Matter

Cesare is interested in materials of mostly natural origin, which have been widely used by humans since the earliest of times. These materials have long histories behind them, and sometimes show sparks of possible futures.

Cyanobacteria.

These unicellular organisms represent the origin of life on Earth. In the 1920s, the Russian scientist Aleksandr Ivanovic Oparin and his British colleague John Burdon Sanderson Haldane independently developed what has come to be known as the “primordial soup” theory. According to this theory, some 3.5 billion years ago, ultra-violet light from the sun acted on molecules of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen, aggregating them into the very first protein chains that formed cyanobacteria. They are still here today. Our anthropocentric worldview would have us believe that we rule the world, but we have only existed for a few tens of thousands of years—a blink of the eye in the history of life. The real rulers, with their incredible power of adaptation, are cyanobacteria and similar organisms. We are so complex and apparently strong, yet we are so fragile. Cyanobacteria are so simple and apparently weak, yet they are the essence of life itself.

Charcoal.

There are two kinds of charcoal. One is the natural kind, produced by the degradation of vegetable matter under pressure and heat (mineral coal), which eventually transforms into natural gas and petroleum. The other is produced by humans by burning wood for heating and cooking. Mineral coal was the primary source of energy that powered the first industrial revolution. Its extraction and mining wrought dramatic social impacts and it was largely abandoned with the discovery of less labour-intensive (and less socially-explosive) petroleum, which is substantially the same thing as coal, just older. Coal is made up of the same molecules that form cyanobacteria. It bears witness to the power of life, even once life itself is long gone. Artificial charcoal is another achievement of the homo faber in us. It is a by-product that has been reused in myriad ways, as fuel and in medicine, in art and to purify water, in horticulture and in cosmetics. Charcoal is energy harnessed by humans.

Loofah.

The loofah is a strangely beautiful fruit that humans mostly use as a body scrub. When fully ripened, it is so fibrous as to be inedible, but in some parts of Asia and India, the young fruit is harvested for food. The loofah is not known to play any essential role in the food chain or in natural ecosystems. Perhaps its reason for being really is to make our skin smoother.

Leather.

As controversial as it is for our culture today, the epitome of unsustainability and violence against animals, the truth is that leather is a natural and highly sustainable material, as it closes a link in the meat chain, reusing what would otherwise be hazardous waste. However, leather also represents a conquest of human knowledge and know-how. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors––the very first humans––discovered that the leftover animal hides of their meals became more durable when left close to a fire. As the only animals around without fangs, claws or poisons, they learned to make utensils and wear the thick fur to protect their vulnerable bodies from extreme temperatures and the sharp plants and rocks in the wild. Ultimately, leather is a celebration of human ingeniousness.

Marine sponge.

Not quite animal, vegetable or mineral, sponges are among the strangest living creatures we know on Earth. These magnificent beings are made up of unspecialized cells that can perform the same activities as the specialized organs in complex animals. Sponges draw energy from the flow of water through their pores. In exchange, they filter the water of physical detritus, such as coral powder. Sponges live in their own world at the depths of the sea and have very little to do with us humans. They are not edible and the most humans have done with them is use them to wash ourselves. Marine sponges are a masterpiece of nature to be worshipped.

Bones.

Bones make up the structural framework supporting the bodies of vertebrate creatures. If an animal breaks or fractures a bone, it will not be able to stand or move properly, leaving it weak, vulnerable, and exposed. The backbone is the mainstay of the skeleton and in psychology, backpain can be interpreted as a psychosomatic symptom of the fear of lacking the strength to face life’s responsibilities. Humans across the ages have used animal and even human bones to make things like tools, amulets, sculptures, glue, buttons, and poker chips. Bones retain the memory and perhaps some of the spirit of the being they once belonged to. So it is about making things with soul.

Resin.

Produced in nature by plants or in the lab by humans, resins are viscous substances consisting of long sticky polymers. As such, they are perfect for sticking things together. Resins have been used since Ancient Egyptian times to make inks, paints, varnishes, and glue. Some resins can also be used to make food and perfumes. Plants secrete resin to protect wounds on their surface. Traditional medicines use it to heal people; religions to heal souls. Thus resin helps repel malignant agents and appease benevolent spirits.

Wood.

Humans have used wood since time immemorial for construction, tools, and furniture, thanks to its great structural resistance, abundance, and workability. Wood is the product of photosynthesis, whereby water and carbon dioxide are transformed by the sun’s energy into glucose and oxygen. Without photosynthesis, humans and animals in general could not have come into existence. Wood is a materialized form of sunlight.

Glass.

First invented in the Near East some time before paper, glass has always played a key role in human societies in the form of bottles. Glass bottles have featured in most routine human activities since their invention, storing liquids such as water––so essential for our survival, wine and spirits––ever-present for our pleasure, and oil––of importance in worship. Bottles thus play a significant role in social gatherings and in human collaboration, making glass a symbol of our unique and amazing ability to make things together.

Wax.

Of all the kinds of wax there are – vegetable, animal, and synthetic – beeswax reigns supreme. It is produced by some bees to be used by other bees to make honeycomb, an amazingly perfect hexagonal structure for the reception of honey and their eggs. Humans have used wax since Neolithic times for a variety of purposes, from repairing teeth and candle making to water proofing and encaustic painting. For the Ancient Greeks, honey was the food of the gods, with Zeus nursed on honey by the nymph Melissa. She also introduced humans to the delights of honey. Bees work hard and play a key role in the pollination of plants, as they move from flower to flower to collect nectar. Where there are bees, there is life.

Oil.

Fragrant oils mask odours that are symptoms of decay and help ward off the malicious intents of demons. Since the dawn of religion, humans have celebrated important rites and rituals, such as the consecration of a priest or a monarch, by anointing the body with oil. Sacred oils are often renewed ritually to be preserved for centuries. More profane oils are instead used to flavour and cook food, to lubricate machines, or as fuels. In nature, oil comes from plants and fruits such as olives, but also from animals such as whales, and from fossilized organic matter such as petroleum. Whatever its source or use, oil is quintessentially purifying.

Paper.

Non-existent in nature and utterly useless for any creature except humans, paper was invented less than twenty-five hundred years ago in the Far East. That makes it incredibly new on the scene of world history. Humans use paper for a wide variety of things, from wiping the more shameful parts of their bodies to creating amazing drawings and precious books. When used for writing or drawing, paper has the power to make abstract concepts concrete. Abstraction is a human idiosyncrasy that can be seen as either our brightest feature or our most troublesome trait. Without paper, all human abstraction, from religion to money, literature to art, would be transient. Paper embodies the magic of ideas.

Alcohol.

A bacterial killer, source of energy, and psychotropic drug, alcohol is naturally produced by the fermentation of sugar and organic acids mostly contained in sweet fruits and grains. Humans produce copious amounts of alcohol for drinking, as fuel, and as a disinfectant. Drinking alcohol alters our state of consciousness, offering relief from pain, euphoric excitement, or a means of penetrating the unknown and even the darker side of being, which cannot be understood by purely rational means. Alcohol is a painful promise of well-being.

Clay and stone.

Widely found in the earth of our planet, clay has long been used by humans through the ages to make sculptures, pottery, and buildings. Clay is also used in traditional medicine and in skin cosmetics. When mixed with water, clay becomes plastic and then hardens when dried or fired, though if it is not fired, it can be used over and over again. Earth is the heaviest of the four classical elements and is associated with stability––the stability of the ground that bears us.