Elemental Choreography

18 december 2013 / art / words alice davis

01 Wearable body art from Ng’s Climatology series; 02 Ng’s Wooden Skin changes color as the temperature rises; 03 An example from the Naturology series; 04 Ng’s Naturology series combines natural formations with technological design; 05 Elaine Ng Yan Ling.

 

Elaine Ng Yan Ling holds three principles dear: design with science, experiment with nature, innovate with craft.

The resurrection plant tumbles across the plains of the Sahara desert, a dried-up ball blown by the wind. When it finally reaches water, it quickly blossoms. The hardy seeds inside can remain dormant for years. It is a remarkable example of nature’s ability to survive, one that inspired smart textile designer Elaine Ng Yan Ling’s Climatology series, which includes an installation and collection of wearable body art that’s currently on display at Beijing design shop Wuhao.

The numerous ornamental laser-cut pieces that make up the jewelry and installation, which is stationed in Wuhao’s Chinese garden, gently furl and unfurl, curl and uncurl, turning to face different directions – all in response to the surrounding environment. It is not controlled by electronics. The material itself responds to wind pressure, humidity, moisture, sunlight and temperature, which means the movement of the installation is as unpredictable as the fickle Beijing weather.

“I’ve always been interested in materials, and I trained as a textile weaver,” says Ng, a 2012 TED Global fellow. “I want to shift people’s perception of textiles being just about fabric, and introduce ideas about how fabric can be applied in architecture.” She says the Climatology installation is first and foremost a way to show off the material—a smart veneer—and give the audience a sense of how it can be used and what it can do.

The smart veneer Ng developed “celebrates nature’s survival tactics” and is based on her work in biomimicry. It also picks up from her previous series, Naturology, which explored the relationship between nature and technology (and nature’s own innate technologies) with shape-memory materials and electronics. The idea to adapt her research toward a material that is responsive without the aid of electronics came after her experience of the extremes of Beijing’s climate, which is especially harsh. Last year, severe floods hit the city, and Ng noticed that after the waters subsided much of the built environment had been ruined. “Tiles were cracked and roads were damaged, yet the trees and plants were surviving without a problem,” she says. “I was thinking if we could build a material that has a second life or can naturally respond to this type of natural disaster, then we wouldn’t have to rebuild every time there’s a flood or a drought. Seeing how the plants survived reignited my interest in biomimicry.”

Ng started with simple experiments, conducted around her house and garden, to weather the veneer and monitor its reactions. “I knew I wanted to look at veneer because it reacts with water, but it’s quite slow. The grain will go in the direction of the sunlight, so the pattern is affected by that, so the way we laser cut it will affect how the veneer curves,” she explains. The final product is a smart veneer that’s a combination of different laminates with a textile pulp in the middle. The veneer is customized with different coatings, like reflective fabric and thermochromatic pigment, which determine the way the material will respond to the various environmental cues.

The jewelry, which is available to buy, came at the suggestion of Wuhao’s owner

Isabelle Pascal. Ng had to strengthen the smart veneer to make it suitable for wearing before creating these unique pieces of wearable art, each capable of its own tiny movements. The material is laser-cut into intricate shapes, left for at least ten days and then set into a form. Every piece is made by Ng. “The macro, social, spatial experience [of the installation] translates into a micro, intimate, personal journey – like a jewelry pet, affected by how a hand moves or where a person travels,” she says. (One of her friends traveled to Hangzhou, and her ring completely changed its positioning in response to the colder climate.)

Ng foresees many applications for her versatile smart veneer, and would love to see it used in the fashion industry, in automotives, and on an architectural scale, perhaps as a building façade. “I was trying to develop a material that has a second life, third life and fourth life,” says Ng. “I was looking at sustainability from a different angle; not to recycle or upcycle or use sustainable materials, but to create longevity.”

 

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