Gaining Ground (October 01, 2010)

TEXT John Bentley Mays
PHOTOS Philip Beesley architect

Stepping across the threshold of the Canadian pavilion at the Venice Biennale’s 12th international exhibition of architecture (on view until November 21, 2010), you find yourself beyond the looking glass, in a place where familiar meanings fall apart or stand on their heads.

The dense, fantastical assemblage of myriad tiny acrylic leaves and fronds and gleaming vessels, arteries and gullets that breathe and swallow and gesture in the thick, hot air of Venice’s public gardens is architecture, Canadian artist and designer Philip Beesley assures us.

It’s surely not architecture as nearly everyone understands the term, however: stuff that is mute and inflexible, the built barricade between the dweller and the environment. Beesley’s piece moves, it responds, it even embodies in those glass vessels chemical energy exchanges similar to those that occur in a living body. If architecture, this is no ordinary item of the building art, unless one is willing–as I am, out of courtesy, though with some misgivings–to go the distance with Beesley and stretch the broad tent of architecture to cover clothing and even skin, of which construction is, after all, a prosthetic extension.

But let’s throw caution to the winds, and call this highly intricate, high-tech mechanism a work of architecture. What kind of architecture is it?

Beesley has titled this installation Hylozoic Ground. The reference to hylozoism is clear enough: it’s the quaint, ancient cosmological fairy tale in which everything, including inanimate matter, is held to be alive, sentient, reactive. The word hylozoic also points to an intention deeply engraved in the work itself: that we view this complex piece, with its subtle movements and processes mimicking those of life, as an instance of ordinary reality heightened and clarified–as arealization of the hylozoic rhythm that could be seen everywhere, if our eyesight and inner apprehension were more acute.

I will return to the topic of hylozoism in a moment, but the second word in the title invites us to hurry on. In what sense is this electro-dynamic installation ground, or a kind of ground?

For ground, read soil–or what Beesley has recently called contemporary soil. “Soil has always been the prima materia of architecture,” the architect writes. “Soil might seem to stand silently, apparently offering secure mass and compression, available as plastic, friable resource for framing human territory. But contemporary soil does not, in itself, quietly offer itself to the enlightened framing of space…soil consumes space, erasing and consuming daily circumstance within its unspeakably silent, primal fertility.”

This characteristically poetic redefinition of a word most people think they know the meaning of helps explain one experience of Hylozoic Ground: the feeling that, if equipped with a few more gadgets, microchips and such, and placed in a natural landscape, the thing might actually grow, even flourish, and begin the transformation of its physical surroundings. It could become something even more active than it is–an instrument that brings about a new arising of transfigured terrain from the earth, instead of imposing on the land the Western idea that the world is merely so much real estate upon which to build.

I like the lyrical, ecological Heideggerianism of all this. I am less comfortable with the hylozoism, because I do not believe it to be a true or suggestive theory of reality. That said, Beesley’s techno-cosmic mysticism has found an interesting outlet in his curious installation in Venice, and an even better one in his nature writing.

Some scraps of the latter are featured in the Canadian pavilion’s exhibition catalogue, alongside technical expositions of Beesley’s philosophy and working method by other hands. Written in a vehement, breathless manner, his ecstatic texts sweep together all the times of given landscapes–geologic, historic, immediate–into fluid, incandescent visions that light up the page. This is apparently the effect that Hylozoic Ground and other installations are intended to have on viewers, yet don’t (at least in my case)–not quite and not yet, anyway.

But Beesley’s provocative inquiries and his collaborations with specialists across the disciplines of architecture, art, engineering and humane scholarship are longstanding and ongoing, and his vivid romance with landscape and wilderness shows no signs of exhaustion. We can expect Beesley’s architectural project, and, it is to be hoped, his nature writing, to go on unfolding into the future, registering ever more exactly his discoveries on the outer edges of contemporary architectural practice. CA

John Bentley Mays is an architecture critic and writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.