Always a bit crap: The Repair exhibit in the Australian Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale.

There is so much at stake in this year’s Australian Pavilion at the 2018 Architecture Biennale that it is really hard to know where to start. What is at stake here is the question of how Australian architecture represents itself to the world. Maybe I am overthinking it, and perhaps the glittering spectacle that is the Architecture Biennale shouldn’t mean so much. And I don’t mean to sound overtly nationalistic — which seems to be a profoundly unfashionable position to some — even as the project of globalism in architecture, is fading and facing a period of uncertainty. But to ask this question, of how a nation-state like Australia with all its layers of race, gender, class and professional apparatus represents its architecture in a global forum is I think necessary.

The concept for the Australian Pavilion is Repair. You can read a bit about it here.

Indeed, the manifesto of Freespace ably curated by Farrell and McNamara in this 2018 Biennale certainly points to the cracks in considering architecture as a global system of centres, peripheries, pedigrees and stars. A great thing about Freespace as a theme and the manifesto that goes with it its focus on the regional and local architectural practices. It is by and large a celebration of the enmeshing of architects with both modernity but also local communities, cultures and the traces of the morphologies of settlements. Such sentiments are aptly conveyed in the Japanese, French and Spanish exhibits.

This all very nice, and this will sound like a kind of spoiler alert: in this age of blandish boosterism and uncritical praise anything even slightly critical risks danger and the silence of the bland boosters and Instagram influencers of contemporary architecture.

The primary criticism of past Australian architecture Biennale’s has been that the official curated theme of the Biennale is always set after the curators for the Australian pavilion have been selected. This time appears to be different, and the curators seem to have connected to the Biennale’s Freespace theme

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Always a bit crap  

Nevertheless, as a friend said, the Australian architectural exhibits are always a bit crap. And after visiting this year’s Biennale, my first reaction was yep that’s right.

The Australian Pavilions are always a bit crap, and we could blame the committee structure that seems to exist to promote mediocrity, the Australia Council, the AIA, and of course the usual coterie of pedigreed and “representative” curators. There have been some spectacular failures in this selection process in the past. Why Justine Clarke and Rory Hyde never got their gig a few tears back points to the mediocrity and perhaps small minded political treachery of the selection process. Look, I don’t really know but this is what I suspect. Mostly, the efforts have been mediocre and there have been few stinkers. For some people, like my anonymous friend, this year will seem no different to previous years.

Sometimes it’s easy to see how and why a car crashes. In this particular car crash, it’s hard to know at what point the entire exhibition started to drift off. The sentiments underlining it a fine. The central conceptual idea of Repair, in theory at least is well-meaning, but then it seems to go all wrong. It’s like none of the bits of this exhibition connects or come together as a whole. This is not to say that I want my exhibitions to be big and larger than life themes (for example the British exhibit with its theme of Island). Nor do I expect there is anything wrong with presenting fragments. But in this instance, each fragment seems isolated, and it’s difficult to make the interpretive connection between the different parts of the exhibit.

The Pavilion

The new Australian pavilion seems to be better this time I visited it. It is certainly a building that is not kicking us in the head with some kind of spat out chewing gum masticated and parametric forms. Sure, it’s a little conservative and neat, but it is undoubtedly a vast improvement on the previous pavilion with its monomaniacal focus on all things shed. I think we can all be glad that our collective shame has been erased with its demolition.

The grass is dying  

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Yes, the western grassland plants in the exhibit are dying, and no one really knows what this means. Were they intended to die or not? Nonetheless, this is the great sorrow of this exhibit.

Yet, what saves this pavilion are the grasslands themselves. That was a brilliant idea. Their materiality is palpable and as one person said to me it was great to see the spiders crawling over these plants. I don’t know the back story, but I fear that the ambitions of the curators may have been foiled by committee structure and then difficulties of procurement in Italy. A country not known for the efficiency and rationality of its logistical supply chains. To be more generous this was a dangerous experiment which like all such endeavours needed to be perfected and refined. Dealing with anything living is bound to be a problem.

The associated projects

Aside from the grasslands, there are fifteen or sixteen (is it eleven?) architectural projects are featured in this mélange. There eleven projects represented in the entire show are ok. But you wouldn’t think they were even a part of what is exhibited in the pavilion. I stumbled across them in the broadsheet catalogue and apparently each one has its own video. But in the pavilion, annoyingly, you have to wait a long time to see them. It would have been better if the projects were presented in different media. Anything else would have been better. As it is not clear that they are a part of the exhibit at all.

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The one movie I saw projected in the space was execrable. An unfortunate combination of interpretative dance, cult yoga pants in a building that looked like an Australian brown brick version of a Jodorowsky set. It was actually the Featherston House (I feel we have now reached peak Boyd) and it all looked a bit too much like people doing River Dance. I presume the other films were better.

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By and large, these ancillary projects — and I am not sure if they are meant to be only incidental — do appear to pursue the notion of Repair. Most seem to proclaim their heart on the sleeve greenness and naïve ecological goodness. Of the 15 in the broadsheet, I think three do not deserve to be there. They seem gratuitous and connect nothing, and even detract from, the concept of Repair.

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Curatorial Approach

The curators try and bring all of this home by arguing for a transdisciplinary approach regarding architectural practice one that encompasses a broader range of practice the curators argue that:

We don’t have any definitive solutions, but believe there is a role for architecture to actively engage with the repair of the places it is part of, the soil, hydrology, habitat, connections, overland water flow, microorganisms, vegetation and so on, and that this type of repair is critical to enacting other wider types of social, economic and cultural repair.

Consequently, the broader team supporting the curators is impressive: includes architect Paul Memmott, landscape architect Chris Sawyer, landscape architect and urban designer Tim O’Loan, ecologist David Freudenberger, curatorial advisor Catherine Murphy, architect Lance van Maanen and a graduate of architecture Jonathan Ware.

Yes, transdisciplinary knowledge and its practices are mainly lacking in Australian architectural research, strategy organisational practice and design. Landscape architects and urbanists would claim that the ideas presented in this exhibit, are not new, and already form the theoretical background of landscape architecture in Australia and elsewhere. Of course architects, research academics (including myself) love to pay lip service to and generate spin around transdisciplinary ideals. But these days it is not the transdisciplinary architects, or architectural researchers, who are getting the commissions or research funds or all of the research metrics. Design research that most transdisciplinary of practices is still a second-class citizen in many forums.

So, from this perspective the aspirations of the curators are admirable. But paradoxically, the misplaced outcomes of this exhibit suggest how much further architects need to go in pursuing transdisciplinarity as real practice.

The next one

As for me well I am already thinking about the next one. This time I am going to put a pitch in for the gig. I have an idea for a team of architectural misfits. I even have a concept in mind. The space needs to be filled again with the craziness that is the best of Australian architecture. Tight-lipped and po-faced conceptual pieces need to be banished forever (as well as the bad curator portraits that go with them). No more bad conceptual abstractions that can only be used with difficulty.  Plus, the interpretive material really needs to be of a better standard. It’s just rude to make visitors guess, WTF or what on earth, is going on.

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I really love the grasslands

I love them because they speak to a lost landscape and country, they make of the other 71 curated exhibitors by the Farrell and McNamara look like earnest, well-meaning self-congratulatory bores. But these grasslands are really different to the self-congratulatory patter of Farrell and McNamara’s presentation of the regional practices of Europe. These wilting and dying grasslands with their ridiculous felt containers point to the need for architects to theorise a new relationship between natural history, ecology and immanent notions of cultural landscapes. Whilst, the idea of Repair, does have much in common with the Freespace manifesto the grasslands themselves point to the triviality of thinking Architecture is all about the cultures and histories of the European City.

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Species death

The idea of using the grasslands could have been great. But I think it was hampered by the conceptual regime of Repair combined with the worst techniques and artifices of an abstract curatorial method. I shudder to think of the “Repair” ideas workshop: “hey, what do we mean by Repair” and “let’s try and really understand it deeply” etc etc.  Unfortunately, and too often abstraction and conceptual artifice are somehow seen as being cool. In this case, I feel this worked against the material and the animistic and cultural presence of the grasslands. In response, all these species could do was die.

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Seeing the grasslands dying in the pavilion in Venice reminded me of this story of horror. There is a monument in Reading cemetery for a Wotjobaluk boy, who came from the beautifully crafted and managed lands of the Wimmera. He lost his mother and drifted to the muddy metropolis of Melbourne, where he was adopted by an Anglican cleric from Reading and ended up in England where he died in 1852.

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The grasslands in this pavilion reminded me of that story, and I think the great moment in the exhibition are the missing indigenous names for these plants. Its subtle and the curators don’t hit you in the face with it. But who knows if they meant to do that or not? After all, what can you do after a genocide, after a crime of crimes, and crimes of extinction? Yes, the curators seem to be saying: we seek to Repair what we will, and we will never mention the horror. Let’s wash it all clean with some new green. For me, and others may disagree, this position is so lacking in rage that it points to an underlying and empty politics.

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Yes, the grasslands are the real stars of this exhibit. Their seeds have been dislocated and nurtured, but now they are dying. Spiders are crawling over the grass in a far country. The grasslands, for those who wish to listen to them deeply, are a different kind of city which cannot be ignored. But that lost city has nothing to do with the notion of Repair.