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Column: Let's get physical

22 October 2021

8 min. to read

Caressing Machine touching arm — © LNDWStudio
Designers ask the most existential of questions: not who, but what are we? Only through this scrutinous self-examination can we protect our vulnerable bodies from viruses and other harmful invaders.

Column by Jeroen Junte | 

It is a body. But not quite. Countless spheres fly across the metres-long screen where they sometimes clump together to form the contours of a human body. Then they scatter away, fleetingly like a cloud of gas. With the installation Sharing Elements in the Microlab, designer Christien Meindertsma shows how physically connected we are to the world around us. At a molecular level, the water in our bodies is the same as that from a water bottle. Only if we know what our bodies are made of we can buy - and therefore design - products that do not harm our bodies. That is why Meindertsma breaks our body down into its smallest building blocks. The spheres on the screens represent the elementary particles that shape us.

DDW ambassador Christien Meindertsma is known for her meticulous research, in which she unravels products or production chains until their invisible structures become clear. In her book PIG 05049, she shows more than 150 products that contain parts of a slaughtered pig. With her project Fibre Market, she exposed the complexity of recycling textiles; because it is often unclear what a jumper or jacket is made of, the raw materials cannot be recovered. When such an inquiring mind suddenly turns her attention to the human body, something is going on.

Designers dissect the human body. At numerous places during DDW, they investigate what it means to be human. They look at our flesh, muscles, fat, bones, blood, everything. No doubt a reaction to the past year, in which our physical vulnerability was mercilessly revealed. Some fell ill; others did not. Who was infected and who wasn’t, remained invisible. Could we still trust our bodies? To make matters worse, we were forced to keep our distance, if we met at all between lockdowns and curfews. 

Architects also struggle with the human body. The Dutch have been growing taller for centuries. At the same time, part of the population is shrinking due to migration from areas where the average person is shorter. The proportions of our bodies - long or short legs, increasingly older and more rigid limbs - also vary. Does the classic Vitruvian body still suffice? Is Le Corbusier's Modulor still suitable as a standard for inclusive buildings? And to what extent is Ernst Neufert's Bauentwurfslehre applicable to a 6-feet society? In short, is architecture still equipped to deal with the new diversity of bodies? These are existential questions that the installation Building Bodies in the Klokgebouw raises.

Of course, our preoccupation with our bodies has also been fuelled by digitisation. We spend far too much time looking at screens. Even sex and intimacy are being deprived of physical contact. While intimacy is (almost) as important as eating and sleeping. This is unequivocally confirmed by Laura A Dima's Future Affair project in Melkfabriek. Visitors can touch each other without physical contact. A soft robotic arm with a sophisticated pressure mechanism rubs your arm as long as someone else presses a button. With your eyes closed, it feels like an actual caress. But when you look at the mechanical hand, the spell breaks instantly. In the end, we do not just need our own body, but also someone else's - no robot can change that. 

We are our bodies. We just forget it more and more often. Unlike Bart Hess, who has been using human skin as a material and tool for years. In his studio at the NRE site, he shows his new intriguing video installation Sweetmeat, featuring two sweaty male bodies fighting lovingly in a glass cage. Their skin is covered in sweets; the goal is to bite them off each other. Whoever has all their sweets eaten first, loses. It's a dog eat dog world - this muddy symbolism is tastefully and confrontationally wrapped up in Hess' over-stylised images. This is how we wrestle with the body that we are so intimately connected to. 

Looking for more?

Check out Jeroen's previous column: Talking to Mother Nature.

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