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Biennale or good intentions, overproduction and lack of self-reflection

13 of August '21

The question posed by Hashim Sarkis, "How will we live together?" is as timely as ever. In an era of pandemic and climate crisis, the architectural community too should be expected to critically analyze its past activities and projects for the future. The form of the exhibition itself should also meet these challenges. This one, however, disappoints, and the viewer, despite the curator's good intentions, leaves the Biennale mostly confused.

The ongoing 17th Venice Architecture Biennale had to be postponed twice due to the ongoing pandemic. Finally opening in May 2021, it was supposed to give an answer to the question 'How will we live together?' ('How will we live together?') asked by Hashim Sarkis. The curator of this year's edition, the dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, thus wanted to find architectural solutions to the world's problems and challenges of economic stratification or climate catastrophe.

event closed

Despite the curator's intentions, it also failed to move beyond the Eurocentric optics of the entire event. Two-thirds of the 112 exhibition participants came from Europe and North America. The representation of peripheral Western areas was also weak. Indeed, it is in vain to look for installations created by representatives of Central and Eastern Europe in the main exhibitions. Western Asia basically disappears from view. Once again, only the First and Third Worlds turned out to be of interest to the biennial's curators. The exhibition also glaringly lacks key players - China, India, Canada.

Arsenale Arsenale

photo by Kacper Kepinski


The main exhibition at Arsenale is by far the weakest part of this year's Biennale. The exhibition was divided into three sections: "Among Diverse Beings," "New Households," and "Emerging Communities" (Among Diverse Beings, As New Households, As Emerging Communities). Architecture was shown in the context of social theories, crafts and technological innovations, relationships reaching back to interplanetary systems. However, no conclusion is drawn from this loose collection .

horror vacui

Arsenale Arsenale

photo by Kacper Kepinski

Unfortunately, the division into three chapters and the curatorial texts attempting to tie the narrative together were not able to combine the plethora of very different works relating to diverse topics into a single story. Hundreds of pages of descriptions on the walls, data, video footage create an overload, already characteristic of recent editions of the Biennale, of which the viewer is able to assimilate only a small part. The fear of emptiness, the desire to tell everything and the inability to construct a synthetic message leaves the viewer confused. The form of the works themselves is also sometimes debatable. An exhibition that tells the story, in part, of a climate catastrophe, is itself a heavy burden on the environment. Is it really the only way to illustrate the problem of plastic pollution to fill the exhibition hall with plastic? Can aestheticized trash and its senseless production be justified with a didactic purpose?


2016 Biennale

Biennale 2016

Photo: Yagmurkozmik / Wikimedia Commons

Similar problems, moreover, have arisen before. The opening exhibition at the Arsenale for the 2016 Biennale curated by Alejandro Aravena reused plasterboard panels from the previously completed Art Biennale. The boards were broken into small, irregular fragments that created an interesting form, but were no longer fit for any functional future use. The visual effect overshadowed the real meaning of the action. The lack of reflection on the building process is, by the way, a broader problem of the Biennale, which was broken by, among others, the Polish pavilion (Fair Building) in 2016, but this was one of the few examples of addressing this issue.

Fair Building 2016

The Polish pavilion at the 2016 Biennale

photo: press materials


The situation is definitely better in the Giardini Central Pavilion, the second main exhibition of the Biennale. The exhibition in this section is indeed viewed like an exposition on a single (complex) theme, and the installations on display seem to respond well to the questions asked by the curators. There is also no impression of overload. The issues raised by the invited authors complement each other. While it's hard to say what the exhibition at the Arsenal is about, Giardini makes its main characters quite clear - the planet, communities, the environment, the non-human inhabitants of Earth and our relationship with them.


The exhibition opens with "Museum of the Anthropocene," an installation by the Kenyan collective Cave Bureau. The architects address a number of themes related to slavery, colonial-era exploitation and freedom through their analysis and use of the Shimoni cave space in Kwale. They also serve to build their own African historical narrative, but also redefine the institution of the museum.

UN Animals

Future Assembly

Future Assembly

photo by Kacper Kepinski

Another room is dedicated to interspecies relations. "Future Assembly," based on the Charter for Nature passed by the UN in 1982, takes a look at the history and specifics of animal rights and the environment more broadly. "Future Assembly" is thus a UN meeting expanded to include non-human stakeholders - from fungi to animals to the atmosphere - who are making a concerted effort to negotiate the space in which they live.


Sensible Zone

photo by Kacper Kepinski

The dominant theme of the exhibition is climate issues and the effects of the catastrophe, which we can already observe. The installation "Antarctic Resolution" by Arcangelo Sassolino tells the story of the melting Antarctic glaciers. He uses a metal block to refer to the scale of melting and the rhythmic thunder of parts of the glacier breaking away. The room next door, on the other hand, is the work "Sensible Zone" prepared by the Territorial Agency, referring to the pollution of soils and oceans. The authors remind us that, according to various estimates, we have only 30 years to stop some of the changes threatening the oceans. Covering 70% of the planet's surface, the saltwater basins are still neglected and in many ways - unexplored.

human rights


photo by Kacper Kepinski

Part of the exhibition is devoted strictly to human relations. The political conflict between Israel and Palestine is shown by the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory from the perspective of an ordinary resident of the occupied territory and the simplest daily activity - eating. The installation "Watermelons, Sardines, Crabs, Sands and Sediments: Border Ecologies and the Gaza Strip" (2021) is built around a central table that becomes a vehicle for information. Together with the materials around it, it tells the story of the struggle for daily survival and building the resilience of the lives of small farms located along the militarized border of the Gaza Strip.


Photo by Kacper Kepinski

Staying in the same region, the project of the Palestinian-Italian collective DAAR is also worth noting. They propose that the Dheisheh refugee camp, established in 1949, be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Originally planned for 3,000 people, the camp is now home to 15,000 refugees. Recognizing it as a world heritage site would, on the one hand, give dignity to the place. On the other hand, it is also a polemic against the rules for awarding and nominating sites to the list, which is indifferent to the "stateless heritage" and culture of those forced into exile.

business as usual


photo by Kacper Kepinski

"We can no longer wait for politicians to propose paths to a better future," the curator declared in a well-intentioned manifesto. It also seems that the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, as well as the postponement of the Biennale itself, fit perfectly with its theme and should have given additional impetus to thinking about and refining the exhibition. This, however, did not happen. For the most part, the form of the exhibitions is business as usual - data-overloaded, sometimes incomprehensible, and sometimes overly hermetic installations, almost failing to connect into a coherent narrative. Among them, it is worth looking at extremely interesting projects, however, mainly analyzing the existing state and its causes. The question of the future still remains unanswered, and the sea of ideas pouring out of the exhibition halls resembles one of the causes of the crisis (overproduction and unbridled growth) rather than an attempt to face the challenges.

Kacper Kępiński

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