Beyond Buildings


Nostalgia, Tourism, and Critique in the Venice Art Biennale

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Venice is the ultimate tourist destination. With little or no commerce happening in the Most Serene Republic, it is a place you go to see the place. Once every two years, it is also home to the International Art Biennale, and this year the 54th edition just opened. This particular Biennale made me feel even more of sentimental tourist than usual, especially given the nature of some of the displays.


Song Dong. Photo: Aaron Betsky


Walking into the Arsenale, the medieval rope making factory that is the Biennale’s 100,000 square foot heart, meant navigating through a maze of doors and windows put together by Chinese artist Song Dong. Designed as a critique of the redevelopment of Beijing and other major Chinese cities, it reduced the complexity of construction in the older parts of those towns to their essence: the frames around people lives and the ways they enter and contain their own realm, while remaining part of a larger social construct.


Truth be told, the piece functioned as much to evoke nostalgia as to offer critique, which is an inherent problem architecture has when it tries to preserve: it tends to fetishize the past, rather than merely offering continuity through framing lives in what is always familiar.  When it is, moreover, removed from its context and turns into an art object, the artificiality of preservation, which refuses to accept (sometimes for very good reasons) social and economic changes that made the original construction no longer a good fit, comes into focus. That is the point of the work of architecture as an art object, as it serves to make us aware of these issues in a way a lecture, such as the one by Rem Koolhaas I commented on in my last post, cannot.


Andro Wekua. Photo: Aaron Betsky


The nostalgia continued in the next room with the work of Andro Wekua, a Georgian-born artist who presented rough little models of what appeared to be bits and pieces of a socialist past. Ranging from de Chirico–like abstraction to toy-train-set precision, the pieces were neither Modernist nor Classical, but a combination of both, transformed into the kind of compaction of monumentality and functionality that is the default of so many of the institutional, educational, and recreational buildings of the former Soviet bloc. Should we mourn their disappearance, and appreciate their evocation here, or should we realize how meager, confused, and often unpleasant they were?  The fact that these buildings represent actual structures in Wekua's home town of Sochumi, which was largely destroyed by war, does not change their ambivalent status for us as viewers.


Mike Nelson. Photo: Aaron Betsky


The height of nostalgia, or at least the most elaborate version of displaced time and place travel, was Mike Nelson’s transformation of the British Pavilion in the nearby Giardini, or garden exhibition area, into a courtyard complex in Istanbul. You entered into the pavilion’s mediocre classicism –up the stairs, under the columns, through the central door, one by one-- and then found yourself ducking down corridors, moving through cramped rooms, stumbling on a darkroom where photographs of Istanbul were drying, wondering about the collection of chairs and photographs you encountered, and finding a moment of respite in a courtyard that appeared to be at the pavilion’s heart. Open to the sky, its walls indicated masses of habitation all around you. The whole pavilion was a neighborhood far away compacted into one place for your viewing and wandering pleasure.


Nelson is able to achieve an incredible verisimilitude in his work. The walls are patched, dirty, cracked and otherwise completely convincing as elements of a dwelling in the middle of a city in the Middle East. He does not use rhetoric by making the buildings either to picturesque or too broken down. They seem, above all else, real.


The installation is a tour de force, matched only by Gigi Scaria’s Elevator from the Subcontinent, in the Indian Pavilion back in the Arsenale. There you enter what appears to be a regular elevator, only to find yourself slicing through buildings in what appears to be India, including the parking garage and various nondescript rooms, before rising up onto the rooftops and then plunging back down through the structure.


Venice is a city built on tourism, and in some ways so is much art: it lets you experience other times and places in a condensed image, object, or space, neatly framed for you enjoyment. Architecture pretends to offer an alternative, as it makes new spaces and forms of living in the here and now –unless it tries to lose itself in historic preservation or backward-looking ways of building.These works of art, however, do not indulge in that kind of repressive stasis. Instead, they remind us of the value of what exists, what was not designed, what remains.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.