Beyond Buildings


Venice Calling

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Doug and Mike Starn's Big Bambu. Photo: Aaron Betsky


Against an architecture of nostalgia, which quivers at the appearance of anything new, the defense of new forms haunted by and appropriate for memory is the best answer. While critics moan and groan about how bad new buildings are, building up nostalgic images of mediocre structures such as Paul Cret’s severely compromised Barnes Museum, or Mario Botta’s SFMOMA, and while others find in the new the danger only of imitation, the best makers create forms that open our eyes to our surroundings and our history. Ironically, Venice, the most nostalgic of all cities, is often the site for such appearances, certainly in the art an architecture biennales that alternate there every summer.


Doug and Mike Starn's Big Bambu. Photo: Aaron Betsky


In my last post, I noted the interest in dissecting the old and the very notion of memory in some of the most interesting work at this, the 54th International Art Biennale. This time, I would like to just note a few of the pieces that pointed the way forward.


The winner of the Golden Lion, the award for the best project, this year was Christian Marclay, for his mesmerizing The Clock, a 24-hour piece that traces time with snippets from films in clocks or watches show a definite time. The piece has been on display elsewhere, but it never fails to plunge you into a profound awareness of time and, through that attention to temporal unfolding, of place. This collage of moments is also one of places, creating continuity out of disparate rooms, streets, and cities that is profoundly modernist.


The Silver Lion for promising young artist went to Haroon Mirzo, who was present with two different installations in which light and sound so profoundly altered your sense of place that you seemed to remove yourself from reality. The one in the Arsenale, the Biennale’s main exhibition hall, consisted of escalating throbs of light and sound. It reminded me both of discos and science fiction films, which to me are visions of technology taking over not just reality, but your very body. Mirzo’s vision may seem prophetic, but it is actually rooted in his past: This British artist draws, for instance, on what he sees on the uneasy relationship between Islam and music, to create his work.


The most profound evocations of place and, for me, memory, occurred outside the Biennale proper, in the so-called “collateral events.” In one, Venice in Venice, curators Time Nye and Jacqueline Miro collected some of the best examples of the L.A.–based “light and space” movement of the 1960s and placed them in one of those magnificently fading palazzos that dot the Grand Canal. Now often forgotten figures such as Laddie John Dill, Tony Berliant, and Larry Bell used industrial materials and paints to focus our attention on popular culture and pure light. My favorite here was a Larry Bell cube within a cube, sitting on a pedestal overlooking the palazzo’s garden. The different colors and the nesting of the geometries created effects as intricate as anything that Venice’s Gothic forms have to offer. It also reminded me of the vitality of Los Angeles, where artists and architects still believe that contemporary forms and means of production can be made beautiful, accessible, and profound.


Towering over the Grand Canal was the Starn Twins’ latest iteration of Big Bambu, the whirlpool of bamboo that luxuriated on the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s roof last summer. This is a simpler structure, and not nearly as satisfying in its spatial complexity, but it did manage to take the Canal’s seductive curve, along which the city’s essence unfolds, and twirl it into spiral pointing to the turbulent sky beyond what humans have made. And then, just to bring you back down to earth, there was the boom box that the bamboo workers had installed to accompany their continuous construction (it will go on until the fall). From it the now three-decade-old Clash anthem echoed forth, in warning and in exaltation, as a memory of a dimly remembered war and the promise of a future one that we will survive through art and construction:


The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in

Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin

A nuclear error, but I have no fear

'Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river

Now get this

London calling, yes, I was there, too

An' you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!

London calling at the top of the dial

After all this, won't you give me a smile?

London calling

I never felt so much alike, alike, alike ...

—The Clash, London Calling, 1979




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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.