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The Arsenale at the Venice Biennale, Venice Italy

[Exhibition] An extensive exploration of the Venice Biennale’s sensuous delights and pavilion peculiarities

John Milton is most lauded for the publication of Paradise Lost in 1667, and yet the English poet deserves not a little credit for coining the word ‘sensuous’. As a derivation of the sexually suggestive ‘sensual’, his creation describes being alive to sensations (especially in an aesthetic way) but cleansed of any carnal connotations. Several centuries later, the 2010 architecture biennale in Venice justifies and renews its invention. For although vitally stimulating almost all the senses, after a comprehensive perambulation the only body parts possibly heading towards tumescence are your feet.

Curated by Kazuyo Sejima, one half of SANAA, the Japanese winner of the Pritzker Prize earlier in the year, this is the only time after a dozen iterations that the Biennale has had a female director; after a string of critics and theorists, she is the first architect to lead the exhibition for a decade. Reflecting an astute architectural judgement, Sejima selected 46 diverse participants for the exhibition, which takes place across two sites: in the Arsenale for the principal part, and in the Giardini, at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, alongside the more established national pavilions.

The Arsenale’s exhibition is housed in the city’s old rope-works, where the linear arrangement of spaces creates a 300m-long enfilade, grand in scale yet industrial in texture. It is surely no accident that the four largest rooms contain the most sensuously arresting exhibits. The first among these, Transsolar and Tetsuo Kondo Architects, have engineered an atmospheric cloud to hover above your head; a soaring, looping bridge guides you into - and then above - this hot, humid interlayer before returning you, sweating, to the ground. Held in place with improbable-looking rings around existing brick columns, this metallic structure wobbles you in mid-air and is clangingly percussive under the pacing of many feet.

Two works use light and sound to stunningly dramatic effect. The artist Olafur Eliasson has simply combined suspended hoses and strobe lamps to beautifully alter everyday perceptions of the essential elements of water and light. At its most dynamic, the hoses flail about, throwing off jets of liquid, hyper-articulated by dazzling split-second flashes. However, when the hoses hang limp, your hands can childishly interfere with the vertical flow, sending out precious diamond-like arcs that disappear before they hit the ground - a bouncy, black, saturated surface that gives off a wet, rubbery smell.

In a later room, Janet Cardiff has placed 40 inward-facing speakers in an elongated halo, one for each voice in an emotive rendition of Renaissance choral piece Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis. Some visitors wove in and out of the arrangement to interact with the music, but most sat on the benches or even lay on the floor. Many closed their eyes to isolate themselves and feel less self-conscious in response to the composition as it swelled and pulsed around them. Experiencing how the near-physical presence of this wall of sound can create an architectural space was one of the show’s most moving moments.

The fourth of the larger exhibits, Balancing Act by Antón García-Abril & Ensamble Studio, is an intersection of two giant I-section concrete beams, the upper pivoting on the base, supported by a quivering spring at one end and counterpoised at the other by a large rock. The composition is beguiling however, as knocking on the lower element’s not-cold-enough surface revealed it to be a hollow simulacrum, a stagey installation where the impression of sheer scale supersedes material truth. Placed on the diagonal axis as an interruption to the natural route, the pair of massive props engages with the building as a found-space - like a number of the other smaller exhibits, such as Amateur Architecture Studio’s timber-and-hook dome, which rises like a soufflé around the cramped terminal room’s compressed columns.

There were two major screen-based exhibits. Wim Wenders’ 3D video If Buildings Could Talk celebrated SANAA’s Rolex Learning Centre. Though hard to take entirely seriously (with its slightly sententious voiceovers and catchy little score), it seductively sold the architectural project with cinematic sweeps of the sloping interior landscape, wonderful variations in light and shade, and the building’s uncompromising, unbelievable whiteness.

Elsewhere Hans Ulrich Obrist’s individual interviews with this year’s Biennale participants are relayed on little televisions. On one wall are printed 850 names of the luminaries he’s interviewed over the past two decades but, like a war memorial of those lost, the extensive listing leaves a daunting impression: would it have been too journalistic to pick out some quotes from the current interviews, for those without the time or inclination to sit through them all?

Over at the Giardini, the Palazzo’s gallery space is more traditional though labyrinthine in layout. At the back of the building, OMA’s exhibition on preservation drew visitors through the maze of curiosities. Though this venue’s work was mostly smaller, it was no less communicative. Alongside an impressive array of conventional models, architecture was represented in numerous inventive ways. Among other examples, the colour, intensity and depth of Andrés Jaque’s Fray Foam Home was delightful to behold (though how it represents a house escapes me still); and Do ho Suh + Suh Architects’ suspended replica of a New York domestic facade stitched together from diaphanous blue fabric is exquisite. There is much to inspire here.

The ‘people’ aspect of Sejima’s theme of ‘people meet in architecture’ is fairly difficult to discern in the resulting exhibition, but the ‘architecture’ is certainly more pronounced than her predecessor’s efforts - though in a subtle, almost elusive way. It is an architecture that isn’t necessarily about building, but about the perception of spatial conditions. An exciting, energetic show, serious yet fun, it speaks to all the senses. Milton, I think, would be impressed.

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