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Exploring the Giardini

In the National Pavilions of the Venice Biennale, Catherine Slessor discovers a world of Uncommon Ground

For all its intellectual striving, at its heart the Venice Biennale is really one of those extravagant set-piece summer weddings, a hyper-choreographed gathering together of architecture’s dysfunctional global family, many fraught months in the planning and production. And while the Arsenale might be regarded as the wedding ceremony itself, with everything processional and obsessively bang on cue, the Giardini, with its convocation of mismatched national pavilions, is the more freewheeeling reception, where anything can and does go.

In Praise of Shadows Architecture’s contribution to the Nordic Pavilion exhibition of ‘Light Houses’

In Praise of Shadows Architecture’s wood-centric contribution to the Nordic Pavilion exhibition of ‘Light Houses’

Within this grab bag of national and curatorial preoccupations, there always seems very little Common Ground apart from an inevitable scenographic brio. But that, perhaps, is the Giardini’s quintessential charm. How else do you square Serbia’s monumental table with Israel’s mordantly ironic perception of itself as an American aircraft carrier? Or Petra Blaisse’s audacious Emperor’s New Curtains for the Netherlands with yet another earnest, wood-centric offering from the Nordic nations, trapped forever in their exquisite pavilion with the the ghost of Sverre Fehn?


The Russian Pavilion featured a rather trying monochromatic wallpaper

Most irritating pavilion had to be Russia, its walls lined with a monochromatic wallpaper of QR codes that you had to scan on an iPad supplied by pavilion personnel. This revealed not a blossoming array of national talent, but a depressing tableaux of works by foreign superstars currently being grimly grafted onto Russian cities.

Best geography went to Denmark with its illuminating analysis of Greenland as a new global geopolitical fulcrum, poised to be the axis mundi of the High North as the Arctic ice melts and the world enviously eyes a new source of fuel and minerals. Best homage to Heath Robinson was the USA, with its network of ropes, pulleys and panels, intricately contrived to illustrate various citizen-led alternatives to traditional tactics of civic revitalisation: simply pull here for a solution to your urban woes.


The Danish Pavilion proposed an Arctic Airport in Greenland

In the rebadged Padiglione Centrale, formerly the Italian Pavilion, the disparate containers, rather than their contents, became a separate subject of scrutiny. Working with Italian photographer Gabriele Basilico, Swiss architects Diener & Diener explored the ground between architecture, patronage and perception through the physical spaces of the Biennale. Each of the 30 pavilions was documented by Basilico in still, sober black and white, giving them an unfamiliar cast that momentarily elevated them from summer follies into the realm of ‘serious’ architecture.

A cabal of national critics provided a narrative for each pavilion, including Peter Cook, batting on behalf of Britain’s Neo-classical teahouse, this year home to Venice Takeaway, a kind of microcosmic Great Exhibition for the modern era that suffered from lack of budget and an over-emphasis on process.


British Pavilion’s Neo-classical teahouse featured a Venice Take Away Scroll

The Italian Pavilion was sharper as Grafton Architects duelled with Brazilian master Paulo Mendes (Irish archaeology meets Machu Picchu), and OMA’s Reinier de Graaf looked at the unsung work of public architectural departments in a space tricked out to resemble the undercroft of the South Bank. The AR also featured briefly, in Steve Parnell’s genealogical dissection of the playgrounds and battlegrounds of Modernism through a quartet of English and Italian magazines.

Golden Lion for Best Pavilion went to Japan, commissioned by Toyo Ito. Sou Fujimoto’s field work in the tsunami-ravaged moonscape of Rikuzentakata cut through the Biennale froth, exploring a common ground of horror and humanity beyond most people’s imaginings.

National Pavilions in the Giardini

Venue: Venice Biennale

City: Venice

Dates: Until 25 November 2012

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