a long bench and a white dome like sculpture are on view in the Unknown Unknowns installation
An installation view from the show which was extended to close on January 8, 2023. Image courtesy of DSL Studio.

10 Questions With… Ersilia Vaudo

When astrophysicist Ersilia Vaudo spoke on a symposium at Milan’s Triennale on March 4, 2020, she underlined the fact that we only know 5% of the universe’s content while 95% still remains a mystery. The chief diversity officer at the European Space Agency was a guest lecturer upon the Triennale president Stefano Boeri’s invitation to discuss the potential topics for the 23rd edition of its International Exhibition. A similar sentiment was raised by other experts in oceanology, brain, and consciousness. “It seemed that we were confronted with an overwhelming 95% that we cannot grasp, that we don’t know, or worse, we don’t know we don’t know,” Vaudo told Interior Design

The next day, she discussed with the president that the unknown could be “an interesting, although quite challenging, theme to explore” for the 23rd show, and with the strike of COVID-19 in the following days, “the theme seemed to also respond to the urgency of a reflection on our limited grasp on reality,” she added. The sentiment eventually led to Boeri’s invitation to Vaudo to curate the exhibition, titled Unknown Unknowns, which opened on July 15, 2022 and was extended to close on January 8, 2023.

Ersilia Vaudo faces the camera with her arms crossed
Ersilia Vaudo. Photography by Gianluca Di Ioia.

Vaudo organized the show with an outlook towards the universe’s unanswered realities as well as our strive to rationalize what awaits to be explored. Design and art can indeed provide uncharted tools in this direction, and as the project suggests, “the relationship between space studies and the arts is fundamental for its concept, in a series of paths whose outlines are deliberately dense, blurred, and permeable,” Vaudo said. Around a total of hundred works, projects, and installations by international artists, architects, researchers, and designers from over 40 countries—including Bosco Sodi, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Refik Anadol, and Yuri Suzuki—“address the theme of the limits of our comfort zone.”

Vaudo answered Interior Design’s 10 questions about the potential crossovers between the futures of design and space studies through her ambitious curatorial endeavor. 

Interior Design: What was your relationship with art and design like before this project? Have you always contemplated their relationship to space studies?

Ersilia Vaudo: I remember in 2004, I was at the Kennedy Space Center and two ISS modules—the European Columbus laboratory and the Kibo Japanese laboratory—were there, side by side, waiting to be launched. Their construction had to respond to similar requirements, however they had a quite different design solution. It was fascinating. Design is the research of solutions. New design will be needed to envision the next expansion of humankind’s presence in space on a permanent, sustainable basis: to develop reusable, faster, resilient rockets; to build sub-orbital flight spaceships; and to shape, together with architecture, a new way of inhabiting.

ID: How about the production aspect of design in relation to space?

EV: 3-D printing will heavily impact the way we conceive shapes. 3-D printing operates like nature, putting materials only where needed, therefore, symmetry is no longer an objective, beauty is transformed. I am confident this will have a great impact on object’s design opening to a completely new aesthetic. 

ID: Curating is a personal endeavor. How did you approach the show’s themes as an astrophysics besides being the curator?

EV: Beside my work, I am passionate about art and design and Paris, the city where I live—in this respect, it is a perfect place to be. One of the first themes that I displayed was the idea of “gravity as the greatest designer.” Gravity became an artisan through the beautiful work Perfect Bodies by Bosco Sodi, giving the sense of gravity as a cosmic artisan. A wide section of the exhibition path was then devoted to inhabiting and navigating the unknown: mapping systems from fishers of Marshall islands at the beginning of 1900, with which to orient trajectories and routes, instruments and habitats designed for a different geography, or familiar sequences to trace a timeline between reality and fiction.

One of the main aims of the exhibition was to spur reflection on the new challenges of architecture. Architecture always shapes human experience; it creates three-dimensional elements that mark its presence. For example, planning a permanent human settlement on the moon was an opportunity for SOM to identify clearly in a decalogue the essential elements that transform alien constraints into planning opportunities: ten basic ideas, for an imaginary student of extraterrestrial architecture. In this sense, architecture became a self-guided mode of “shaping” the universe filtered through the human mind. An equally innovative approach was found in the projects of studio BIG, like Mars Science CityLunar CityProject Olympus and Mars Dune Alpha. Facing the unknown in the ambit of planning requires a capacity for anticipation, a change of method. The European Space Agency (ESA), for example, tests the feasibility of the 3-D printing process on a lunar base with regolith to produce artifacts autonomously, without having to rely on Earth, but also human tissues with a view to journeys to Mars. Is this, perhaps, the future of architecture? Using only that is at hand. Transforming it for a waste-free, essential utilization. Always, however, pursuing an implicit objective of beauty and of turning a space into a place of community.

SOM's collection of tall screens with space photos tell the story of how humans could potentially thrive in outer space
SOM’s project Decalogue for Space Architecture continued the firm’s years of research on how we can design the conditions for humans to thrive in outer space. Image courtesy of DSL Studio.

ID: Much of understanding of space is defined by the unknown and a resulting curiosity, while mystery is not a term necessarily embedded in architecture and design’s lexicon, perhaps less than art. Could you explain the conception of mystery in your practice and this show?

EV: The main challenge was avoiding stereotypes in the representation of the unknown, presenting it as an antagonist, or through polarizations: black and white, light and darkness, futurism and reality. I tried to shape an exhibition able, through different languages and perspectives, to activate new curiosity, moments of awe, with a poetic hint. We involved international artists, architects, researchers, and designers who are confronted—more or less intentionally, more or less explicitly—with the mystery of the unknown. Unknown Unknowns was then a path whose boundaries are deliberately blurred, aiming to question the idea of world as we know it.

ID: A critical part of design is problem-solving, which is similarly fundamental in astrophysics. Do you see a connection between astronomical phenomena and design through this lens?

EV: About halfway into the show, a display of different screens by SOM, Decalogue for Space Architecture, portrayed a list of the things and limits that future extraterrestrial architects have to take into account when building for humanity in outer space. The project not only helped us consider what conditions we should recreate in order to build on a different surface other than the Earth, but it also allowed us to reconsider what we always thought as normal when it comes to building any space.

Four collaborative projects by BIG—Bjarke Ingels Group explored the different areas of knowledge required to endeavor outside planet earth. Mars Science City and Lunar City showed us the concept for extraterrestrial colonies. Project Olympus imagined a permanent lunar habitat built with technology currently functional on planet Earth. The fourth project, a simulated Martian habitat, Mars Dune Alpha was built to study crew health and performance for future missions to Mars. All of these works put into consideration alternatives to build, to live, to create, hence to consider a completely different lifestyle we could have never imagined through our senses alone. That is why, I think, the act of creating something through design, art, or architecture could make our world maybe a little more understandable in its complexity and beauty.

a simulation of a galactic collision in a dark room with purple space-like orbs
Los Angeles-based Turkish artist Refik Anadol’s Universe Simulations: The Merging of Milky Way & Andromeda replicates a galactic collision through a digital play of light and color. Image courtesy of DSL Studio.

ID: Gravity is described as the “greatest designer” in the exhibition, and gravity is also about materials (a piece of paper will fall onto the ground in a different pace than a piece of wood). How do you see gravity’s connection to materiality?

EV: Unknown Unknowns immediately addressed the meaning of the unknown as a structural characteristic, inherent in the very geometry of the universe and in the forces that animate it. Hidden in the perfection of spherical forms—the celestial bodies that shine, float, and fade into nothingness—is the work of gravity, the first and the greatest of designers, an artisan who, with his hand, tirelessly shapes the universe to which we belong. The larger the body, the more gravity is able to smooth its forms to arrive at a sublime sphericity. Yet bizarre forms do sometimes manage to emerge: acts of rebellion against the celestial perfection; the exclusive privilege of small bodies. This contrast was highlighted showing the images of the comet, that ESA mission Rosetta, after 10 years of traveling in the Solar System, met in a blind date in 2014: a piece of ice and dust of 4 km of diameter with the eccentric shape of a little duck. As inhabitants of this planet, we are unconsciously connected to gravity, a force that is apparently absolute, but that is different and changing according to our position in the Cosmos. Furthermore, when observed outside the strictly Newtonian perspective, gravity is transformed. It is no longer a force that makes apples fall on your head. Under the pencil of Albert Einstein, gravity is simply the curvature of an elastic spacetime around massive objects. Gravity stops being a familiar opponent and becomes a geometry, a line, a design, that emerges from the curve of spacetime Into which to slide, effortlessly.

Talking about gravity’s connection to materiality, I think that Bosco Sodi’s work Perfect Bodies, one of the first installations one could notice when entering the exhibition, was particularly significant. Shaping these giant spheres by hand, Sodi worked in symbiosis with the clay, molding it into primary bodies as imperfect as they are unique. The great physicality of the process and the impossibility of haste drew us back to the rudimental and ubiquitous essence of this earthly material. The slow, introspective undertaking did not search for the obvious and replicable; it celebrated gravity and the unpredictability of natural timeframes. Using different materials for varying periods of time in a rustic oven, Sodi looked for unrepeatable results. The flaws and fissures reflected in these Perfect Bodies were, in the words of Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato “a kind of resistance which reminds us about mankind’s essence, the impermanence of things, nature as a tribute to man and the essential”.

ID: As a scientist, how did you envision a visitor’s engagement with the artworks?

EV: The exhibition could be read on different levels, based on different publics, whether one was considering the unknown from an architectural, artistic or scientific point of view. However the fil rouge was the activation of a moment of reflection, of emotion, the pleasure of a new curiosity. Through the exhibition I tried to enlarge a perspective, the feeling of a belonging to a reality that emerges outside the limits of our senses, beautiful and overwhelming .  

a sculpture made of two reflective circles sits on the wall of a gallery
British artist Anish Kapoor’s Magenta (2019) is a Stainless steel and lacquer sculpture with upside down reflective quality. Image courtesy Anish Kapoor and Galleria Massimo Minini, Brescia.

ID: Sound is an importance part of the show, including Yuri Suzuki’s participatory project on universal sounds and the Listening Chambers installation. As a scientist who works with sounds on a large capacity, how do you utilize its various potentials in the show?

EV: Pursuing the desire to engage with Unknown Unknowns through the senses, the sound became narration in some works, always reminding us that our senses could represent both a door and a trap into the unknown. Sound is a privilege of our planet, and so is music. As to move, sound waves need a medium, the atmosphere.

In the Listening Chambers, four intimate immersive installations that followed the exhibition path, visitors could lose themselves in the accounts by leading exponents of the world of science, such as theoretical physicist Lisa Randall, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, and the philosopher of science Telmo Pievani.

Sound of the Earth: Chapter 3 by Yuri Suzuki combined both a physical and digital experience. It was designed to challenge how we experience foreign and unknown cultures by introducing distinct localities to audiences through the sharing of sounds where no land masses or borders were visible. The work was an auditory portrait of the world represented online and offline, reflecting the new ways in which we now experience artworks. The audience was invited to submit sounds via a website and join the global sound archive. Through active participation in the creative process, the lines between audience and artist blurred, both becoming creators of the piece. The project increased our dialogue with what we do not know by incorporating innovative machine learning that creates changing soundscapes from across our world to break down cultural borders.

a sculpture of a black planetary object with holes in it sits at the entrance of the Unknown Unknowns exhibition
Japanese artist Yuri Suzuki’s Sound of the Earth: Chapter 3 at the entrance to Unknown Unknowns. Image courtesy of DSL Studio.

ID: Sustainability is a broadly discussed topic in art and design but perhaps in contexts different than those in astrophysics. Could you talk about how issues around the future of the planet are integrated into the show?

EV: The exhibition design by Space Caviar took as its point of departure an exploration of the geometries underlying Giovanni Muzio’s Palazzo dell’Arte. Inspired by the curator’s intention to explore the idea of “gravity as a designer,” the exhibition spaces of the Curva were placed in negotiation with an invisible gravitational point which disrupted their linearity, injecting non-Euclidean principles into an otherwise Euclidean space. The display system, conceived and produced in close collaboration with WASP, was the first exhibition display system to be entirely 3-D printed on site using giant additive manufacturing machines. The materials employed, developed specifically for 3-D printing by the building material manufacturer Ricehouse, were entirely of organic origin and largely derived from byproducts of the food industry.

Of course the theme of sustainability and other issues around the future of the planet were integrated into the show with some works that reflect directly on these aspects, like an installation placed right at the end of the exhibition path, curated by the European Space Agency. The place from which we can learn the most about our planet is not found anywhere on Earth’s surface but high above in space. The images acquired by satellites are not only awe-inspiring, giving us a remarkable appreciation of the beauty of our world. More importantly they are powerful scientific tools to understand the intricacies of how Earth works as one system and how humanity is affecting natural processes. ESA is a world-leader in Earth observation and remains dedicated to developing cutting edge spaceborne technology to further understand the planet, ultimately to benefit society. Satellite data improves daily lives, supports effective policy making to address the climate crisis and help ensure a sustainable future. Using the very latest satellite data, the Half Globe presented in this installation, offered a stunning visualization of our planet. Thanks to its dome shape and high-resolution projector, visitors could feel as though they were hovering in space, viewing Earth from above. From this unique perspective, visitors could see how our fragile planet is affected by urban growth, air pollution, melting ice, rising temperatures and more.

a large rounded clay sculpture
Oaxaca- and Brooklyn-based artist Bosco Sodi’s Perfect Bodies sculpture series includes large scale rounded clay sculptures, fired in the artist’s Casa Wabi studio in Mexico. Image courtesy of Courtesy of Studio Bosco Sodi; Photography by John Rohrer, 2021.

ID: The Trienniale is a particular venue with multiple exhibitions and Ettore Sottsass’s Casa Lana installation. How has your relationship been with the institution and how do you position Unknown Unknowns within its overall program?

EV: Unknown Unknowns opened to reflections and thoughts that are echoed in different forms in Triennale’s other exhibitions. Of particular importance was the close relations between the thematic exhibition and two of the special projects of the International Exhibition: Playing the Unknown by Francesco Bianconi and Il corridoio rosso, curated by Giovanni Agosti and Jacopo Stoppa. In a poetic and mysterious installation, Bianconi disassembled sound tracks and images of liquid depths, underlining the inexorable nature of an unknown perceived only via fragments. The extraordinary, Kubrickian red corridor, designed by Margherita Palli, triggered a spatial and temporal short circuit that takes us back to the early twentieth century. From a leap forward, we thus returned to a domestic past, where mystery lies hidden behind every door. What emerged, up and down through the ages, was unknowns that are never the same. In Unknown Unknowns, the absence of margins lead to new interpretations and liberates new universes of creativity.

a long bench and a white dome like sculpture are on view in the Unknown Unknowns installation
An installation view from the show which was extended to close on January 8, 2023. Image courtesy of DSL Studio.

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