Back O' Beyond………….
by Baracco and Wright Architects with Linda Tegg.
a review of
Australian Pavilion Venice Architecture Biennale 2018
The scene was set, the speeches and introductions, first the institute president now a word from your sponsor then the Commissioner followed by the three design directors, oh and oops they're back with a postscript to mention the first nations. No oops with the Australian Ambassador to Italy whose start with the first nations highlighted the designers’ earlier gaff, he wowed us peppering his discourse with carefully enunciated Italian.
Ribbon cut, we shuffled onto the DCM entry ramp into Repair. Through the doorway into the pitch black, chatter, chatter then thud into something soft and moist, and oh! the overwhelming sweet vegetal smell of a something reassuringly familiar.
Then the pavilion lit up to images wrapping one of its corners with a film of one of the slew of selected projects repeat its circuit twice a day.
In a strange phenomenon, the heady odour nigh on disappeared as other senses took over with the audience silenced as if watching telly, waiting for the ads to be able to talk again.
Then bang the lights came on, not any lights but a bank of row after row of special lights, skylight, to simulate the sun and to keep the gathering of bagged plants on the floor alive and flourishing.
It was a warm rather than hot sunny morning in the Giardini, spectacularly verdant after a few days of spring rain. Yet here we were inside this rarefied sound -deadened container with no explanatory or instructive text, under an unerring fake sun tip toeing through the grassland. Occasionally switching on the telly, then turning it off again to literally smell the flowers.
The idea of the collection of (the numbers game) 10000 plants from 65 species inside the ubiquitous white cube gallery space that is the Australian pavilion had intrigued. The resultant arrangement engaged with the containment of the square with a deft treatment allowing for broader circulation around and a detailed contact with the plants via some circuitous pathways where sometimes there were small seats for hunkering down amongst the green.
Something didn’t sit right here.
The curators claim they destabilised the space yet it is themselves that are turning inside out to create a life support system for this unlikely invasion from the colonies.
This is Manus island for the rare, endangered Western grasslands seeking asylum after being smuggled ashore (in a curator's suitcase) disguised as seeds and seedlings to the Italian Riviera in San Remo where they were nurtured by well-meaning Italian horticulturalists. There were harrowing tales of non-germinations and plain old death of the ones that didn’t make it, the survivors bagged and rootless, somewhat traumatised were transferred to the secure surrounds of the Australian Venice pavilion, where they are to stay for the next six months. But of what future? Surely to be burnt if they went to the US. How would Europe treat these alien species - Australian refugees? would they go the shameful Australian way and end in…………compost.
No mention. (no commentary, no elaboration) except protestations of how hard they are to keep alive, and how much effort their carer's put in.
Repair presupposes injury, but also loss.
This show of rare grasses is equivocal. Are these plants a metaphor? or does the regular on again off again light allude to renewal, diurnal or seasonal. And what about the seasons? How does this affect the plants? Are the grasses a symbol? Maybe. Is the presentation nostalgic? Certainly yes. Meanwhile the viewer is at a loss to find the responses or to decipher, then again as a -not metaphor- we are left with the grasses themselves.
The injury is that wrought by the destructive act of building. This recognition is a sort of obfuscation belying an unease. The very idea of Repair can be described as some middle brow attempt to assuage a guilt brought on by acting out in the landscape.
This culpability derives from political correctness or even vestiges of religious stricture, whilst straining to reconcile the impact of this destruction. Hidden deeper is a particular idealised view of the world and of a pure origin when nature ruled supreme and man was its subject before the Anthropocene.
Provocation is a cool word bandied around by the curators? meaningless here.
This nostalgic vision is a neo colonial view harking back to Terra nullius, not only the politico legal conspiracy to seize land but its concomitant myth that became the accepted trope of the subhuman nomadic noble savages living in harmony as subjects.....and further to us growing up starry eyed pioneers as if we were the first to have ever stood in that place.
How could the Curators have ignored in their introductory discourse that the existence of these grasses was the result of clear and intentional destruction by fire, husbanded by the same noble savages whose work these neo colonialists seek to set in the aspic of their nostalgia. Heralding the « capture » of the rare and exotic for display in the Doges backyard.
Nor was there an exploration of the existential threat posed by bushfires and the policy (and damage) of clearance to alleviate that threat.
It is easy to dismiss uncomfortable truths as complex issues without ever addressing them. Repair takes this path, the excuse that it is a speculative proposition clouds more……its sensorial inoffensiveness, its pleasantness and niceness reflects the smug obsequious side of wealthy society from which it comes.
This conceit allows the bravado to dominate and destroy as means to mark our territory, to claim our existence and the need to prove our worth. It allowed Australia to become one of the world’s preeminent polluters.
The conundrum of Repair is as an apparent shift of thinking, where it looks at covering over (by band aid) and curing wounds by an authentically native palliative (grasses).
But in the end
the possibility that destruction and removal can be creative tools.
the possibility of celebrating damage as an inherent component of history, be it personal or collective.
the exploration of repairing illuminating the damage and not disguising it
by refusing to recognise the history of the breakage and its repair,
by missing that exposure of this past and maturely facing up to it, can fix the links of the before and after by eschewing denial.
as the curators fail to see or consider what researches within other pavilions have clearly and cogently evidenced that recognition of these trajectories can lead to recharge.
In that it doesn’t fix anything, it dissimulates.
Written & photographed
state of grace