Venice Biennale Curator Series: Australia
The Pool is the exhibition for the Australian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale. Headed by Aileen Sage and Michelle Tabet, the exhibition will create a pool within the brand new Australian Pavilion through an immersive multi sensory experience that will transport visitors poolside. In doing so it will bring to Venice a suggestion of a particular Australian architectural condition.
Aileen Sage is a Sydney based architectural practice founded by Isabelle Toland and Amelia Holliday. The pair teamed up with Michelle Tabet, an urban strategist heading up her own boutique consulting practice. The three recently sat down with arcspace editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, to discuss their exhibition and how The Pool represents a distinctively democratic and social space in Australia.
Robert Martin: Amelia, Isabelle and Michelle – thank you for giving up your time and talking to arcspace today about your roles as the Artistic Directors of the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. My first question relates to how the working relationship between you three began. I understand that Amelia and Isabelle have a studio together, Aileen Sage, but how do you fit in Michelle?
Michelle Tabet: Amelia and I taught at university together about 7 years ago and developed a friendship from there. Since then she set up an architecture studio with Isabelle and they decided that it would be a great idea to submit something for the Australian exhibition at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale. We all share an office here in Sydney so I joined in the discussion in the early stages.
Amelia Holliday: One of the main characteristics of Aileen Sage is collaborating with professionals outside of the architectural community, so we’re always looking to collaborate with interesting people on all our projects. Some of those collaborations are creative, some of them are more scientific, and have even been with historians. We really wanted to collaborate with someone who wasn’t an architect on this biennale proposal.
Isabelle Toland: We also wanted big-picture thinking behind our proposal. We didn’t want this to be a conventional exhibition with a series of models and panels. We wanted the exhibition to have a bigger idea and that’s really where Michelle fits it. She’s an urban strategist and has the sort of thinking about urban and design issues on a much larger scale with a more conceptual front-ended approach. We imagined it would be an engaging collaboration for a biennale exhibition and we’ve been friends for a while so we thought it was an interesting way of testing out the potential working relationship.
MT: What a way to test that potential working relationship – with the Venice Biennale… We really jumped in at the deep end!
RM: Ha! What a pun. So to start out in a broad context – in 1964, Donald Horn, coined Australia as The Lucky Country which the country has adopted ever since. If we look globally we can see that there are so many problems in the world to do with mass migration, war, housing crises, and mega cities. In this context can you can give some more insight what the front is in Australia? What are the challenges that you need to respond to?
MT: It’s really interesting because Australia had to decide who their Creative Directors were going to be before the Biennale Creative Director, Alejandro Aravena, announced the overall theme. There was always a risk that our exhibition would or wouldn’t fit but when the theme was announced we were actually really pleased because without even knowing that we had done all of this research surrounding The Pool and uncovered all these underlying issues within Australian culture.
Originally, we were only interested in the pool’s spatial features, but then we started to get interested in its cultural context. It was like peeling an onion and we started to find issues of ownership, identity, sexuality, segregation, and community action. We had unknowingly found all these frontiers that Alejandro was asking us to look for. In a lot of ways, people will expect this exhibition to be about a bunch of pretty pools but it’s actually not that at all.
AH: I think there’s something about the pool that is incredibly seductive and that’s what we thought when we first started this project. I suppose people can dismiss the pool as a theme that is quite frivolous, thinking this is only a project about an attractive object but we feel they will also see that it is an amazing setting for life.
The Pool is the setting for all of these different stories that we had started to collect that revolve around community and the positioning of public space. The fact is, that the pool is both literally and figuratively accessible, it’s something that everyone can engage with and everybody has a story about. Whether that’s a story of achievement or community – positive stories – but also the not-so-positive stories about racial segregation and spatial segregation have come to the foreground in a really strong way.
RM: I must admit that when I first heard the exhibition that you had proposed, I was questioning how it would fit in with the overall theme of ‘reporting from the front’. However, after reading your accompanying exhibition book, the link becomes very clear with the issues of sustainability, racism, and equality within the narrative of Australian history. It appears very much so that those are the issues and problems Australia has to deal with on the front.
MT: One of the stories we’re presenting in the exhibition that really resonates with me is of the author, Christos Tsiolkas, and the way he describes the pool as a coming of age experience. Within his story the pool isn’t really about what size or shape it is, it’s really about discovery of himself and the community he belongs to. At the pool he discovered that he was gay. I think it’s very important in Australia that when you visit the pool, you just take off all your clothes, wear your swimming costume and then everyone becomes the same – it’s really this great equalising force.
IT: I’d just like to add that our proposal wasn’t an obvious response, but it’s still presenting an undercurrent that’s sitting there. We’re not trying to force these issues into everyone’s face, we’re just presenting a series of stories that are very subjective, to get a personal understanding and essence of empathy from the visitors to the exhibition. People may not initially think they have a story, association or relation to the pool necessarily, but I think that everyone could connect on some level to the stories we are presenting and that promotes a sense of understanding.
I suppose you’re asking for instances of ‘the front’ in Australia. One of those strong issues is, in fact, racism and discrimination in general. I guess to a certain level we want to communicate this but without becoming a campaign about it either..
MT: That’s a good way of putting it. It’s like the idea that the beauty seduces you to come in and then all of a sudden you’re reading about a gay, greek man discovering himself in a pool. Whereas if we’d made the exhibition about the same man picking up in a pool, I can tell you that our audience would most likely be much more limited!
RM: Can you give me a short introduction to your exhibition? What can visitors expect when they arrive there?
AH: From the beginning we were really interested in having an exhibition that was easily accessible to a wide variety of people. Before we had even settled on the title of The Pool we wanted to create an exhibition that was an experience that people were able to engage with. That the exhibition was a little piece of architecture that people really could interact with and then it was also something that lots of different people could understand on different levels. For some people this will only be a purely aesthetic experience and that’s okay, but for other people that choose to linger a little longer, they will uncover a whole different story – in a similar way to the way we experience and uncover the layers of architecture.
RM: I’ve read that your exhibition is going to be an immersive, multi-sensory experience. Is this how you’re going to engage the general public?
IT: As Amelia mentioned, we really wanted this to be an architectural experience not just a traditional exhibition in terms of mode and type of content we deliver. It was a physical experience that we wanted to create and we wanted it to act in the same way as a pool – as a social space. At the centre of our exhibition space we will have an actual pool. We’ve collaborated with a number of talented creatives such as theatre lighting designers, sound and audio engineers, installation experts and a composer to create a pool in the middle of the gallery space with accompanying scents and soundtrack. The space is going to transport visitors back to Australia and juxtapose the intensity of the biennale outside.
AH: So there’s all these different places to sit and take the space in. It’ll be just like at the pool. There’s going to be all these things that are happening around the edge of the pool and people will be able to experience the water.
RM: I think it’s a very clever strategy actually building a pool in the Australian Pavilion because it’s going to be so hot in Venice over summer and you guys are going to provide such a nice public space. Do you imagine people swimming in the pool?
AH: We hope that people will sit there and dangle their feet in and cool off, read the paper, chat to their friends or be on their phone. Just like at a normal pool – they can chill out for a bit.
RM: You’ve mentioned that you won’t be using models or panels in your exhibition. Are there any particular tools or media that you’re going to be using to communicate your ideas?
IT: One of the main ways people will engage with our research is through a broadsheet that we’re producing and will be distributing within the space. This newspaper is a supplement to our exhibition book that can be read independently of it. Visitors will be able to grab a copy and then sit by the pool. We’re also going to have a series of radio-like speakers scattered within the space playing extracts from the recordings of the interviews we’ve done with prominent non-architect Australians about pools.
We also want the exhibition to have a life outside of the exhibition space. So the interviews are being turned into podcasts. So anyone remotely in Australia, or around the world, that doesn’t have the privilege to go to Venice can equally have access to these recordings, as well as to the book, which is already available online and in bookstores around Australia.
AH: We have collected a huge quantity of seductive imagery for the book but we didn’t want this imagery to compete with the exhibition experience. Which is why we like the idea of the radios and newspapers and the book that they are all things you could still engage with and wouldn’t seem out of place in a pool environment.
RM: I think it’s a beautiful idea – I automatically imagine images of lots of people in speedos sitting around your pool in the middle of Venice with a broadsheet pulled in front of them, listening to the radio, and sipping an Aperol spritz. It’s in some ways so typically Australian – you’re bringing the Australian summer to Venice.
When you say that you’re going to be playing recordings of non-architect Australians talking about pools, is this a way of expanding the discussion on architecture outside of the industry? You’ve already stated that you like to collaborate with professionals outside of architecture – what do you see is the potential in this?
IT: The main reason for doing this is that we didn’t want it to be our voices. This exhibition isn’t about us telling everyone about the pool. We knew that there were so many rich stories that architects needed to listen to.
Diversity is also really key – we don’t want to limit the conversation to just architects. We wanted to hear what athletes (Ian Thorpe, Shane Gould) or fashion designers (Romance was Born) had to say. And that’s what we like about architecture and wanted to help the general public realise that it is a field that can cross so many disciplines and that’s the great thing about it. This is the built environment we’re talking about – it’s the setting for all our lives so we should all be able to engage in the conversation.
RM: One of the most interesting statistics that I saw in your book is that Australia has the highest pool ownership per capita in the world. This isn’t necessarily astounding because of your climate but I went on Google Earth to the outer suburbs of Sydney and it’s pretty incredible just how many people own pools there. In some blocks you can see that every single residence has a pool. Why do you think the pool is such an integral part of Australian culture?
MT: The backyard or private pool is not necessarily an amazing piece of architecture. They can be, but most of them are off-the-shelf tubs that just get put in the ground. Interestingly though, they’re really a symbol of aspiration – this idea of success and of private property. They are very underutilised assets that are only used during the summer months for a few hours a day so they’re really serving a broader purpose of showing that you’ve made it – you’ve met your aspirations in life. It has a big part as a status symbol in Australia.
On the flip side, the thing that’s amazing about Australia is whilst there are so many private pools, there’s also this amazing infrastructure of public pools that take different shapes in different parts of the country. For instance, New South Wales has this tradition of building coastal sea pools which is not done in other places where the geology and geography is different. That’s something that another one of our interviewees, Anna Funder, reflects on with a lot and something she hasn’t quite seen executed elsewhere in the way that it is in Australia. She’s just come back from New York where they have public pools but she discusses that they are used as some sort of pressure valve for very dense urban living situations, whereas, here in Australia it’s much more of a spiritual thing, it’s much more an expression of our egalitarian values where those public pools are either free or cost next to nothing to get in.
IT: I think another reason why the pool is so interesting in Australia as a typology is also evidenced in the amazing level of cultural references and inspiration within our Indigenous people’s history. Pools always held incredible significance as spiritual places because water is such a valuable resource in Australia. We’re the driest inhabited continent on the planet which means that water is very important symbolically as it represents survival within our everyday lives.
RM: Thanks Amelia, Isabelle and Michelle for giving up your time and providing some more insight into your intentions for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016.
The Australian Pavilion has been made possible by the Australian Institute of Architects. Read more about their contribution here