Art, design and science collide at the Milan Triennale ★★★★☆

Walter Tschinkel: aluminum replica of an ant nest.Image Milan Biennale

In a dark room 12 meters long, one dense beam of light burns. For a moment countless dusts sparkle in this beam of light, then disappear into the darkness again. Some dust particles are barely a hundredth of a millimeter in size. Watch them dance from your own breath in the artist Tomás Saraceno’s installation, and you experience the cosmic insignificance of humanity. An experience that goes deeper than facts such as the distance to the sun (150 million kilometers) or to the next star (4.2 light years).

When art, design and science touch each other, the invisible becomes visible, the unimaginable becomes tangible. This is the starting point for the 23rd Milan Triennale. The theme of this triennial design event is Unknown Unknown. An Introduction to Mysteries. Which can be loosely translated into: the imagination of the great mysteries that determine our common destiny. From life on other planets to that on the deepest ocean floor. From the function of our brain to mushrooms.

With this approach, the Triennale will design what Documenta in Kassel is to the visual arts or the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is to theatre: an exploration of the boundaries of the field. The main exhibition is curated by scientist Ersilia Vaudo from the European Space Agency (ESA). The more than a hundred projects on display are sometimes concrete, such as beautifully stylized room maps, and sometimes poetic, such as Saraceno’s light installation.

In addition to big names such as architect Bjarke Ingels and artist Anish Kapoor, there are also works by unknown scientists such as Walter Tschinkel. This myrmecologist (ant expert) uses underground abandoned ant nests as a form of molten aluminum. Once solidified, the result looks like an intriguing sculpture. How can hundreds of millions of these tiny creatures in the dark create such a complex underground city? It requires modesty about our own achievements.


Make an impression, especially works where there is room for doubt. Alicja Kwade created a self-portrait based on the chemical elements that make up the human body. Glass capsules showing the elements in their pure form are arranged in a graceful circle. It is strange to see the artist, and thus ourselves, reduced to jet black carbon, silvery magnesium or yellow sulphur. What about our soul then? Is the core of human existence nothing more than cosmic coincidence?

No coincidence is the impeccable timing of Unknown Unknown. The opening coincided with the presentation of the spectacular color photographs of the deep cosmos by the James Webb Space Telescope. Another mystery revealed. At the same time, a firm belief in conspiracies and other mysteries is emerging. So science could use a helping hand. If only to know even better what we don’t know.

That we are ultimately a powerless species of life is also evident from Arcane Mirror by Luca Pozzi. As you look at your own image in this seemingly ordinary hand mirror, blue dots constantly light up in the glass. Each flash of light represents an energetic particle of space that shoots right through everything, including our own bodies. Preoccupied with our self-image, we would almost fail to notice that humanity is literally part of the cosmos. Even though the earth is hardly more than a particle of dust swirling around in the sunlight.

Price for the Dutch pavilion

In addition to the main exhibition, 24 country pavilions have been selected by the African architect François Kéré. An artistic installation in the Austrian pavilion depicts how the human body is made up of countless other life forms, from intestinal bacteria to viruses and parasites. The Roma pavilion consists of a prayer altar – spirituality and superstition are also a way of dealing with our ignorance. First prize was awarded to the Dutch pavilion by an international jury. Here Het Nieuwe Instituut presents ‘zoop’, an alternative living environment where non-human life is taken into account. Under the title Have we met? Humans and non-humans on common ground various ‘zoonomic’ examples are given, such as the conversion of a disused oil platform in the North Sea into a nature reserve.

Unknown Unknown. An Introduction to Mysteries


★★★★ clean

Milan Triennale. Until 11/12. Catalog available from 1/10.

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