Venice Biennale 2018 Curator Series: Australia
Repair is the exhibition for the Australian Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale. Headed by Mauro Baracco, Louise Wright, and Linda Tegg, the exhibition will use an immersive, multi-sensory installation to stimulate discussion on architecture that integrates built and natural systems to effect repair of the environment and provoke a new relevance and role for architecture.
Baracco+Wright is a Mebourne based architectural practice founded by Mauro Baracco and Louise Wright. The pair teamed up with Linda Tegg, is an artist that works with photography, performance, video, and installation to investigate the contingent viewing conditions through which we orient ourselves in the world. The three recently sat down with arcspace editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, to discuss their exhibition and how Repair represents a distinctively democratic and social space in Australia.
Robert Martin: Mauro, Louise, and Linda – thank you for giving up your time and talking to arcspace today about your roles as the Artistic Directors of the Australian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. My first question relates to how the working relationship between you three began. I understand that Mauro and Louise have an architecture studio together, Baracco+Wright Architects, but how did the collaboration with Linda come about?
Louise Wright: Well Mauro and I invited Linda to collaborate with Baracco+Wright from the beginning. We didn’t know her personally, but we knew of her work, particularly her installation Grasslands on the steps of the State Library of Victoria in 2014. We thought that her approach of looking at things and presenting them from a disrupted point-of-view suited how we hope to talk about architecture within the exhibition.
What this has meant is that the way we’ve approached exhibiting within the pavilion has become about creating artworks in their own right. It’s been a rewarding experience and the exhibition has definitely been afforded a different point of view on the architecture profession that wouldn’t have occurred without the collaboration.
Linda Tegg: Mauro and Louise reached out to me quite early in the process about what could be possible within the pavilion. We were focused on making something together that was like the Grasslands installation and thought through the possibilities of how something like that could manifest in Venice. Over the course of many conversations we got to know each other and realised that we had a lot of shared interests and equally committed practices towards landscape and the environment, so the collaboration has been quite a natural thing for us.
RM: I find the concept of exhibiting architecture through immersive artworks very interesting. Generally, architecture exhibitions are limited to communicating their ideas through models and drawings of building, or other forms of representation. The Australian entry at the previous Biennale, The Pool, used a similar strategy by building a full-sized pool within the pavilion. Did you take inspiration from this approach?
LT: I would say that our thinking has been independent. The idea came together through the Grasslands installation, which was a particularly immersive experience, very much interested in moving beyond representation and working with living matter, such as live plants, and having a phenomenological experience. It’s something that’s very important to my practice and it was a very key aspect to the exhibition proposal.
Mauro Baracco: But there has been a sense of empathy towards the expression from two years ago. I remember we were there at the opening with our son, who was three at the time, and he really loved spending time going up and down in the pool installation. As we spent time there we noticed that visitors were really dwelling in that space. Within the context of a large event such as the Biennale, you can really find joy when you can just drop your bags and sit with your feet in water. There won’t be water this time, but we are hoping that visitors will have a similar kind of experience.
LW: That’s right. There was definitely an immersive quality present in our submission right from the beginning. We wanted to tell a story of architecture that’s about the places where it comes from and what role it plays. We didn’t want to show a still photograph or another representational medium that wasn’t going to tell the story that we wanted to tell. We really had to rethink how to show architecture that would present it in a completely different way. Normally, the way architecture is presented is very object based which is why we wanted to collaborate with Linda and present something from a different perspective.
RM: I agree that the communication of place when discussing Australia is extremely important, especially in the context of a biennale held in Venice. The majority of people who have never visited just don’t quite understand the unique landscape conditions that exist within the country.
LW: Well that’s certainly the case for architecture culture within Australia, when presenting overseas. I’ve always felt like it’s not that well known outside of Australia, and maybe not even outside of local cultures within Australia. I think that what we are exhibiting, and the way we’re exhibiting it will definitely show a diversity of conditions.
MB: Well there has always been an ideal, somehow expected by the international audience, of the Australian architecture in nature; of beautiful objects in beautiful landscapes. But we don’t relate to landscape in such a way; to us, it is rather landscape and architecture in a dialogue, rather than having a very distinct, separate relationship between the two.
RM: Can you give me a short introduction to your exhibition? What can visitors expect when they arrive there?
LW: Well the theme of our exhibition is Repair. It focuses on the relationship between architecture and how it performs in its context. The theme explores the repair of the natural environment and then through extension, different types of repair, so that architecture can play a role in repairing the places that it’s part of. So, it doesn’t only include environmental repair, but social repair, and cultural repair and the way that repair is discussed and shown, is that it is very much a role shared amongst many players.
At the heart of what we’re showing in the exhibition is that the development of land inevitably involves degradation, and therefore, repair of the land is something that architects can really engage with.
LT: Our central work within the pavilion will be an installation of a Victorian Western Plains Grassland community. We’re growing 10,000 plants from 65 different species right now in Sanremo (Italy) for the Biennale. They’re all part of a plant community within Australia that’s almost been entirely removed through farming, industry, and urbanisation. Grasslands have largely been considered as ground for development. We’re seeing them differently, as alive and important. We’re working out how to live alongside them. Not to only preserve the remaining 1%, but to draw what we might otherwise consider ground into consciousness. The installation tests the way we occupy and consider land and we really want to provoke architecture to reconsider its use of land from this very primary position.
In a material sense, the installation is quite a challenging thing to do – putting grassland plants inside a building and then sustain them for six months. It’s going to be a very active and changing, evolving exhibition.
RM: Are there any other mediums you’re going to showcase within the exhibition?
MB: Well there are 15 projects selected for the exhibition from all over Australia that relate to the topic of Repair. They are not represented with models or drawings but will be presented with two channel video that will be projected on two walls in the space. Each projection is 5 meters high, so the pavilion will be this immersive experience where you have the majority of the ground plane covered by grassland plants and then on the walls, a series of videos preliminarily conceived by Louise, me and Linda, and then further conceptualised and produced by Linda and David Fox.
LT: It’s going to be quite an experience as we’re also going to install a lighting system that supports the plants. A lighting installation bright enough to support plant life and video projection are not two things that would normally coexist – they would cancel each other out. We’re having to think about the pavilion through time and different lighting states to suit the plants that have to go to sleep. Lighting that might be suitable for the plants might be unbearable for the audience, so there’s been this dialogue going on where we’ve had to consider how the non-humans within the pavilions are going to experience the pavilion, as well as the human audience.
RM: Australians are generally known to have an affinity with nature, whether this be the ocean, the desert, or the bush, but the majority of the population live in the capital cities that are strongly disconnected from nature. It’s a strange duality. On top of this, architecture and city making is inherently a violent act towards nature. How do you hope to present architecture as something that can reconcile this relationship?
MB: I personally, and I’d say that the majority of the team, has a problem with the idea of nature being something separate from humans, because we are in fact, part of nature. So, from this point of view, the exhibition takes the position that in the era of the Anthropocene we must deal with this condition.
Architects have contributed to the city that we have today and this exhibition hopes to make visitors stop and reflect on the fact that after maybe centuries of producing a certain type of city that tends to erect boundaries in our way to be nature within nature – that is, between us as urbanites and the many elements and creatures of the unbuilt space – it’s now time for us to reflect on the fact that cities have to become more performative in the way they deal with say unbuilt space, or even a built nature and produce spaces that are able to deal with the effects of climate change.
This is important to state in Australia because on the one hand, we could say, that Australians love nature because we have so much of it, yet at the same time, in our time of development and urban policy we are doing so many things aggressively. There is a crisis, in that developers have been allowed by current urban policies to occupy land often unnecessarily and in ways that is very destructive.
LW: We have a hunch that the type of architecture that might reconcile this relationship is not necessarily a type of building, but rather a process of how you begin a project. It’s more about using landscape architecture modes of understanding a site. We’re not encouraging the profession to try and pretend to be landscape architects, but just to encourage them to think about a building site across a large scale in terms of natural systems. Do we want to dig up and remove soil without thought if we consider that it hasn’t been disturbed in thousands of years?
I suppose in a more prosaic way, it can also be really simple things about where the building is placed on a site, and then not to think of the site as something defined by its boundaries. Instead, that the site is something that’s operating well beyond its physical boundaries and then realise that the way the building occupies the site might catalyse things to happen around you at a much larger scale.
LT: I’d say there’s been a really open exploration in how we have been interacting with the projects that are going to be exhibited, that has uncovered many different approaches.
There was initially an open call to see what’s happening broadly across Australia and find the projects that might not have been on our radar. I’m not an architect, so I’m not trying to see things through an architectural lens, but as we’ve travelled to all these projects to discover what is going on, I’ve been able to visualise different aspects of the project that really get to the heart of what is being repaired.
RM: You may not be an architect, but I believe that the future of architecture is to bring people like you outside of the profession into the discussion. The team has invited a range of other disciplines to reflect on the theme from unconventional positions, such as anthropologists, and ecologists as part of the exhibition development process. Why did you choose to do bring in this team of experts?
LW: Well the theme is a potentially pretty loaded topic and we didn’t really feel equipped to be talking about the things to be repaired and the way to repair them ourselves. Architects are really good at taking a theme and being generalists and we felt like it needed the depth we would get from their expertise.
Our team includes ecologist, David Freudenberger, anthropologist and architect, Paul Memmott, landscape architect, Chris Sawyer, urban designer and landscape architect, Tim O’Loan, curator Catherine Murphy, as well as, two younger architects, Lance Van Maanen, and Jonathan Ware to give us the perspective of the next generation of architects. At times it’s been very dynamic for the team to come in and out with more involvement at different times, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively. They definitely helped how we approached Repair and it definitely deepened its framing and carefulness. Their input and help with representing the nuance of the theme is probably best presented in the catalogue, which is quite weighty at 300 pages, that starts to unpack all the issues and big conceptual, as well as practical questions within the topic.
RM: Your exhibition is obviously sitting within a discourse of architecture that showcases a marked shift in the past few years away from the iconic architecture and ‘starchitects’ of the early 2000s to one with a more socially and ecologically aware agenda. I felt that this shift seemed to come to a climax in 2016 with the last biennale’s theme of Reporting from the Front almost being a call to arms to architects to use their skills for the greater good of society. However, this year’s theme seems to have lost some of this agency and returned to a more romantic view towards architecture. How do you feel about the ambition of architecture as a profession shifting so suddenly?
LW: I disagree, I didn’t think that it came across as overly romantic. I think that architecture is just prone to romanticism, whether it be the type that’s about nature, the type that’s about heroic or highly technological buildings, utopia or also dystopia, or the type that’s about its role in a social agenda. I certainly saw some things in Reporting from the Front that romanticised everyday life through architecture.
I worry about the dismissal of things on romantic grounds because it’s often an easy way to dismiss something. I think that the curators could be seen as romantic, but I also found in some of their curatorial statement that what they’re asking for is generosity within any approach and that is asking architecture to be humbler perhaps, more engaged, and to find a relevance for itself. What would an alternative of this approach be, and do we want that?
MB: And perhaps the theme for the Biennale this year may sound ‘romantic’ because it doesn’t necessarily engage with topics such as ‘emerging technologies’ or similar, calling instead for some ideas of good public and civic space – a notion that may indeed sound romantic to some architects and architecture critics. However, I believe the topic of ‘freespace’ as something generously provided to citizens of urban environments where unprivileged and non-affluent groups are the majority, is indeed absolutely topical and timely.
LW: It will be interesting to see how the Biennale plays out because there could be curators that adopt a romantic line in their pavilion’s exhibition in terms of very beautiful, picturesque and Arcadian approaches, or they might pick up on another translation about the role and relevance of architecture. For example, Repair could be seen that way, but it’s actually quietly yet highly subversive if one pays attention. It will be interesting. I think there will be a bit of everything.
The Australian Pavilion has been made possible by the Australian Institute of Architects. Read more about their contribution here