Saturday, August 28, 2010

Venice Biennale 2010: Blog 2

Entering this year’s Arsenale I was greeted with a surreal vision of the future. Hoards of revering onlookers, 3D glasses strapped to their faces, mouths agape, as images of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa zooming around their EPFL campus on Segway scooters flashed before their eyes.

The work of film maker Wim Wenders, this beguiling swoop through SANAA’s undulating hymn to the open learning landscape is as true to the Biennale’s title as could be, full of people meeting in architecture. But not only meeting. We are shown that the gentle curves of the Rolex Learning Centre induce trance-like states of nirvana in its users, cringe-worthy scenes of students closing their eyes in transcendental reverie accompanied by the saccharine voice of the building itself. “I love the sunlight,” she purrs. “And the sunlight clearly loves me.”

As cheesy promo as this film is, it is nonetheless a soothing introduction to what is to come and sets the tone for a sequence of rooms which revel in the simple of joy of creating beautiful environments as backdrops for our daily lives.

The rest of the 300 metre long journey is carefully choreographed, rooms alternating between rigorous architectural presentations – enormous scale models, drawings and maquettes of realised projects – and immersive sensory installations. It is an energising experience and not once did the usual Arsenale-fatigue set in.

Jan de Vylder’s refreshing take on the theme is that “people meet in the drawing,” and his practice has devoted a large area of their room to a vast number of exquisite working and construction drawings of their Ordos villa, alongside a huge scale model, revealing the complete process behind the development of this complex spatial conceit.

If examining construction sections feels a little like hard work,we are rewarded in the next room by Transsolar’s ethereal cloudscape, a spiralling cantilevered ramp which ascends through a perfect layer of cloud filling one of the building’s largest spaces. A carefully controlled climate ensures the perfect sandwiching of this misty band, obscuring shadowy figures as they ramp around each other, progressively sweating as they reach the 40°+ summit. This is what Philippe Rahm’s 2008 installation was attempting to be, but never was.

Junya Ishigami, ultimate master of weightless thinness, has this time unfortunately proved too delicate for his own good, the wildly ambitious project to construct the structural ‘outline’ of a 14m-long, 4m high building literally collapsing in on itself, a pile of impossibly slender carbon-fibre threads scattered along the floor at time of writing. But there was an frantic team of workers still on hand, and if it works this will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the show.

Again in sharp contrast, the next room has been taken over by a sprawling collection of mock-ups, prototypes and full-scale fragments of projects by Studio Mumbai, a chance to see the practice’s impeccable devotion to hand-crafted timber detailing close-up. It is a thrilling workshop-like woody environment which makes you want to pick up a chisel and get involved, and reminds us of the importance of the haptic qualities that even a window frame can bring to a room.

Plenty more practices follow up with rather more conventional displays of mounted drawings and models, widely published and previously exhibited works of Toyo Ito and Valerio Olgiati regurgitated for the nth time, the richly patinated surroundings sometimes upstaging the flatness of the work on show.

Olafur Eliasson brings his usual crowd-pleasing interactive mastery to liven up proceedings in the form of a long, pitch black hall of wildly capitulating hosepipes scattering erratic spurts on to those brave enough to run the gauntlet, as strobe lights pick out their daring manoeuvres. You find yourself dodging the watery beams just like Catherine Zeta Jones did in Entrapment. If only for the lycra catsuit.

Finally, Janet Cardiff provides a stirring end to the long journey down the rope-making factory, with a surround-sound immersive project of 40 individually recorded voices singing Thomas Tallis’ 1573 “Spem in Alium.” The effect is utterly mesmerising, like being dropped in the middle of a choir, moving around the space giving a completely different bias to the overall effect, cycling from bass to soprano as you circuit the room.

All in all, it is a thoroughly invigorating experience, and markedly telling that Sejima is practically the first curator of this vast event who is also a practicing architect, deftly navigating between sensory experience and the rigour of spatial manipulation in her own work. I’m looking forward to seeing what she has assembled in the Giardini’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni this afternoon.

Originally published on BD online, August 2010