Woolly Matters

The Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo, Norway is currently hosting “Oltre Terra. Why Wool Matters” an exhibition by the multidisciplinary design studio Formafantasma. The exhibition investigates the history, ecology, and global dynamics of the extraction and production of wool. 

Unlike typical design exhibitions that showcase objects, “Oltre Terra” features a diverse collection of agricultural and cultural items, photographs, videos, and other materials to demonstrate that wool is more than just a raw material for the design and textile industries.

The exhibition explores the intricate relationship between humans and sheep, which began around 11,000 years ago when humans shifted from hunting sheep to managing flocks. This co-evolutionary process between humans and sheep led to domestic sheep as we know them today. The exhibition highlights how humans provided sheep with food and protection, and in return, received wool—a material with unique properties that have significantly influenced human and animal history.

The title “Oltre Terra” is derived from the etymology of the word “transhumance,” which combines the Latin words “trans” (across) and “humus” (grounds or “terra” in Italian). Transhumance refers to the seasonal movement of livestock between grazing grounds based on available nutrients and resources.

The exhibition embraces a transdisciplinary approach, involving collaborations and conversations with diverse practitioners such as designers, artists, anthropologists, evolutionists, legal experts, curators, shepherds, musicians, and farmers.

The installation challenges the traditional display mode of dioramas commonly seen in natural history museums. Instead of static representations, the exhibition presents life-size reproductions of different sheep breeds, a carpet made from discarded wool fibers, documents, films, manufacturing by-products, and various organic matter—all side by side. This arrangement aims to break down persistent categorizations that separate humans from animals and products from biological matter.

Morphosis exhibition_ph.Federico_Florian

Formafantasma, the Italian design studio behind the exhibition, is known for its transformative interventions in various projects, advocating for a new direction and vision in the field of design. Their works often involve exploring material, technical, and social aspects of design. Previous projects include research into e-waste, furniture made of lava, and an investigation into the global governance of the timber industry. Their works have been acquired by museums worldwide including the MoMA, V&A, Centre Pompidou and Stedelijk Museum.

“Oltre Terra. Why Wool Matters”, open until October 1st, 2023 seeks to shed light on the significance of wool beyond its conventional uses and to prompt visitors to consider the complex relationship between humans, animals, and materials.

Written by Fabrizio Mifsud Soler.
Images:  Gregorio Gonella and Allessandro Celli courtesy of Formafantasma and Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.

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