Five moments of transcendence at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021

In part two of the series, despite the crowded displays and the repetitious Manthropocene discourse at the VAB 2021, the writer experienced instances of elevated calm and pleasure.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Jul 01, 2021

Given the dense display and the deluge of cryptic language meant to encompass complex concepts, visiting the 17th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale is a heavy experience, one that can tire the feet and over-saturate the brain. Despite having spread out my visit over two days, reserving one day per venue, after a couple of hours the ubiquitously displayed facts and figures glazed over my eyes, leaving me with the sinking sensation of impending doom and anger over how readily the represented architects were embracing the prospect of cross-species collaboration without sparing too much thought for the indigenous and female subjectivities that have been historically excluded from the enterprise of dreaming and creating utopias. Still, amid all the despair were moments of lightness that felt gratifying to witness, both conceptually, aesthetically, and experientially.

Immersive installation, entitled Con-nect-ed-ness by the Pavilion of Denmark at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, “How will we live together?” | La Biennale di Venezia| STIRworld
Immersive installation, entitled Con-nect-ed-ness by the Pavilion of Denmark at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, “How will we live together?”Image: Francesco Galli, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

#Lavender Tea at the Denmark Pavilion

Titled con-nect-ed-ness, the pavilion, designed by Copenhagen-based Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter and curated by Marianne Krogh felt like an oasis. All the rain water of Venice is being collected and circulates through the pavilion and is also absorbed by a range of lemon verbena plants being grown on site which are offered to visitors in the form of tea. I was asked to choose between lavender and peppermint. I chose lavender because it is so freshly in season, and was offered a warm ceramic cup that I could take with me as I surveyed the site. Sofas were placed invitingly to allow you a moment’s pause as you allowed yourself to sense the water percolating from every edge. “Through living bodies, evaporation, photosynthesis and percolating, people and water engage in a mutual process: we meet and influence each other in an immediate sensory experience which can help us see our own place in the greater whole,” the architects told Domus in an interview.

Pavilion of Japan, Co-Ownership of Action: Trajectories of Elements at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, “How will we live together?”| La Biennale di Venezia| STIRworld
Pavilion of Japan, Co-Ownership of Action: Trajectories of Elements at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, “How will we live together?”Image: Francesco Galli, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

#Dissected constituents of a post-war Japanese House

Instead of a structure, or a lecture about structure, or an architectural model demonstrative of structure, the Japan Pavilion reveals to us the constituting elements of a post-war house, referred to as Takamizawa House that was dismantled from its original site in Tokyo and transported to Venice. The whole gesture seems loving and an exploration of the idea of architecture as “co-ownership of action”, therefore, a series of decisions and questionings about history, surface, elements, and narrative trajectories. “Your actions are not yours alone. Any act, however trivial, sits atop an accumulation of countless acts that arose from your interactions with someone else. Therefore, it can never be said that what you do belongs solely to you,” reads the opening paragraph of the pavilion statement, possibly authored by the curator, Kozo Kadowaki. The installation makes apparent the history of this eventually abandoned house and traces visually all the alterations that were made to it over the years using photographs alongside the actual dissections. We are told at the end that when the Architecture Biennale concludes, owing to discussions that were facilitated by the National Pavilion Curators Collective, the house with all its parts will be moved to Oslo, thanks to the inputs of the curators of the Philippine Pavilion, Sudarshan Khadka and Alexander Eriksson Furunes, who have an ongoing community project there. The installation questions architectural authorship and critiques the notion of a structure as eternally ‘belonging’ to a singular entity. It wonders what it could mean to engage in acts of sharing space, which is what living together integrally demands.

Future Assembly, the exhibition within the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, a collaboration between Studio Other Spaces and six co-designers at the Venice Architecture Biennale, How will we live together?  | La Biennale di Venezia| STIRworld
Future Assembly, the exhibition within the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, a collaboration between Studio Other Spaces and six co-designers at the Venice Architecture Biennale, How will we live together? Image: Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

#Imagining a Future Assembly with other-than-human stakeholders

Spread across the mezzanine of the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, Future Assembly is an elaborate and painstaking display, the result of an instigation by Studio Other Spaces, founded by artist Olafur Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann in Berlin in 2014. Inspired by Donna Harraway’s dictum of how the one must include the many, Studio Other Spaces invited this year’s selected architects, designers and artists from the biennale to imagine what a “multilateral assembly of the future”, one drawing parallels with the UN’s mode of origin, could look like. The display is cluttered within a circular region and encompasses a broad range of ideas around companion species, and is, thankfully, navigable online. Though veering towards over-saturated and over-loaded with information and explanation, the project manages to expand the architectural imaginary, steering it towards pressing concerns, urging the various participants and visitors to consider the agencies of other-than-human beings. There is, sadly, still too little space or accommodation for indigenous thought, within this collaborative project. Personally, I am suspicious of language that asks of us to “dissolve the boundaries of our individual existences” in order to “recognise our many entanglements with all living and non-living entities” because the vocabulary seems often indicative of an attempt to erase the continuing oppression of all categories of human that are not privileged cis-het-male in order to focus on collaboration with other species, when in fact feminist thought asks us to imagine intersectionality as the basis for collaboration, and not the dissolution of differences. Still, it is a commendable moment within the larger narrative arc of the Biennale, and it is immediately followed by an amazing work by Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sissel Tolaas, titled Resurrecting the Sublime, which seemed to consist of primevally moving scent molecules oozing from lava boulders.

Future Pavilion of Romania, Fading Borders, at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, “How will we live together?” | La Biennale di Venezia| STIRworld
Pavilion of Romania, Fading Borders, at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, “How will we live together?” Image: Francesco Galli, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

#The inner lives of Romanian Migrants

Having worked on apple plantations with Romanian migrant workers in Alto Adige, I was profoundly moved by the Romanian Pavilion’s presentation,Fading Borders,especially how it uses two projects, Away (Teleleu) and Shrinking Cities of Romania (IDEILAGRAM) to focus on the compulsion that forms the crux of so many migrant lives that unfold away from home, driven by a quest for a better life, thus forming the work force in wealthier European countries. Away is a lovingly negotiated collaboration between a journalist, Elena Stancu, and a documentary photographer, Cosmin Bumbut, who call themselves Teleleu, who have been traveling across Europe in a camper van documenting the stories of Romanian emigrants, the back-breaking labour they perform in strawberry fields, among other agricultural work, their struggle to articulate their agency as voters in EU elections when away from home, and their ensuing loneliness and happiness. The project is displayed in a way that allows you to enter their imaginaries, and in a manner that humanises their everyday mundane. It’s a perspective you wish you saw more often in documentary photography.

Pavilion of Israel, Land. Milk. Honey at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, How will we live together? | STIRworld
Pavilion of Israel, Land. Milk. Honey at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, “How will we live together?” Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

#Upsetting ‘The Good Life’ at the Israel Pavilion

After visiting the Israel Pavilion, I was left genuinely confused as to why it isn’t being talked about more virally. Titled Land. Milk. Honey the pavilion, curated by Dan Hasson, Iddo Ginat, Rachel Gottesman, Yonatan Cohen and Tamar Novick is definitely one of the most politically instigative and investigative projects on display, performing seriously as a critique of the dangerous naivete of settler colonialism and the other-than-human worlds it subsequently destroys as collateral in its marginalisation of indigenous occupants. Instead of focusing attention on the escalating violence against the Palestinian people, the curators focus on the deteriorating lives of certain animals, like bees, buffaloes, goats, cows, and bats, which are presented as case studies, revealing how the entitled colonialist occupation of land eroded the ecosystems that had been historically in place to hold together the land. The curatorial premise also rests on the questioning of the biblical notion of Israel as the promised land of milk and honey, an abundance of that which is meant to constitute the good life. The display is immediate and powerful, skilfully empowering viewers to navigate the history of ‘Israeli’ landscape, how the present is intertwined within a history of still ongoing devastation. It was among the last pavilions I had the privilege of seeing and left a deep impression.

Also read Part I: How will we smash the patriarchy by living together?
Click here to read more about STIRring Together, a series by STIR that introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021.  

(Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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