The [not so common] Carapace

Lately, a number of artists have caught my eye. These artists are using specialized materials and technologies to extend human performance, inspire new aesthetics, and transform our perspective of the biological world.   Bio-engineers, visual artists, fashion designers, and, of course, origami masters, are inspired by unusual features in nature, and in the process, creating new ways of understanding the natural (and ultra-human) world. Let’s look at a couple ways this is happening.


Take the carapace… nature’s rigid shell that covers the upper (dorsal) portion of the crustaceans and arachnids (anthropods), as well as some vertebrates (turtles and tortoises). This exoskeleton protects and nourishes the soft inner body, attracts a mate, and often provides transport and other functions for other species. These creatures can acquire symbolic characteristics. Take the ladybug beetle, for example, an abundant species of bug (over 5000 species known!). Ladybugs bring good luck. Or, there’s the scarab beetle whose numbers (some 30,000 species) might have led the ancient Egyptians to consider it a sign of resurrection.  





To get a true appreciation for the beauty of the carapace, consider the collection of artist-photographer Levon Biss. Biss creates stunning photographs of insects that are 3 meters high. One composite image requires over 10,000 photos, taken at distances of 10 microns each to capture the intricately folded surfaces of a longhorn beetle (below).  


Using the humble technology of manual paper folding, origami artists have mastered the art of creating carapace-adorned creations out of a single sheet of paper.  This crab, by Brian Chan, created for the Origami USA Convention 2008, is just one example of one-to-many operations that make origami transcend craft.



Bio-designer Christopher A. Mann used 3D printing technology to create this Human Quarter Mile shoe – a blend of bio-mechanics and science fiction. The shoe is a perfectly fitting exoskeleton – complex, futuristic and designed to get the most out of the wearer’s entire foot and his or her imagination. The bio-frame goes beyond comfort, protection, and even aesthetics to inspire the wearer to use the foot more creatively.


Collaborations between artists, designers, and architects are rife in the fashion industry. Drawing upon the concept of an exoskeleton, a number of artists seek to transform human embodiment. Take the Carapace Project, the brain child of Filippo Nassetti and Alessandro Zomparelli. The two have designed headgear (exoskeletal masks) that extend human sensibilities. Drawing upon the ‘microstructure’ of crustacean coverings, the artists add additional folds to the body that impact both on function and artistic performance. Quoting from the Carapace Masks collection, the Audiam  mask is ‘the fossil of a hearing-area’s evolution.’ Audiam means “I will hear”.  The sculpture transforms the relationship with the ear and the hearing sense.


Extending the idea of fashion into architecture, other designers manipulate fabrics with a more structural mindset. Architectural fashion uses fabric the way architects use building materials. What matters is designing 3-D structure, shape, and form beyond the usual layering of clothes. These looks, while not exactly practical, but speak to the possibilities of embodied performance. Designer-artist JKANG created these looks.


Finally, artist-fashion designer Richard Sun also draws from architecture in creating a range of  transparent/translucent wearable exoskeletons – sculptural designs inspired by a government building on a visit Sun made to Hong Kong.  So many ways that folds can cover the body, covers that expose new ways of seeing. Whether  rigid or fluid, these modern foldings at once extend our perception of human potential, while allowing us to see through a new lens that is futuristic, cyber, visionary and cutting edge.