Notes from Milan: Resurrecting the Sublime

Installation view of Resurrecting the Sublime at Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne, March 2019. Left: Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock (vitrine with smell diffusion, lava boulders, animation). Right: Orbexilum stipulatum (vitrine with smell diffusion, limestone boulders, animation). Photograph: Pierre Grasset.

If it wasn’t for faintly aromatic warm air you would nearly miss it. Located in a hall in the Triennale di Milano, a deconstructed scene including  a rock, a scent and a short video were part of a larger piece of work by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg in collaboration with scent artist Sissel Tolass and Gingko Bio-Works. Called Resurrecting the Sublime, the project seemed simple at first glance, yet, what one smelled was the intelligent estimation of a team of synthetic biologists, reconstructing the vivid molecular scent of a flower that went extinct on the slopes of a volcano in Maui, Hawaii. With the last tree on that island felled in 1912 (the result of exploitative colonial ranching, the only existing evidence of it now remains pressed between wax sheets in the archives of the Harvard University herbarium), this project was an attempt to cross time and space, to reflect on the history of the natural world and to highlight our current precarious predicament, with widespread species annihilation a very possible reality.

A slight electrical hum beneath your nose grating next to the rough hard blackness of the lava rock, one might wonder where exactly this sense of sublimity comes, sandwiched in a small hall, surrounded by numerous other design works, each vying for a piece of the viewers’ attention. In that moment, and in its installation within the behemoth of a show titled Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, this project may have failed. That being said, it is still a very noteworthy and important work that speaks to the times we exist in.

The definition of design has broadened and now encompasses numerous disciplines, and yet all three of the main collaborators in this work identify as artists working within design. On that observation, design becomes a method, and one of design’s achievements is the insistence on collaboration. In a period where current global problems seem beyond the capacities of any single person, this insistence on multiple collaborations doesn’t seem naïve, it seems necessary. Each flower that has been selected for study in Resurrecting the Sublime all went extinct as a direct result of colonial activity. This post-colonial revisionism that focuses on the method at which colonising power sought to subdue other human populations and nature works as a valuable foil from which to understand the Anthropocene. Many of the current problems experienced today had their direct roots in the infrastructure laid down by colonialism, such as extraction, profit and disregard for otherness.

A show like Broken Nature is indicative of the time we live in. It is a cry to change the world, embedded in hubristic egos and the shiny veneer of solution-oriented design. Resurrecting the Sublime does not attempt to provide answers, only a warning. As is always the case, observation affects the role of objects or artworks: humans do not merely observe, they experience. They become the connected linkage between a dead past, a reconstructed present, and a foreboding warning of a future.