Zaalopname It's Our F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Foto: Gert Jan van Rooij

Design and material – It’s Our F***ing Backyard at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam – Art and ecology #4

Issue no5
okt - nov 2022

For the fourth episode of his series on art and ecology, Joris van den Einden visits the exhibition It’s Our F***ing Backyard at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It questions the roles design and material can play within the climate crisis.

It’s Our F***ing Backyard takes on a small portion of space at the Stedelijk Museum to present a plethora of design projects that work with material in innovative ways in relation to the contemporary ecological crisis. When I walk in, it is clear that the curators are not trying to present any overly philosophical or contemplative narratives; instead, clear thematic sections (such as “Use, Reuse, Repeat” or “Awareness is bliss”) provide some reinforcement of the immediately apparent autonomy of the presented objects around the space. Chairs, vases, bricks, and dresses adorn the room, immediately performing the applied nature of design.

Throughout the exhibition, I come across regular references to ancient or ancestral practices. The reappropriation of ceremonial lacquer techniques in Studio Seungbin Yan’s Simulacre Dot and Aldo Bakker’s Urushi Stool, for example, show how we can sometimes look back to look forward. Another recurring motif is the implementation of subtle design changes to existing structures and technologies to breathe new life into them, like in the decorative solar panels of Kiki van Eijk and Joost van Bleiswijk, which can be attached to the façades of buildings as simultaneously aesthetically appealing and climate-positive cladding. Finally, I am happily struck by the various ways in which the included artists think through the power of sharing and the collective (re)use of materials and objects, like in Elisa van Joolen’s equally fashionable as clever upcycled and recycled grocery bags and the commitment of Ting Gong’s A Way of Wearing.

Zaalopname It's Our F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures. Fernando Laposse, The Dog, 2019. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Foto: Tomek Dersu Aaron

The strength of the exhibition is, as is not rarely the case with other similar types of shows, simultaneously also its biggest obstacle: there is a lot going on. Though the compilation of a large quantity of artists and works does certainly not automatically have to equate to a one-way ticket to a chaotic or overwhelming experience, it is the relative isolation of the presented works in regard to one another that occasionally makes it challenging to really engage with the exhibition throughout its entirety. At times, walking through the spaces of the show, reading about the 80(!) projects, and taking time to look at each work feels a little like I am trying to close-read an encyclopaedia. The thematic organisation of the exhibition provides some contextual framework, but it remains a mental exercise to move between the great number of projects in the relatively limited (and consequently, quite crammed) space that the Stedelijk has devoted to this exhibition.

I am curious what it would be like if the exhibition was spread around the larger connected spaces that the rest of the museum’s building offers. The museum tells us that this climate crisis is happening in Our F***ing Backyard, but I can’t help but slightly cynically feel that the topic is just worth their f***ing back room – with the lack of signposting or directions, it takes me a good ten minutes to find the entrance to the exhibition at the back of the first hall at the top of the stairs on the museum’s upper floor.

Within the space offered the design of the exhibition embeds the presented works within a fitting encompassing and uniting context; the 3D-printed pillows, pedestals of compressed metal scraps, and dusty gravel produced by design lab Envisions successfully allude to the many different connotations, practices, and techniques that permeate the entire exhibition.

Thinking back to the works that stuck out and remained at the forefront of my mind, I unsurprisingly recognise the predominance of the work of artists who revealed more of their contexts or insights to their processes. The video of Fernando Laposse’s Regeneration with Agaves, for example, works with the materiality of his sculptural The Dog to become involved and proactive, critical and reflective. The Dog, a hairy object that looks equally like a bench as a beast from The Neverending Story, is made using the fibres of agave leaves, consequently both presenting an alternative to plastic threads and honouring traditional Mexican techniques. In the five and a half minutes of Regeneration with Agaves, Laposse shows and talks about the role of planting agaves in land regeneration, thus simultaneously promoting sustainable agriculture practices and revealing the merit of introspection for artists and designers in relation to their own production processes. Laposse’s works productively arrive at aesthetic and functional perspectives, on shorter and longer terms; this is both design made sustainable and design making sustainable.

It's Our F***ing Backyard tells us that we cannot simply close our eyes and ignore the climate crisis that is brewing all around us and throughout the spaces that surround us

Zaalopname It's Our F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Foto: Gert Jan van Rooij

Zaalopname It's Our F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Foto: Gert Jan van Rooij

Zaalopname It's Our F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Foto: Gert Jan van Rooij

Basse Stittgen’s works Blood Related and Rendering Invisibilities strike me differently, yet certainly not less potently than those of Laposse. Stittgen is one of few included artists that explicitly employs a more sinister approach; the smooth plate, cutlery, and cups of Blood Related are made of dried, heated, and pressed cow blood that is usually discarded in the slaughtering process. Passersby are invited to gently take a seat on the black bench (which is, too, made of cow blood) to view Rendering Invisibilities, a highly descriptive, informative nine-minute video that dissects the logistics of a slaughterhouse. As I sit down to watch the video, the recorded heartbeat of a cow is played from a speaker inside of the bench underneath me. The monotone, distant nature of the voice-over of the video stands in stark contrast with the visceral experience of both hearing and feeling that heartbeat resound in my own body, adding an extra layer to the dining ware of Blood Related and, more immediately, creating a highly uncanny sensation.

Zaalopname It's Our F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures. DRIFT, Volkswagen Beetle 1980 uit de serie Materialism, 2018. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Foto: Tomek Dersu Aaron

Despite some of the shortcomings of the exhibition, the power of material remains undisturbed and inevitable throughout the many presented projects. It's Our F***ing Backyard tells us that we cannot simply close our eyes and ignore the climate crisis that is brewing all around us and throughout the spaces that surround us. Although at times almost falling victim to its wide spectrum of presented projects, it is refreshing to also engage with these ecological challenges through design, rather than merely through the increasingly popular and regularly occurring approach of contemplative fine arts or performance art. Though this approach is certainly extremely valuable and carries enormous potential on a more contemplative, philosophical level, it remains extremely important to keep the climate change problematic down to earth at times.

While definitely a crisis of imagination, the climate crisis is also a crisis of our modes of production and consumption. Design, in its combined applied and conceptual nature, makes the topic accessible, makes it real, and makes it tangible. As such, while still trying to process all of the information I have just encountered, I find myself leaving the Stedelijk Museum with a tangible feeling of hope, however frail and vulnerable. I think I’ll try to hold on to that for a little while longer.

Joris van den Einden
is stagiair bij Metropolis M

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