledge (such as research into astrophysics but also into particle physics) that have given man a more powerful vision of natural phenomena, reaching out to sidereal distances while also focusing on phenomena that are invisible because they are either microscopic or so far from us, from our earth-bound lives.

Earth at night, detail. Credit: Nasa

Just a few months have passed and the world seems to have changed. It is always hazardous to rely too much on the contemporary world, on the emotions it arouses and that risk clouding our view. And yet, when we see the sudden, unprecedented explosion of a virus that emerged from an apparently incongruous contact between a living human and a living animal, it is almost impossible not to wonder about the abrupt awakening of a nature that is no longer just contaminated, but is itself capable of contaminating our human world. A natural world in which other living species appear to show how far removed they are from us, possibly because the explosion of humans and of urbanisation across the whole planet has forced them to coexist with us and lock step with our lives. They are indisposed to letting themselves be tamed and controlled, even if only to redress the balance. Indeed, it is hard today not to wonder if, together with the mortal effects of the coronavirus, there may also be a formidable and extremely rapid reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere of our planet.
What the commitments of nations, city networks, and environmental associations have failed to achieve in years of campaigns and battles to prevent the risks of irreversible global warming, has been achieved in just a few weeks by a virus passed on to us by a little rodent. It is almost as though, without anyone now being able to say “at long last!”, there were a sort of reversal of our relationship with the world of living nature – whether of fauna or flora – in which species hitherto considered as victims of the Anthropocene have taken a devastating and terrible revenge against our own species’ struggle for power. It is almost as though nature were pointing to the undeniable responsibility of our species in the gradual erosion of biodiversity on the planet. In addition to the intense use of remote interaction, in the absence of physical proximity, one of the very few positive opportunities offered by the spread of the infection is also the fact that the sudden reduction in the movement of human bodies – the decrease in the transport and flows of people and things – has become a decisive factor in the fight against climate change. This process of reduced movement is one that we ourselves have not been able to bring about, but that Nature appears to be imposing on us today.

The Chang’e-4 lander imaged by the Yutu-2 rover on the lunar far side. Credit: CLEP/CNSA

But possibly the great misunderstanding of our environmental culture lies in the oppositional or differentiating relationship that has come about between humans and the rest of living nature. In addition to the highly desirable attempts to decentralise our dominant point of view, and to look at the world through the eyes of other species in nature, it is indeed the trivialisation of what we call the “natural world” that leads to the most important paradoxes and misunderstandings of our contemporary condition and in our reflections on environmental issues. Maybe the time really has come to reappraise the relationship between Nature and Culture in the world. Maybe we finally need to observe natural phenomena in terms not just of “where” they occur, but of “how” they occur: as a sudden, unexpected emanation of energies that escape the control of human technologies and knowledge. An emanation that cannot be controlled and that can take place within our own human sphere, within our own daily lives. It might now be worth going back to the ideas of authors such as Michel Foucault, who invited us a few years ago to view human nature as an expression similar to that of madness: an inner yet altered voice that speaks our language but that breaks down cultural codes, requiring the human being to be confined elsewhere, to be circumscribed and banished from everyday life, just as is happening today to those who have been infected by the coronavirus. It may now be appropriate, for example, to think that our cities need to go back to accepting the challenge of unpredictability and uncertainty – the challenge coexisting with the lives of trees and crows, gulls, wild boars and foxes. Seen like this, the human world and the natural world are no longer two separate entities that constitute a geography of living species on our planet, but rather a phenomenology of the living, in all its various forms. Looking to a new alliance between forests and cities, as some of us do today, does not mean resetting the balance between the human and the natural, between humans and trees, between us and them, but rather discovering at last the other within ourselves – and, at last, accepting it.
It means rethinking cities as natural phenomena and – as Emanuele Coccia teaches us – viewing forests as cultural manifestations of a technology that we consider devoid of culture simply because we did not create it ourselves and we do not know it. Forests and cities, but we might just as well say oceans and cities, are not mirror-image worlds but different forms of life; manifestations of an all-encompassing ecology that, among others, Pope Francis cites as a fruitful prospect for the contemporary world. A view that is still far removed from us today, but that in some periods has been part of the history of Western art, anticipating by many centuries our much-needed contemporary awareness.

Towards the XXIII Triennale Milano International Exhibition. Photo by Gianluca di Ioia
Towards the XXIII Triennale Milano International Exhibition. Photo by Gianluca di Ioia

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