A Beautiful Voice

If you experience the Venice Biennale as most do, by approaching the pavilions in order of appearance, you will reach the Canada Pavilion last, after a long and convoluted itinerary. This year’s Venice Biennale, entitled Metamorph, is curator Kurt Foster’s horn of plenty that communicates to an increasingly anorexic, perhaps bulimic, audience of current curatorial practice in critical architecture.

At the Canada Pavilion, most must agree that Saucier + Perrotte’s (S,+,P) Found Objects is one of the most sublime, beautiful and thoughtful bodies of work to be found in that long itinerary required to reach the pavilion. It is a fitting denouement that speaks to the power of an insightful and intellectually robust representation of critical architecture. S,+,P’s installation intelligently challenges normative constructs of both the design process and the curation of architectural ideas.

The theme of Metamorph is structured around several disparate curatorial strategies. The large Arsenale exhibition hall holds hundreds of recent projects selected by Foster’s curatorial team intended to resonate issues surrounding contemporary international work. An adjacent hall predominantly holds work presented by nations that don’t have built pavilions. And in the garden, national pavilions are placed like suburban bungalows along a series of pedestrian paths dominated by the Italian and British who have positioned themselves at the end of two organizational axes.

Within Metamorph, projects are sometimes willfully placed into often nebulous curatorial categories which include: crossroads, transformations, topography, episodes, surfaces, atmosphere, the nature of artifice, the harrowing of the city, and cities on water. On a broad scale, Metamorph, a construct around which current architectural culture presents itself, is a resounding success. It is a tour de force of the curatorial willfulness of the hundreds of individual projects on display. The spirit of the event is almost completely defined by the amount of intellectual, spiritual and physical energy necessary to produce the contents of the room. It is not an exhibition that allows one object, drawing or line. It is an exhibition where objects and drawings make repetitive statements about the differences in formal strategy, ideological position and presentation method. The exhibition embraces the overlap between countries, practices, and generations: Tadao Ando appears with Dan Graham, Dagmar Richter with Richard Rogers. While this makes a satisfying experience in the wider sense, a deeper understanding and experience of projects themselves seem depleted by the organization of the Metamorph curatorial orthodoxy. The series of rooms that comprise the Arsenale are so filled with the riches of current practice–cluttered models at various scales and screen upon screen of the latest digital flurries–the designed aspects of the curation–undulating drywall surface slowly shifting as you move from room to room–are almost completely obscured. Eventually, the viewer becomes suspect of the veracity of the curatorial construct. It is an intelligent, broad, even democratic approach to give as much space to Three Legged Dog’s video installation as it does to Peter Eisenman’s latest argument. Truly an exposition, it is a wunderkammer of architectural expression, but not a manifesto for 2004.

Found Objects

The Saucier + Perrotte installation, curated by Georges Adamczyk of the Universit de Montral and commissioned by Canada Council’s Brigitte Desrochers, comprises four finely made sculptural objects. Initially of indeterminate scale or subject, they lie somewhere between architectural scale models and sculptural objects the body is able to engage with on more equal terms. They are clearly architecture but certainly not building.

The four objects exist like partners in a choreographed curatorial experience. With a thin metallic horizon circumscribing the interior of the pavilion and the series of small LCD screens, the viewer begins to understand the exhibit as a whole. The beauty of the four models challenges the normative curatorial practice. They are post-rationalized objects that are abstracted representations of the spatial experience of four recent Saucier + Perrotte projects. As such they attempt to distill salient aspects of S,+,P’s work. This strategy creates a complete and satisfying picture of the work, practice, and ongoing experimentations of S,+,P while staying away from the “model and panel” methodology to be found in almost all the other pavilions.

When placed in the context of the larger curatorial strategy of this year’s exhibition, the work’s presence is best defined by what is absent. There are no graphically overwrought drawings, no tiny cars in large-scaled cityscapes or full scale mock-ups of tectonic strategies. If the viewer is compelled to move beyond the four sculptural objects, information is available on the delicate screens filled with beautiful drawings, photographs of the built work, sketches and digital models. These are accessed at a personal level, as one would read a catalogue or have a conversation.

The Momentous and the Moment

It is the exploration of the space in between these two constructs–the ambitious and gargantuan Metamorph and the delicate moments within Found Objects–that tells us most about the condition of curatorial practice and architecture in Canada. It is the space between exposition and exhibition, between catalogue and manifesto.

Found Objects is essentially a solo exhibition, and the only one in any of the pavilions. This may seem attractive in some ways, particularly when the spatial limitations of the Canadian pavilion itself are considered. However, in the context of other spaces at the Biennale, the pavilion lacks a breadth of experience from other approaches to architecture. It is a singular vision that cannot challenge the viewer in the same way that a multiplicity of viewpoints from the same country allows.

It is not at all clear or unanimous that Found Objects, or projects like it, are what we should be sending to Venice. If presenting four of the best projects of one of our best practices is the most powerful articulation of Canadian critical architectural culture, then so be it. This seems to be a very effective way to signal to the global community that we have at least one architectural practice that can exist at such rarefied heights, but this seems to lack ambition. Is showing the work of one practice enough?

Overall, this year’s Biennale demonstrated that the most successful work truly challenges the relationship between architecture and curation. For example, the Belgian pavilion challenged us to see Kinshasa as a metaphor for a deteriorating world, while addressing issues of post-colonialism and ignoring anything to do with Belgian architectural practice. The Japanese pavilion challenged our senses with an experiment in the spatial manifestation of a personality type. Both of these pavilions upped the ante, putting ideas of architectural perception before the lionization of national architectural heroes.

At the German pavilion, Deutschlandschaft, curated by Francesca Ferguson, shows that a piece of curation can have an intensified and ambitious agenda while remaining a succinct and elegant project. The exhibition presented one large undulating landscape as an extremely long photograph threading its way through the entire pavilion. The photograph is a composite image of 36 projects from 36 practices merged into one continuous contextscape, representative of the periphery in German landscape urbanism. Work varying in scale and scope from recognized, emerging and critical practitioners is included; the viewer is presented with a thorough overview of current practice, conditions and issues in German architecture, as well as a very clear graphic representation of the work in the context in which it is made. It is both a highly pragmatic and speculative method, suggesting a utopian vision of the German periphery that is indelibly enmeshed in the banal topography of suburban an
d rural Germany. It stands in stark contrast to Found Objects where these layers must manifest themselves as subtext to a singular expression. These, and other examples for curating a “national” pavilion do exist. Models where the experiments or laboratories for architectural culture occur in a country are presented as work that is not so much defined by museum quality objects but through an articulation of an ongoing and evolving culture.

Saucier + Perrote, Adamczyk and Desrochers are to be applauded. Found Objects is a beautiful, elegant and tantalizing project that succeeds as an exhibition of architecture and ideas. It rewards on many levels, challenges on more. It avoids the thinness or idiosyncrasy of previous submissions, and succeeds where many failed this year in Venice. It is just what was needed. Found Objects thoroughly embraces the predominant position on the curation of architecture in Canada where built rather than speculative work, normative rather than alternative practice, and orthodox rather than multidisciplinary research are the new parameters. The potential of articulating a position that is about the full breadth of making needs to be met within a field full of exposition: national, curatorial, critical, conceptual. One beautiful voice singing beautifully about the beauty of its own voice will not be enough to fill the curatorial space of the next Biennale, nor will it completely present the depth and breadth of practice and curation in Canada.

Andrew King is the recipient of the 2003-2004 Prix de Rome for Canada and practices in Banff and Calgary.