“Extinct in the Wild” at the Prada Foundation

Published on EastWest, in English and Italian

The world is now designed by one species, for one species. The flow of rivers, the fall of rain, and the composition of the atmosphere have been reshaped by human hands.”

This sentence opens the description that Michael Wang makes of his own exhibition “Extinct in the Wild”: a collection of artificial habitats that expose various species of flora and fauna that no longer exist beyond the limits of the man-made environment. The specimens on display in fact survive on the planet thanks to the care of man: some species are widespread, because common in cultivation (like the Ginkgo biloba), others are extremely rare as the Brugmansia suaveolens, disappeared thousands of years ago from the South American ecosystem (probably due to the extinction of the species that were distributing the seeds, including the giant ground sloth) but survived in small traditional crops due to the hallucinogenic properties that favored its use in sacred rituals.

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Extinct in the wild is the Ambystoma mexicanum, also known as Axoloti or walking fish: an aquatic salamander discovered in the canals built by the ancient Aztecs of Mexico, now largely drained. The peculiarities of the species, by the Aztecs believed to be the earthly incarnation of the god Xoloti, is the fact that it reaches maturity without undergoing metamorphosis, remaining in an aquatic, larval stage and maintaining the ability to regenerate its tissues as an adult. This is why thousands of axolotis, most of which are albinos, are now bred for research.

The charm and interest of this small exhibition is to raise through 19 examples and living witnesses a huge issue: that of our relationship with nature, with the house in which we live and of which we feed on. A house on which we exercise a growing and devastating footprint, a pressure which triggered the first mass extinction no more due to geological causes (or to the arrival of asteroids) but simply to human actions: population growth, urbanization and infrastructure, intensive agriculture and the use of chemicals, consumption growth as well as emissions growth, climate change. All this has already reshaped the Earth, making it more humane but less hospitable for the whole of life. For example, as Wang reminds us, the first extinct species according to the records of naturalists who documented the last appearance of a wild cattle in the forests of Warsaw in 1627, is today the most widespread animal species on Earth, the domestic cattle, with about one and a half billion of animals intended for milk production and slaughter.

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This is why in our cultural universe extinction should not be simply seen as a documentary category, such as a label for stuffed specimens of our zoological history. Extinction is now a category to understand the present we are living in: to understand the living entity that is before us and (after thousands of years that we have been stealing him the land, habitat, food, tools and means of survival) survives only thanks to our “cures”. The fact that this treatment is aimed at our nourishment, to our curiosity as collectors or to scientific research for our immortality is, in a certain sense, a secondary fact (not as importance, but for temporality). In the first place, the exhibition confronts us with a nature extinct outside of a survival architecture intended to maintain the species to the exact characteristics of temperature and humidity that they need and in which the practice of the (art) curator is transformed into that of the caretakers of a no longer self-sufficient life.

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The exhibition is a result of the “Curate Award“, an international competition sponsored jointly by the Prada Foundation and the Qatar Museums in 2013 to open new perspectives in the design of art events. Two years after the inauguration of the headquarters of Largo Isarco, the Foundation reaffirms his conception of art as a tool to understand and think about the changes. In this sense, the composite and disjointed campus designed by Rem Koolhaas maintaining and renovating some of the sheds of the former distillery and inserting new structures, confirms itself as a space able to encourage variety and differences, forcing visitors to build an ever-changing journey through the galleries and courtyards of an art landscape that is still capable of surprising, opening up new points of view on the world inside and outside of us.

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About paesaggisensibili

Architect and senior fellow of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology of Toronto University, I'm a member of the board of directors of the Italian National Institute of Architecture (IN/ARCH) in Rome, where since 2003 I am in charge of the Institute Master Programs. My studies are rooted in the fields of architecture and philosophy of science with a special interest in biology and anthropology. Key words for my research are: Man, Space, Nature, Technique, Webness, Ecology, Relations, Interactions, Resources, Energy, Landscape, Footprint, Past and Future. My goal is to build critical understanding of the present to suggest useful strategies to build the future.

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