Few of us ever realize that when we fire up charcoal on the barbecue, we’re partaking in an age-old ritual that stretches from ancient Egypt to modern-day Japan. Charcoal has a fraught legacy: Is it a symbol of environmental degradation? Is it a symbol of healing?
That uneasy history is the subject of this strange, oddly alluring, artistic exercise by Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of the Dutch design studio Formafantasma. At the behest of the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, Trimarchi and Farresin partnered with a glassblower and a wood carver to design a series of jars and sculptural charcoal filters that, as they tell it, "draw inspiration from the tension between the dystopian connotation of charcoal, causing pollution and destruction, while also being employed in healthcare and water purification." The objects are on display, alongside 12 charcoal drawings of burning trees and polluted cities and black rain, in the Dutch design exhibition Confrontations, until September 2.
Charcoal, the carbonaceous substance that results from slowly heating wood, is commonly used to purify water in contemporary Japan—a widely hailed "natural" process that dates back to ancient civilization. But there’s a dark side here. Deeply rooted in Swiss tradition, charcoal was a common source of metallurgical fuel until the 20th century, when fears of deforestation and CO2 emissions persuaded officials to ban it. In some parts of the world today, charcoal is seen as a charming anachronism of sorts. "The passing of time has, in fact, morphed this elaborate production process into a nostalgic happening, often relegated to festive folk events," the designers say. Elsewhere, it is still tapped for fuel, often to disastrous effect; in the Congo, illegal charcoal burning threatens the Virunga National Park, one of the nation’s largest nature preserves and the home of the critically endangered mountain gorilla.
Trimarchi and Farresin have distinguished themselves in the crowded Dutch design landscape by using design to tell complex cultural narratives. Their contribution to Confrontations is no exception. Their project gives us the unfiltered story of charcoal production, one in which there are no easy answers. At the exhibit’s opening, Trimarchi and Farresin invited visitors to sip charcoal-purified water and eat black charcoal bread (which is said to aid digestion), surrounded by objects and drawings that hint at the use, and misuse, of charcoal throughout history.
[Images courtesy of Formafantasma]