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Neri Oxman’s 3D Printed Interplanetary Suits within Picasso’s Abstraction

Written for an academic paper.

[ Note: There are images involved with this essay, for the full essay, please see here on ]

Neri Oxman is an interdisciplinary artist and designer who currently oversees the Mediated Matter research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. In Oxman’s own words, her group “focuses on Nature-inspired design and design-inspired Nature…[whilst] conducting research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science, and synthetic biology”. An example of Oxman’s work as featured in the highly influential design magazine Dezeen is her 2014 project Wanderers: An Astrobiological Exploration. The project includes four 3D printed wearable suits that serve as the physical models of “life-sustaining” clothes that could hopefully be worn for interplanetary voyages in the future. Considered as a pioneer in futuristic design, Oxman’s works can be seen as ahead of her time. Thus, how would one view these suits through the artistic lens of abstract art? Given that the history of abstract expressionism has roots dating back to the late 19th century, does Oxman’s work draw any parallel to past artists such as cubist, Pablo Picasso? Could Oxman’s designs be considered abstract art? Therefore, as we will soon learn that although Oxman’s suits may greatly differ from a classic Picasso oil painting - Oxman’s goals for her viewers in the modern age is surprisingly similar to how her abstract predecessor provoked his contemporary audience from over a century ago.

First of all, what are these suits? In her 2014 exhibition, the suits were printed “in a range of plastics with different densities” using “an Objet500 Connex3 Color, Multi-material 3D Production System” which gave each wearable a very distinctive appearance. Every suit was designed to appear differently than the one prior in terms of “rigidity, opacity and colour” as Oxman designed each suit to represent its future functionality on a different planet (Dezeen). For example, the first piece featured above is called Mushtari and was inspired by Jupiter’s ecosystem. With no single shape, the wearable is a conglomeration of red, green and blue tube-like structures. Whilst its individual pieces cannot be pigeonholed into smaller, defined structures - together, it mimics the form of a greatly detailed intestine. Here, the design strategically positions the wearable “around the lower abdomen” as to showcase a futuristic device that could one day, “consume and digest biomass, absorb nutrients, generate energy from sucrose accumulating in the side pockets and expel waste” for its human host on Jupiter (Dezeen). Likewise, the second suit Zuhal is a mixture of green swirls that were designed to echo “the vortex storms on Saturn” with its future biological potential as a device for “convert[ing] the planet's hydrocarbons into edible matter” (Dezeen). Here, it is important to note that although neither of these two suits look alike, they were both designed using a nontraditional combination of tangible, visible form in order to represent a futuristic function that is currently intangible and naked to the human eye. And more importantly, the focal point lies not in the technique under which each piece was procreated by but rather in the design of the object(s) themselves.

The design of these objects are important because Oxman’s goals were not to showcase a functioning, biological suit but rather 3D models printed as artworks that implore and push viewers to imagine a world in which such devices would be applicable. How do we know this? First of all, Mushtari and Zuhal were not created with working biomechanical structures that carry out the theorized functions but rather designed as 3D printed wearables that cannot be worn. Why design clothes that cannot be worn or possibly used at all in the near present as technology is still decades (if not centuries) away from humans setting foot on Jupiter or Saturn? That is because the purpose of these suits were not focused on real life depictions and mimicking still lifes but rather that the abstract art in itself is used as an expression of the artist to evoke feelings and thoughts from the viewer. And here, as viewed through the definition of abstraction, Oxman is using art to challenge her viewers to imagine a world of ‘what if this was actually possible?’ by enticing her audience with talismans from her imagined future. In this scenario, Oxman is not an inventor presenting a prototype but an abstract artist using diverse and extreme usages of subjective art that are focused on the viewer.

But how are Oxman and Picasso alike? First of all, there are key differences between the two artists. In Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Picasso utilizes a multitude of jagged lines in order to give viewers an idea of who these women could possibly be and how the viewer relates to these women. Here, it is crucial to know that in this painting - Picasso is not giving his audience an exact message as there is a disconnect between the women’s faces and their bodies. On the other hand, unlike Picasso - Oxman’s message is very clear on what these 3D models are supposed to represent and what they intend to do with her detailed design on every minuscule biological function and structure. However, despite a difference in technique and design, the goals of both Picasso’s and Oxman’s designs are surprisingly similar. Both Wanderers: An Astrobiological Exploration (2014) and Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) push viewers to expand their boundaries. For Picasso, he takes traditional elements like painting the nude - a once revered form and places them in a precarious light. In his painting, these nude women were not revered, but instead, the women become synonymous like such of an object. In other words, the viewers would have to choose regarding how the women play within our interpretation of their environment. Likewise, Oxman gives her audience a futurist outfit but then implores her viewers through her art on how such an outfit could be configured and utilized outside the norm. Thus, despite being more than a century apart, both Picasso and Oxman are pioneering artists of their time - by utilizing abstraction, their designs challenge viewers to engage directly with their artwork, and consider for themselves what the works could be.

Works Cited:

"Group Overview ‹ Mediated Matter – MIT Media Lab." MIT Media Lab. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2017.

"Mediated Matter." Wanderers Environment |Biologically-augmented 3D Printed Wearables | Current Location: Euromold, Frankfurt, Germany. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2017.

"Neri Oxman Creates 3D-printed Structures for Interplanetary Voyages." Dezeen. N.p., 07 May 2015. Web. 04 July 2017.