Beyond the central part of the Venice Biennale’s Giardini, or gardens, where what once were the great colonial powers display the best architecture or art they think they have to offer, but also beyond the focus of most critics and observers, lie the outlying countries. Some, including large ones such as China or India, do not have their own pavilion at all. Others, such as Serbia or Poland, line up across a canal in a nondescript set of buildings. It is here that you often find some of the more interesting experiments in any Biennale.
At the 12th International Architecture Biennale this year, Greece is presenting a narrow lab or workshop in the middle of their pavilion, filled with herbs. The space is as much olfactory as it is physical. In the Polish area, one is invited to climb up a metal staircase and then to jump, in total darkness, onto a foam bed—until one of the visitors got cold feet at the last minute, tumbled more than fell, and badly scraped himself against the metal side, causing the authorities to shut down this simple experiment in trust and spatial exploration.
My favorite of the pavilions here this year, though, is the Serbian presentation. Created by the collective Škart, the pavilion consists of a collection of planters on crudely fashioned wheeled plinths, as well as wooden beams fashioned into seesaws. The group chose as its inspiration a poem by one Vasko Popa to the effect that his wife had always dreamed of having a garden that would follow her wherever she went. In an age of either forced or voluntary mobility, in which the former option prevailed for many in the Balkans, having an Eden that you take with you would indeed seem like an attractive option.
I am not sure that I or anyone else would have found that meaning without reading the explanation, however. What makes the experience here so enjoyable is the simple and absolutely absurd act of picking up the handle to one of the plant assemblages and wheeling it a few feet through the space, as various members of the Serbian team on hand invite you to do. You feel profoundly silly doing so, and yet there is a childlike joy to the act, one which destabilizes what you think of as exactly the most rooted elements of our physical environment. Playing with your Radio Flyer and mucking around in the dirt become, for a few moments, one.
The seesaws invites social participation, fulfilling Biennale curator Kazuo Sejima’s goal of showing that “people meet in architecture.” The implement only works, after all, if you can convince somebody else to get on the other side. It complicates these relations even further by stringing several of the beams together, running them through the space, out onto the adjacent balcony, and onto the grass beyond. Your liberation from gravity depends on somebody who might be in another space altogether. The seesaw concatenations give a whole new meaning to the notion of sequence in architecture, and let the strange scene of people bopping up and down become part of the public space in front of the pavilion.
I wish all of the objects were somewhat bigger, and attacked the framework in which they sat with a bit more vigor. As it is, the installation’s scale makes the illusion of freedom and absurdity too momentary and fragile. After the seriousness and pompousness of many of the other installations, however, this kind of inspired silliness opened up a new way of looking at architecture for me, at least for the moment that I sailed above the ground and before I came crashing down to the humid weather and discourse of the Architecture Biennale.