by Nick CurrieJune 14, 2016
“Reporting from the Front,” the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale
During the first decade of neoliberalism, not long after Live Aid, Sandy Nairne made a series of six films called “State of the Art” for the UK’s Channel 4. They provide a fascinating glimpse into a 1980s contemporary art world both condemning and colluding with international capital. In the fifth film we see once-radical artists like Terry Atkinson recanting their former “left-wing heavy booting” in the name of a new “complexity,” and in the sixth we visit the 1986 Sydney Biennale, where 1980s politicians in 1980s suits are making a big deal of the show’s inclusiveness—somewhat to the consternation of Aboriginal artist Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, who feels that a decontextualizing tokenism may be at work.
Thirty years have passed, but very little has changed. On the one hand, art fairs like the Basel franchise operate like a greedy id, offering the super-rich primal visual pleasure and investment opportunities. On the other (oppositional or complementary according to your perspective), biennials stand as a sort of guilty superego, with loftily humanist curators—often from poorer nations—asking us to consider the plight of refugees, immigrants, and the poor (the victims, one might say, of the very people the big art fairs are aimed at). The overall effect is rather like punctuating business days with conscience-searing Sunday sermons. Desire and guilt, feast and famine, the gun and the cross are in collision, or collusion.
But just how guilty does a good biennial have to be? My perception of “All the World’s Futures,” the 2015 Venice Biennale of Art, exhibited in the same buildings that this summer host the Biennale of Architecture, was that the aesthetic impact of the show was somewhat muted by curator Okwui Enwezor’s progressivist agenda, his need to focus neoliberal guilt. I found “Fundamentals,” Rem Koolhaas’s 2014 Biennale of Architecture, more compelling: here was a massive effort to research the basic architectural elements which make human life possible—door hinges, toilets, walls—presented with sensitivity to historical context and an admirable materialism. Depending on your perspective the results were either Brechtian or resembled a severe case of Asperger syndrome.
The 2016 Biennale of Architecture, curated by Alejandro Aravena and titled “Reporting from the Front,” tries to fuse the two approaches. Aravena, who graduated from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and won this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize for work including his school of architecture and faculty buildings at the college, has taken a somewhat “pontifical” approach in his selection of projects: the curatorial texts give the impression that the included architects are being singled out for “good works” and fast-tracked to sainthood.
A repetitive litany of praise-words tells us what is holy in this worldview: affordability, sustainability, recyclability, durability, accessibility, inclusiveness, the public, the local, democracy, ephemerality, flux, flexibility, impermanence, informality, cheapness, lightness, humbleness, value rather than cost. These are all praiseworthy qualities—a kind of pensée unique of progressive values—though they’re often the result more of necessity than choice. They certainly make a refreshing alternative to “starchitecture” and the “iconic.”
The problems and paradoxes begin, though, when we observe how these virtues operate in the structure of a Venice biennale: the curator sets the theme and pavilions sponsored by national governments interpret it in their own ways, for their own ends. A pavilion at Venice is, of course, a propaganda vessel, a tool for soft power. So a series of progressive-sounding curatorial buzzwords gets wrapped around whatever policies the participating nation-states wish to be associated with.
In the Arsenale and the Giardini’s Central Pavilion the poorly-lit, clunky curatorial text hymning “good works” hangs on signs next to projects which, without it—even with it—can be vague and incoherent. A whole room in the Corderie, for instance, is taken up with an array of white spotlight beams. The accompanying text reads: “The work of Transsolar, a contribution to sustainability… Cutting edge engineering at the service of common sense.” The non-explanation continues: “Transsolar takes a step back in the search for local strategies that use available resources more efficiently. However, this way of thinking is not romantic or ‘antiprogress.’ It is about putting the most sophisticated engineering to work at the behest of common sense.” At the end of the text I’m still in the dark. Transsolar describes itself as a “climate engineering firm,” involved in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. It’s defensive, but hopefully not involved in the defense industries. I long for an acerbic quotation about aircon from Rem Koolhaas’s polemic Junkspace (2001), but none is forthcoming.
Often in these case studies an architect from a richer country is making a tactful intervention in a poorer one, and the curator is aware of the moral difficulties: “The work of Swiss architect Christian Kerez in Brazil,” reads one sign, “Learning from favelas (without poeticizing them).” To improve the poor could be seen as patronizing, but to learn from favela self-builders is also to risk romanticizing poverty. “It is important,” notes the text next to images of Kerez’s slum project in São Paulo, “not to poeticize informality and not to confuse an apparently organic development with the mere incapacity of individual actions (even if well intentioned) to guarantee common good.” Other exhibits, however, don’t merely poeticize poverty but spiritualize it, finding progressive urbanist language for religious behavior. A section devoted to the Hatje Cantz 2013 book on Kumbh Mela—about the temporary structures that crop up to support the pilgrims—recasts an ancient ritual of Hindu river-bathing as an “ephemeral mega city” and vaunts impermanence as “a legitimate category within urbanism … a prototype for more flexible urban planning.” As in the use of aboriginal art at the Sydney Biennale back in 1986, this progressive-humanist re-characterization of traditional religious culture is a failure of what Max Weber called Verstehen, the “seeing-with” which tries to construe the meaning of an action from the actor’s point of view. My religious ritual becomes your “inclusiveness.” My ancient ways whitewash your regime, which until recently menaced them.
The elevation of values like poverty, ephemerality, and impermanence all too easily dovetails with a new global precarian order in which we’re asked to take basics like accommodation, healthcare, and employment much less for granted. “Against scarcity: inventiveness,” is the biennale’s rallying cry, yet it’s not too far from the demands of neoliberal politicians that the poor buckle down to austerity, meeting structural constraint with a personal resourcefulness of last resort.
The most successful of the national pavilions in the Giardini was Germany’s, whose exhibition “Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country,” curated by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, looked pragmatically into ways the nation could improve its cities as destinations for immigrants and refugees. All too often, though, the national pavilions were reduced to showing architectural models of “holy urbanism,” or trying to present dry data in colorful and sexy ways. For instance “In Therapy,” the exhibition at the Nordic pavilion, arranged tear-sheets on a giant wooden ziggurat—a secular cathedral steps—not unlike the installations of Rita McBride.
What kind of art biennale does an architecture biennale make? There’s quite a bit of overlap, given that in Venice both take place in the same buildings—with collateral palazzi and the pungent odor of the lagoon as backdrop—and tend to have curators interested in “the state of things,” using the high moral tone of redemptive humanism. An architecture biennale looks like a drier, more didactic art biennale, with a strong sense of design, a relational aesthetics feel, the odd nod to Brutalism (an Arsenale display on Chandigarh, the gorgeous Baltic Pavilion in its 1970s gymnasium), post-colonial takes on modernism, a fascination with mud and straw. You lie back on scatter cushions to watch a presentation by Assemble about children’s playgrounds. You “learn from outsiders.” In the glorious luxury of Venice, without discomfort or guilt, you are “slumming it,” setting the world to rights. What you miss, mostly, is art’s perversity, its eccentricity, even its sense for evil. Culture condemned to being morally elevating is culture with feet of clay.
The poster for “Reporting from the Front”—bizarrely in the context of the biennale’s title—is an image of an eccentric white lady up a ladder in the middle of a desert. It’s a Bruce Chatwin photograph of the German archeologist Maria Reiche studying the mysterious figures—best seen from the air—of Peru’s ancient Nazca culture. The text tells us that Reiche couldn’t afford to fly over the designs, so she carried a humble aluminum ladder out over the high arid plains. “Standing on the ground, the stones did not make any sense; they were just random gravel. But from the height of the ladder those stones became a bird, a jaguar, a tree, or a flower.
The trouble is that, from the height of this biennale’s curatorial ladder, a great many interesting and mysterious things turn out to be, apparently, nothing more than progressive-sounding, advert-ready buzzwords: sustainability, accessibility, flexibility. The most absurd declension of this blithe mantra appears in the Australian Pavilion, which spins a swimming pool (“The Pool”) as a symbol of everything good: cultural identity, public space, public debate, battles for democracy, achievement, and struggle.
The late Louise Bourgeois might have preferred to think of a pool in the context of disturbing sea monsters, the fear of drowning, wet dreams. But here, in the cheerfully mitigating world of the redemptive biennial, there’s no place for anything like that. We must “learn from the other” without looking into ourselves.
- 1Italian Pavilion, “Taking Care - Designing for the Common Good,” 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Curated by TAMassociati Massimo Lepore, Raul Pantaleo, Simone Sfriso. Image courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia. Photo by Andrea Avezzù.
- 2Italian Pavilion, “Taking Care - Designing for the Common Good,” 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Curated by TAMassociati Massimo Lepore, Raul Pantaleo, Simone Sfriso. Photo by Andrea Avezzù.
- 3"Didascalia," Arsenale, 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. 100 tons of waste material generated by the dismantling of the previous edition of the Biennale, specifically 10,000 square meters of plasterboard and 14 km of metal profiles for plasterboard structures. Photo by Andrea Avezzù.
- 4Venice Pavilion, “UP! Marghera on stage,” 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Photo by Francesco Galli.
- 5Brazilian Pavilion, "Juntos," 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Photo by Francesco Galli.
- 6German Pavilion, “Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country,” 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Photo by Kirsten Bucher.
- 7Nordic Pavilion, “In Therapy - Nordic Countries Face to Face,” 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Photo by Francesco Galli.
- 8Australian Pavilion, "The Pool,” 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Aileen Sage Architects (Amelia Holliday and Isabelle Toland) with Michelle Tabet. Photo by Andrea Avezzù.
- 9Irish Pavilion, “Losing Myself,” 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Photo by Andrea Avezzù.
- 10Mexican Pavilion, “Unfoldings and assemblages,” 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Photo by Andrea Avezzù.
- 11Turkish Pavilion, “Darzanà: Two Arsenals, One Vessel,” 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Photo by Andrea Avezzù
- 12Grupotalca, Ten years later, the woodcutter made it in Venice, 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016. Photo by Andrea Avezzù.