by Zohra KhanJul 06, 2023
Before moving to specific aspects of the biennale, it is perhaps important to take a moment to understand the importance of exhibitions and events of this scale. Each biennale has been an important marker in the prevailing conversation, which is why it is necessary to distinguish whether the objects in the biennale are being presented, exhibited or displayed. While they may sound like synonyms, Lokko’s own statement—which talks about the importance of process and the idea of a workshop—elucidates the importance of being specific. Personally, based on the context and origin of the works, the overall Biennale allows the three modes of presentation, exhibition and display to coexist in different parts of the Biennale. The determining factor here is the lens through which one is observing. This is very similar to Lokko’s use of the word practitioners. It allows for a more expanded perception and reading of the Biennale.
Maybe that is what the Laboratory of the Future is meant to do. The curated section of the International Exhibition, which is located in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, had an incredibly easy layout. It was refreshingly sparse, with only 16 practices featured in the Central Pavilion. The potency and depth of the works which fall under Lokko’s Force Majeure category featured the works from practices in Africa and the larger diaspora. Starting with a 360 degree video and a sound installation by Sir David Adjaye, the emptiness of the occupiable space sets the tone for the rest of the Central Pavilion. The installation is set at the top section of this room, allowing the occupiable space at the bottom to facilitate free movement. Each practice is given its own space and the video installations are not overwhelming, allowing viewers to actually connect with each exhibit. Models and drawings while present were not the only mode of communication.
For instance, Francis Kéré’s installation created an interior space for one to experience, while atelier masōmī, helmed by Mariam Issoufou Kamara, drew sketches directly on the walls of the pavilion. Olalekan Jeyifous’ exhibit, which also earned him the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Participant, was a wonderfully calm space. The entire room which takes up the mezzanine felt a bit like an airport waiting lounge, where one could wait for the future to arrive. His characteristic science fiction and Afro-surrealist visuals were accompanied by the sound of an old-time transit message board. It was a simple but effective addition. Some of the others in the Central Pavilion include Sumayya Vally and Moad Musbahi, Thandi Loewenson, and Theaster Gates, all of whom look at their own practice as art, research, building and even as teaching. This diversity of practice modalities also translated into how the exhibits were presented during the opening, for instance, Cave_bureau featured a performance interaction with their exhibit.
The idea of performance as an introduction to an exhibition was seen throughout the Giardini including in the National Pavilions. For instance, the Nordic and German Pavilion incorporated performances during the opening and the opening days. The Nordic Pavilion’s Girjegumpi: The Sámi Architecture Library had a traditional form of song in Sámi music performed. While the German Pavilion’s Open for Maintenance – Wegen Umbau geöffnet featured an interpretive dance performed by differently-abled dancers. Engagement with presentations has become an important aspect of these large-scale festivals and events. Whether it is watching a scheduled performance, or interacting and contributing to the display, as was the case with the Canada Pavilion, it seems to have been important that people take away more than just the display of objects.
The Arsenale, a notoriously difficult space to work with, does not have the same calm and ease of display as the Central Pavilion. While not as overcrowded as previous iterations, the displays do feel more like presentations than exhibits. The variety of Arsenale's display should not be under-appreciated either. Spanish studio Flores Prats recreated their studio in the middle of the Arsenale. Using old models and process sketches the studio invites us into their process of making. Further down, one would encounter Gbolade Design Studio, whose graphic network map invites us into their process of thinking. Then there is Serge Attukwei Clottey’s installation that invites us on a journey. Displayed in two parts, one inside the Arsenale building and one on the water outside, Clottey’s Time and Chance has travelled a long distance and was even displayed in Mumbai during the Mumbai Urban Arts Festival.
One of the ideas that emerged through this laboratory, which looks at the African diaspora and the African continent, is to study how ideas of reclaiming culture and reclaiming lost narrators can have a larger impact on the language of our conversation. Twentieth century architecture looked to create an internationalism within its built language, in doing so not only did it take over the vernacular architecture of the colonised world, but it also took over the language of the local European architecture. Perhaps it is a stretch but, as the global majority continues to rediscover its own roots, it is contributing its methodology, its hermeneutics and its language to a world attempting to undo the problematic developments of its past. While there will continue to be claims of the biennale "not showing any architecture", it stands to reason that there is perhaps merit to the fact that visuals of 'traditional architecture' are missing. Maybe we have built enough. Maybe architecture as a practice has a larger scope to practise beyond construction. Maybe the main purpose of events such as the Venice Architecture Biennale is to probe thinking and not celebrate what already exists.