There’s an old YouTube clip of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek—it has nowhere near the number of views as I’d remembered—holding forth at a municipal trash dump. Disheveled but animated, he doesn’t chew up the scenery so much as imbibe it. He talks and talks, stopping only to riffle through loose items of refuse. He’s playing cute, this mangy teddy bear, but he makes his points well enough. The reason that he’s chosen this setting for his soliloquy? To underscore the impoverishment of our concepts of nature and ecology. “We need more alienation from our lifeworld—from our, as it were, spontaneous nature,” he inveighs. “We should become more artificial.”
In sewers and in landfills, in the plastic-churning ocean gyres and the pharaonic heaps of trash poised at the edges of cities—here is where our humanity is most exposed.
Something of this sentiment is at work in Waste Age: What can design do?, a new exhibition at the Design Museum in London. The show is the latest in a subgenre that could be called “climate realist,” or, perhaps less charitably, “climate fatalist.” The fullest expression of this curatorial deviancy was Paola Antonelli’s Broken Nature, which premiered in 2019 at the Milan Triennale and later traveled to the Museum of Modern Art. But unlike that show, which reveled in its aesthetic disengagement, Gemma Curtin’s effort asks designers not to throw in the towel just yet. Indeed, Waste Age finds hope in the work that they are already doing.
One can’t help but feel a bit manipulated. The exhibition announces its cause through a litany of bleak statistics: In 2019, some 50 million metric tons of electronic waste were generated, a figure that is bound to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years. Every second, plastic dissolves in the ocean and our hold on the future grows ever more tenuous. But behold the ingenuity of designers such as the Italian-Dutch office FormaFantasma or the French architects Lacaton & Vassal or … Stella McCartney? A “sustainable” collection of the British fashion designer’s wares—made of old fishing nets—features among the exhibits, as do the pictorial works of Alexander Donka and Edward Burtynsky, who, probably more than anyone else, could make an asphyxiating pile of rubber tires feel like home.