Counting sheep

This exhibition shows how wool is more than just a raw material.

In 2021, an abandoned Merino sheep was found in Australia with 35 kilograms of wool on its back. Baarack the ram represents the bioprospecting paradigm of humans: if Merinos aren't sheared, their fleece continues to grow indefinitely, eventually enveloping them in unbearable layers of wool that impair their vision and movement.

Oltre Terra: Why Wool Matters, an exhibition in Norway by the multidisciplinary design studio and Design Indaba alum Formafantasma, explores this sheep-human relationship beyond wool as a material. Investigating the history, ecology and global dynamics of the extraction and production of wool, it features an array of agricultural and cultural objects, photographs, videos and other materials, with the aim of showing how the sheep we know today are the result of a complex process of co-evolution and co-creation.

About 11 000 years ago, humans transitioned from hunting to a more symbiotic relationship with sheep: instead of wholesale slaughter, communities started to follow and selectively cull flocks of sheep. This gradual transformation led to the establishment of a new and evolving bond between humans and animals, a process of coexistence and selective breeding that shaped the trajectory of sheep evolution, culminating in domestic sheep as we know them today. However, ‘material culture and biological evolution are too often conceptually separated,’ notes Formafantasma, ‘which calls for a holistic perspective on the interdependency between production processes and biological evolution.’

The exhibition is essentially an ongoing research project by Formafantasma that looks at the development of wool production via conversations and collaborations with a variety of different practitioners, including designers, artists, anthropologists, evolutionists, legal experts, curators, shepherds, musicians and farmers. Objects such as a 1 700-year-old wool tunic, goat masks and a commissioned video by Polish artist Joanna Piotrowska are just some of objects on display, while at the centre of the exhibition is a large carpet made of a type of wool that would normally be discarded by the wool industry.

Oltre Terra: Why Wool Matters is on at the newly opened National Museum of Norway in Oslo from 26 May to 1 October 2023.


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Photographs: Studio Formafantasma, Joanna Piotrowska.