When a mysterious metal sculpture showed up in a remote area of Utah last week, people began to speculate how long it had been there before it was discovered. Google Earth sleuths narrowed it down to four years, but metal sculptures like that could potentially last for decades. The exact opposite is true of Andrea Ling’s artwork. She uses biomaterials to create pieces that are designed to decay and transform over time, and become part of the living world around them.

Ling was one of the winners of the Science In The Arts category at this year’s Falling Walls conference. This annual event in Germany coincides with the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and focuses on breaking down walls between science and society.

For her project “Design by Decay, Decay by Design” – which earlier won her the European Commission’s 2020 S+T+ARTS prize – Ling experimented with biomaterials like chitosan, cellulose and pectin. She started working with these materials at MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, and continued during her residency at biotech company Gingko Bioworks, where she used fungi, bacteria and enzymes to systematically transform sections of different biomaterials.

One of the techniques she explored was to use an enzyme mixture to paint patterns on a pectin-chitosan material, selectively breaking down certain parts of it. In another experiment, she treated textured wood blocks with Aspergillus niger and Trichoderma viride molds.

Since the decay process is built in, the end products of Ling’s work are not permanent structures, but that isn’t the point. “The project is more about process design than making any type of thing,” says Ling. She explains that in the commercial production of products from synthetic biology or biomaterials, designers often look for ways to standardize the process. “But then what does the standardization cost us? Does it block us from certain ways of doing things that might actually be beneficial to the planet?” Instead of focusing on the product, Ling is interested in the circular processes of decay and regeneration.

The inspiration to let living organisms take over control of an artwork came from ancient rock paintings in Western Australia. Ling shares what fascinated her about the art: “The original pigment is all gone, and this community of fungi and cyanobacteria took over the painting.” These organisms followed the exact pattern of the original paint, down to the brush strokes, and this living paint has lasted much longer than the original pigments. Ling adds, “I’m interested in decay because it’s the partner to renewal. And this painting is showing longevity through constantly renewing.”

Although the work she created at her Gingko residency was at a relatively small scale – perfect for experimenting with new materials and processes – Ling’s ambitions are to use these techniques for larger works. She has a background in architecture and previously created large outdoor installations for Burning Man in Nevada and Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. The next step is to design an outdoor biodegradable artwork — something you could leave outside and let it become part of the environment as it gradually decays.

But unlike the mysterious metal Utah monolith, you wouldn’t expect to suddenly find Ling’s outdoor art years after installation. If anything, it would have changed, degraded and been taken over by the living world around it, just like the ancient rock art in Australia.

Disclaimer: I was a recipient of a Falling Walls / Berlin Science Week journalism grant, and participation in this programme introduced me to Andrea Ling and her work.