‘What’s the point of a biennale?’ asks architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff
Funny old things, biennales. They start, of course, at check in. You glance lazily round at your fellow passengers in the queue at Gatwick, flapping to find their passports, as if you’re all off on holiday, and realize, oh, it’s Chris Wilkinson. Ooh, and over there’s Richard Rogers. And is that, yes it is, it’s Eva Jiricna. It’s like a special architectural episode of Airport. I scanned our Easyjet flight and found Roger Zogolovitch, Professor Adrian Forty, Tony Fretton, Icon’s editor Christopher Turner, AR’s editor Cathy Slessor, journalist Rob Bevan and, REALLY?, Joseph Rykwert? Joseph Rykwert flies Easyjet? I start to daydream: what would happen if the flight went down? Who’d make it through, marooned on an island together? I imagine the obituaries: “some of British architecture’s leading lights were tragically…”
Ten thousand architect-y types invade Venice every other year for the vernissage preview. Why? How would David Attenborough explain this seasonal migration of black linen suits? Something similar happens in every other profession on other days and other times of the year: Stansted is doubtless inundated the week after with dentists off to the International Dental Chinwag, Birmingham International awash a day later with air conditioner salespeople travelling to Inverness for the Cold Air Colloquium. The Venice Architecture Biennale, despite its hi-falutin airs and graces and press releases about curated dialectical discourses, is no different. It is a trade fair – in its case, a trade fair of ideas, occasionally soured with real property deals conducted euphemistically while discussing Claude Parent.
Yet how many ideas can one brain take? I’m now a seasoned Biennale-goer, half a dozen under my belt. I laugh at the greenhorns scurrying round every last exhibition or talk, as I sip another spritz. But there is still something of the completest in me, that urge to visit the Moldavian Pavilion, just because someone’s whispered it’s fantastic, even though it’s down some unreachable alley in a sestiere where GoogleMaps gives up the ghost.
But here’s the thing nobody tells you about the Venice Biennale: most of it is terrible, most of the displays are bad, most of the “ideas” lost in translation in terrible archispeak, and most of the curators, obsessed by their own exhibition, have no understanding of the whole – that there are ten thousand people, three days, and several hundred events and exhibitions, meaning that the average time that their average visitor has to untangle their exhibition is about 4 minutes and 34 seconds, so there really is no need to plaster the entire space with more facts, graphs and pie charts than Encyclopedia Britannica. The best exhibits are simple, and complex. The rest? Have another spritz.
There is, though, one interesting graph at the start of the this Biennale’s Monditalia exhibition in the Corderie. It shows the exponential increase in the sheer number of architecture biennales around the world. Another might show the exponential increase in the amount of content IN these biennales, too. Venice’s has ballooned since its modest birth in 1980. Quantity, but not necessarily quality. Another graph might also show the consequent decline in the impact of the Venice Architecture Biennale from those early days when it defined postmodernism. That’s not to say there haven’t been great exhibitions, or fascinating declarations since. But so much of them get lost in the disappointing enormity of it all, as budgets get spread ever thinner. Just as the world has, thanks to the internet, now become submerged in data and “content”, so ballooning biennales churn out ideas in a torrent of verbal and visual diarrhoea. Searching for the good, the great, the meaningful, the peaceful, is like searching for that needle in a haystack.
So, what IS the point of a biennale? Why do we all ritualistically get on the plane for this festival of the moderately disappointing? Why do nations fork out for exhibitions? Why do we produce so much content? What can you get out of a biennale that you can’t get from a building, or a book? Moot points all. Occasionally you’ll come across a display that makes the airfare really worth it. And it’s hardly a hardship to spend a few days in Venice. But I think the real point is nothing to do with the exhibitions at all. It’s about camaraderie. Architects, especially British architects, are terrible at letting their hair down; but there’s something in the lagoon’s moist air, something in the spritzes, something in the light, that loosens the bow tie and lightens the ego. Venice becomes Clerkenwell-on-Sea. There’s something levelling about watching the grandees getting sozzled, and sizzled. It never happens in quite the same way back home. Plus, you get to meet Joseph Rykwert during the in-flight safety demonstration.
One clever installation at the Swiss Pavilion, by Joseph Grima and Spacecaviar, is called FOMO: “fear of missing out”, a cyber-Heath-Robinson machine that prints an instant magazine of online material flying round the ether at that exact moment, filtered by whatever search term you put in. Next time I’m hoping they’ll filter the entire biennale down to five “must see” bullet points. Then I can spend a bit more time, ahem, conducting “research” at Café Paradiso.