»Over the last years I have been thinking more and more of the city and certain areas of the city, specific contexts that have been defined by my projects and vice versa (…) Culture is always well in advance of territory«
»The architectural elements are not the walls of the exhibition space but the spaces constituted by the dealer, the critic, the curator, teacher, director, patron, etc.«
Bartomeu Marí: Muntadas’ first notes on the elaboration of a new work that he is developing for the Spanish pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale should serve as a starting point to discuss the ideas implied in the project. This work is to be considered within the series On Translation, and focuses on the physical infrastructure of the Giardini, the main location of the Biennale. Mark, what was your first impression when you received these notes about the project?
Mark Wigley: Right now, I am not sure that it is useful to think of an artist as an individual. I think Muntadas is more of a city tha a person, a network of spaces of exchange operation over long periods of time rather than an individual. There was almost a decade of work around the world on the Between the Frames project and now On Translation has operated for another decade with countless interventions carried out in different institutions in various international locations. Reading the preliminary notes for this latest intervention in the Giardini made me think again about the traditional role of the formal garden as an ideal city, a defined space that somehow absorbs its exterior, and that is also true of Muntadas. Rather than see him as a mobile artist operation in all these different places, you could say he has absorbed all these places, introduced them in his long-term project. Rather than working in Venice installing his nomadic project, Muntadas is putting Venice to work inside his work, thereby expanding his city. The traditional definition of the city is a density of difference, packed heterogeneity.
Antoni Muntadas: I would like to add some facts to my previous notes. The Spanish pavilion is a symmetrical structure with a main central space, measuring 12 by 12 metres, surrounded by five smaller galleries. The idea at present is to consider this the On Translation Pavilion. We have chosen works that will use the ‘peripheral’ galleries, which have a clear connection to the new work that will occupy the central space. They also provide a kind of background. It is tentatively called On Translation: I Giardini.
MW: So the works that already exist will be placed on the periphery and the work that does not yet exist will appear in the middle, being produced there rather than placed there. In this sense the pavilion, or the garden itself, produces the work. And this was the other key association for me. The Giardini is an ideal city but it is also a factory, an industrial space for the production of art. In this sense the work you place on the periphery is like raw material. All the pavilions in the garden line up us an interactive machine. The garden is an 1895 design can be understood as a key moment in the industrialisation of art; in fact it’s the first real factory for the production of art. And it’s very interesting that they use the word ‘international’, which is the most brilliant invention of the Giardini. In 1895 it was already called the Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte. We could trace a history of the use of the word ‘international’, but it’s obviously a reference to the world’s fairs and great expositions of industrial artefacts from around the world held in the mid-nineteenth century, which popularised the term. Perhaps this was the first time that the word ‘international’ was so closely associated with contemporary art and picked up the reference to industrial productions in addition to that of display. And there is an ambiguity in the Biennale about whether you are exhibiting work that exists in many different countries or whether you are producing the kind of work that could be accepted in the Giardini as official.
This garden, which seems so isolated from everyday life and from industrialisation as a space of escape and pleasure is not really so innocent. It’s actually an industrial site, which is why so much of the Biennale fits very well into the old buildings of the shipping industry, the Arsenale. The Biennale is just an extension of international trade, shipping to be precise, and it’s an extraordinarily efficient operation. Imagine inventing a machine that pays for itself through a specialised form of tourism – based alternately on architecture and the fine arts – yet needs to run for five months a year every two years and to generate sufficient power to ensure it will do its job, becoming immediately critical to the art world it represents.
AM: The Giardini as a ready-made.
MW: Likewise, the beautiful gesture in your On Translation: La Alameda project was that you simply pointed to the people sitting on the bench in the garden and to the history of Rivera’s mural, in a sense declaring that the work was already there before you came, a ready-made. This could be another concept of minimalism, even though you produce a lot of research, a densely detailed minimalism then. I feel the same way about the remarkable tourist guide you produced for the Bremen project. The guide doesn’t add anything, it just shows what is and was there, underlining rather than twisting the tourist path.
BM: I noted as well that this garden city in which the structure of the pavilion is so clear could be considered a pre-modern structure. Originally, the pavilions were quite neoclassical, far from modern aesthetics.
MW: I think it’s modern rather than pre-modern because it’s an industrialised base for global exchange. So the axis of the garden and all of its symmetries, which you could associate with a pre-modern classicism, are much more easily associated in my mind with industrial tradition and linear mass-production techniques. Even the idea that you can build a pavilion, and then another one, and the another one, is anti-classical, because it suggests that each pavilion is really a unit in a machine, with the larger Italian unit acting as the base of the system with a string of satellite units, each of which is designed to represent the political power without the representation. If you don’t have a pavilion in the Biennale then you are not a country. The garden is not only modern in the sense of a machine for the production of exchangeable values – in this case art – it is also a machine for the production of national identity, or more precisely the legitimacy of national identity. This creates a dilemma, as it is no longer possible to build pavilions inside the garden, so those built for new countries can never be really legitimate.
AM: We have been calling the outside of the Giardini meta-pavilions. A great amount of effort and money – publicity – has to be invested in order to inform and attract people. The place will obviously be perceived as a micro-city. In one sense, it has to do with issues of propaganda, and more recently with issues of real estate and territory. Part of these pavilions function as consulates; the soil is Italy, but each pavilion acts as a kind of consulate or embassy, though I can’t imagine them having refugees. People think that whatever is shown there will be perceived as a Spanish product, a part of Spanish identity. The traditional idea was that countries were represented by their own folkloric or ethnic aesthetics. People would say, “Well, let’s go to see what the English or the Spanish, or the French are doing.” These days this is totally ridiculous. The works produced by many artists have moved in other directions. At the last Biennale, for instance, the Dutch Pavilion showed three foreign artists living in Holland, and this changed the perspective of the concept of nationality. Joseph Kosuth was displayed in the Hungarian Pavilion years ago, and there are a number of other examples. My work is not a literal representation of Spanish aesthetics. When asked about representation, I once said, “Let’s talk about the work”; work means representation.
Part of this idea of discussing the On Translation Pavilion is to establish a distance with regard to issues of representation and nationality, a situation conductive to presenting work that interrogates issues of interpretation. I present what I am doing or have been doing. Propaganda and real estate (these may be perceived as serious words) in terms of territory are using the pavilions as psychological constructions. Another interesting aspect is the ‘face-lifts’ that the pavilions have suffered and that have remodelled their facades over different periods of time. I think Germany changed three times, and Belgium and Spain have also changed. It all had to do with the political situation of the moment and how the countries wished to be represented by the pavilions and their architecture. Maybe it also had to do with official architects chosen governments. Artists used to arrive with their work, and traditionally the paintings would come from their studios. I think it’s only been in the last thirty years that they have started to work on the actual site, producing site-specific works. In my case, I strike up a conversation with the Giardini. At first I thought I would find more works produced along these lines throughout the history of the Biennale: the Giardini regarded as a context, as a space, a territory and a site. I was very surprised to discover there were no such cases. Clear and strong commentaries on the pavilions themselves yes, as in the case of Hans Haacke and the German pavilion in 1993, and subsequently Santiago Sierra and the Spanish Pavilion in 2003.
MW: You were saying before that had you known you would be in the Spanish Pavilion earlier, you would have changed the way you were experiencing Venice while teaching there last fall.
AM: Yes. When you know that you need to think about a project for a specific space, you look at the space in a different way.
MW: In the Alameda project, if I understand correctly, before the mural you were interested in the garden. The situation first, then the artwork.
AM: The mural acted as an element of interpretation of the Alamada, it was the filter. Here the filter is the Biennale.
MW: And Diego Rivera, in a way, also focused on the situation, the historical situation of Mexico.
AM: I found somebody who was looking in the same direction. I decided to take the Alameda as an area of observation in Mexico because of the huge constitution of Mexico City; it was a kind of defining space really. In the case of the Giardini, I visited the space and then I evoked my feelings and experience of the seventies, when I took part in the exhibition Spagna: Avanguardia artistica e realtà sociale 1936-1976, and reflected on my impressions of the area. Over the last years I have been thinking more and more of the city and certain areas of the city, specific contexts that have been defined by my projects and vice versa. It’s clear that the Giardini will define the new work.
MW: So, during these last ten or twenty years with these two extended works – On Translation and, before that, Between the Frames – were you ever working on one project alone?
AM: Not really. I’ve worked on several in different stages.
MW: Therefore we can take as a principle that you always work in an actual situation – usually a city – and never on one project alone. So it’s always a number of cities, although not usually in the same country. At any one time you can be working with many teams, in many cities, thinking about the city in general.
AM: Well, in a way, as I’ve sometimes said, what I do is closer to what filmmakers do. When you want to make a film, you have a script and it takes a long time to develop, and maybe you have different projects developing simultaneously. And with architects it’s a similar story.. different projects going on at the same time.
MW: At this moment I don’t know where you are working and with whom, but let’s say in a number of cities around the world, certain living situations are being encountered, thought about and represented by groups of people interacting with you in different ways and at different times. So there is really not such a big difference between Muntadas and the garden at the Biennale. The nomadic On Translation project brings together an array of international sites, just as the Giardini embraces representatives of many different countries gathered together in one place, thereby providing an intense spectacle of the exchange of ideas, people, critics, the market, etc. If this garden is a factory for the production not exactly of art, but of the system of art, the it is like the other big machines that you have studied before, particularly in Between the Frames, that join forces to make the art world complete. I think your intervention in the garden as a part of On Translation actually continues the Between the Frames project.
I suppose there would be something of this in every artist, insofar as the classic figure of the artist is like that of the translator. The translator is never exactly a part of the situation that is being translated; you, for example, would never exactly be a representative of Spain, but you could be a Spanish translator. So the garden would be full of translators, each translating the different countries and producing the effect of a city.
By analysing the symptoms, the work becomes itself a symptom. For instance, the traditional role of so-called architecture in the experience of so-called art is to isolate the art from its conditions of existence, i.e. from the city, from the weather, from the light, from entropy, from security, exchange, etc. That’s the classical role – architecture as a device for isolation. An intellectual who concentrates on the system of art will refuse the ability of architecture to isolate art and reveal the architectural effects of the art system. The architectural elements are not the walls of the exhibition space but the spaces constituted by the dealer, the critic, the curator, teacher, director, patron, etc. In other works, instead of saying that the artwork is displayed in a certain building, these institutionalised figures become the frame in which the work is suspended.
AM: In a way, Between the Frames doesn’t talk about the site of the exhibition, but is itself like a moving pavilion. Actually, the installation is titled Between the Frames: the Forum and has been the object of different (historical, philosophical, sociological and economic) interpretations and different forms of presentation. The Giardini is the ultimate location where all the artistic manifestations occur. Actually, the entire Giardini area could be a huge scenario for the work Between the Frames, as al the roles/chapters are indirectly represented there. Unconsciously they are there in the work, although not overtly expressed. I think there certainly is a relationship between the Giardini and Between the Frames.
MW: The ten years of On Translation have been explicitly architectural. Between the Frames was less explicit although it did establish an institutional architecture – you revealed the shape of an institutional system, whereas On Translation focuses on shapes and reveals institutional economics. Hence one project leads into the other.
BM: But it’s interesting that you should mention that one of the functions of architecture is that of separation. Because out of habit, perhaps repetition, we are used to the fact that architecture is precisely a tool for art to exist. We began the conversation by talking about the Giardini as an ideal place, built as an incentive to provide the city with a green area dedicated to leisure, amusement, distraction, etc. It is surprising to see how the Giardini was originally planned for such purposes. And then you spoke as well of a factory, which is the opposite, an industrial programme.
MW: I think we could say that the Giardini isolated by its walls is a very good image of heterotopia, the non-place place that actually organises the territory of everyday life outside it. This quality is doubled because Venice itself is the most perfect heterotopia. It’s a kind of ship, one that quite often actually sinks with the floods and which was originally constructed as a means of escape and refuge – a military apparatus. I think it was a Napoleonic decree that freed the land on which the gardens were constructed, and Napoleon is the perfect figure of industrialised efficiency. It is easy to think that the garden was planned for what today is considered leisure, yet it never really was leisure, just as the institutionalised weekend actually forms a part of the system of production, instead of constituting an escape from it. The weekend is an extension of the big machines, allowing the little machines – the human bodies – to restore enough energy to go back to work.
AM: It’s connected with certain festivities – going to church, having coffee, taking a walk in the garden, going for lunch…
MW: Yes. Historians of gardens could probably demonstrate that behaviour in gardens is much more controlled and regulated than behaviour, let’s say, inside private houses. Your house is a space of leisure, sexuality, violence, complications, confusion of voices, and the garden is more a space, in a Napoleonic sense, of regimentation, with the pavilions acting as industrial units in the system of production of art value and national value – the nation being of course an artwork. The new pavilions that cannot get into the garden and must be dispersed within the tourist city have to prove that they are a part of the machinery, probably through maps showing paths coming out of the garden linking the satellite pavilions and effectively turning the whole lagoon into a garden, removing the unregulated domestic life from Venice, which is what the ever i-increasing network of hotels, galleries, etc., is doing. Very soon the only occupants, the new citizens of Venice, will be the armies of tourists obeying very strict protocols of behaviour.
AM: Being in Venice last fall, I got a letter from the people living there. They are organising themselves against tourists, because they feel that it is beginning to be impossible to live in the city. Which is a paradox, as they make a living out of tourism. In some respects, my proposed solution (which seems quite radical, as well as metaphorical and ironical) is to do as in Lascaux or Altamia, that is, to build a fake perfect copy for visitors. They should xerox Venice, produce a duplicate of the experience of the place for tourists to visit while the people who live in the city keep the original.
MW: Or else the people live in the copy and the tourists visit the original. When we think about the scientific preservation of stone, all the key discoveries were made in Venice. The city itself is incredibly well preserved despite the forces of tourism and climate. Yet the domestic culture has been absolutely destroyed, so you can’t buy a loaf of bread in your own neighbourhood but you can buy tourist trinkets at fifty different stores.
AM: One question I would like to ask both of you, as it has to do with my perception of the Giardini, concerns the transition from international fairs to theme parks. I think it’s possible to see the Biennale as a theme park (this is something that I feel very strongly about). At Expo 2000 Hanover, for instance, the pavilions were dedicated to themes: the Energy Pavilion was designed by Toyo Ito, Miralda did the Food Pavilion, Jean Nouvel the Mobility Pavilion, etc. Although they were built by architects and artists they were conceived as a part of the international fair. The main protagonist at the Biennale is the pavilion, followed by the countries and then by the artists – which is the structure of a theme park.
MW: I agree.
AM: In many ways, theme parks, whether they be Disneyland or Port Aventura, provide a certain kind of leisure experience. You start with a theme, and the theme here in Venice is art or architecture, depending on the year. I don’t know how it began, but the relationship is clear.
MW: Yes. A theme park, and the theme is art. Perhaps all the theme parks of today are really about the legitimisation of contemporary industrialisation, with the real theme behind all the themes being the global economy. And not just in the sense that the parks represent or promote that economy: they also exemplify its operation. The new modes of representation have become the new modes of production. It actually originates in the Giardini, where, being the garden of the castle, the link between the military and industrialisation is clear. It’s the systematic logic of the military extended into a space of play – a kind of military entertainment complex. The global landscape is increasingly filled with such theme parks. They no longer represent the world, they are the world. It’s no longer clear that any part of the world exists that is not a theme park. It would be interesting to make a map of the globe and mark the few islands where there are no theme parks, museums, preserved neighbourhoods, etc.
AM: I see the theme park as a sort of subculture, a spectacle of some kind. Venice, the city as the ultimate theme park, is a very strong image. Everybody would like to avoid the place turning into a theme park and prefer it remained as a preservation park, a kind of culture reserve.
Besides the theme park I would like to mention another issue, the organisation of this micro-city as a kind of game of strategy in which the pavilions occupy certain positions: the Italian, the Belgian, the Dutch and the Spanish pavilions are on one avenue, whereas the French, the English, the German and the Canadian pavilions are on top of the hill. I am interested in the topological layout of this micro-city divided into zones according to planning priorities, and in the two axis and how they actually divide the space into zones that form a first, a second and a third zone, and then peripheral areas. Again, the layout of these zones raises issues that involve town planning and representation.
In this structure, place, territory and site are somehow linked to real estate and to what buildings represent. I find a lot of things there hard to explain. There is an area that compromises three of the historically important countries – Germany, England and France – and then there is another area where the United States appears beside Israel. So there is the square or piazza, and then there is the ‘avenue’, with the Italian fascist architecture. And, of course, the last pavilion built – that of Australia in the eighties, Korea in the nineties – were clearly linked to economic expansion.
MW: Again, this representation of geopolitics can be seen in terms of the factory. The production of international exchangeable art and the figure of the international artist are inseparable from the production of an evolving image of national difference, with pavilions located and renovated according to the current political situation. Each exhibition generates and prints out a kind of geopolitical map. And if people today still think of the pavilions as housing individual artists associated with individual nations, then this notion preserves a certain culture and defends a set of cultural stereotypes against the current spectacle of the fragmented artist dispersed through a deterritorialised marketplace.
AM: The idea of the pavilion as the representation of a country is now obsolete. The structure of the Giardini to accommodate art is outdated. The idea remains, because it functions as a theme park, and it’s easier for artists to structure their work, to see, represent and identify things. In a way it acts as a symbol, proving that countries exists and are recognised. When it first appeared, such a structure was probably an ideal solution. But it’s now become obsolete.
MW: So what’s being preserved is an old machine producing an old idea about art that was perhaps radical in 1895.
AM: I don’t know if the work presented in the old times was representative of cutting-edge tendencies. I think the Biennale has undergone different cycles. In the beginning it was institutional, academic and commercial. The Biennale stopped selling art in 1968.
MW: But the machine itself was radical. Whatever was displayed in the garden almost made no difference, whereas the machine as the medium did. When young artists, for example, wish to be exhibited at the Biennale today and consider it the legitimisation of their talent, they are seeking approval from the old machine, asking it to live in an old world.
AM: Hypothetically, an artist from Thailand who lives in Denmark may be asked to show work at the Danish pavilion. The actual country plays a political role.
BM: As far as we know, the territory, the land, the ground are Italian, but the property of building and its administration belong to each country. Yet, if you have to run a new electricity system within the pavilion you have to abide by Italian regulations. Venice sold the ground and each country built the pavilions and maintains them according to its principles or priorities. But that brings us to an issue in connection with the pavilion and this geopolitical culture, its political status, the ground upon which this machine has been built. What exactly defines the relationship between the land and nationality, real estate and territory?
AM: I’m certain the Giardini has its own intrinsic vocabulary, as is usually the case in town planning and urban developments. I’m not sure whether they call it the Golden Square or the Silver Triangle, but certain areas are more expensive than others. This is symptomatic of real estate and gentrification.
MW: It would be great to analyse it as a suburb with particular real-estate values. When speaking about an ideal city, each of the pavilions would be a house in a kind of subdivision. I think the legal issue is really interesting, because the pavilions are like embassies, with their own rights and laws. Violation of the rules is therefore different in each pavilion. I think in South Korea now, for the first time, there is a city built on reclaimed land that belongs to America – not to the country itself but to an American private development corporation. So for the first time we have a whole city that has the same status as an embassy.
AM: Before Hong Kong became a part of China again there was a working relationship between Hong Kong and other parts of the world. A number of people considered moving to Atlanta and, in a lower proportion, to Vancouver, which they did (hence the colloquial name ‘Hongcouver’). Whole parts of the city were ‘transferred’ as so many people wished to leave. At other times, people moved from Japan to the south of Spain, Germans went to Majorca, for instance, to live and try recreate their country of origin. These things started to generate a migratory economical structure, and are now beginning to be clearly visible. Thinking of the real-estate issue makes me think of shopping malls, and how the location of shops and showcases determines their price. When you move inside a mall you realise the planning of shopping itineraries and the regulation of flows. Spaces are priced according to their location. The Biennale has remained unaltered for a hundred years. The countries that don’t have a pavilion in the Giardini need to go elsewhere. The Latin American Institute gathers together several countries, and each one of them has its own room. The concepts of city, periphery and suburbia appear yet again. I think this situation is totally obsolete, and the question is now the multicultural debate. Culture is always well in advance of territory.
MW: Again, it’s an old machine. But in these maps that we are drawing, the character of the machine is defined by the walls of each pavilion, while nobody thinks of walls between countries any more. Nobody imagines that the geopolitics of the world consists of solid walls.
AM: Now borders are disappearing, especially in Europe, but the border between the United States and Mexico is still there.
MW: So you have the latest work according to the official definitions, the best work by the most interesting artists, all of whom probably refuse walls, placed in a machine that depends upon walls.
AM: I would just like to mention two more things in relation to some of my immediate ideas for the project. The fact is that at the last edition of the Architecture Biennale we found that the architects had built a kind of showroom and had then taken it apart, damaging most of the infrastructure. To restore it would cost a great deal of money.
One of the first ideas was, in fact, to restore it and leave it impeccable: to clean it, paint it, open the windows and let natural light in and then, just before the opening, put up a ‘To let’ sign at the entrance of the pavilion. That was my immediate reaction, as I thought it wouldn’t cost much money. The space is up for rent, so nothing more needs to be done and yet at the same time the gesture conveys complexity and comments on town planning, territory and architecture.
The second had to do with the fact that a friend of mine is coordinating the Indian Pavilion. He is looking for spaces, and so I thought, we could sub-let the Spanish Pavilion to the Indians. And to make the situation even more complex, the main space could be sub-let to the Indians and the remaining spaces to Cyprus, Pakistan and other countries. Why not sub-let the other spaces? I think this was an immediate reaction to talking about the walls and how their transparency or limitation affected other issues.
MW: It’s interesting because there is such a traditional concept of representation built into this old machine that you can expose a lot by twisting it slightly.
AM: I find it all surprising. In the last thirty years there has been a lot of debate about spaces from the point of view of artists’ thinking: their meaning, use, function, context, etc. When I started to research the Giardini I found no other artists’ project had focused on them.
MW: I’m intrigued that you consider this a preservation project, because in architecture today perhaps the most interesting debate is around the question of preservation. Preservation is generating the most radical structures and ideas, the most politically sensitive and precise, the most technologically sophisticated moves, because if you really want to preserve something old, that’s when you use top-quality military technology. Philosophically, it is extremely interesting, because to preserve something in a modern world is to change it. So it creates a whole new ethics. The old debate was clear: preservation was a form of resistance against modernity, but now it’s clear that modernity itself needs to be preserved and that preservation is a symptom of modernity. In this case, to preserve the architecture of the pavilions, exposing the mechanism rather than bringing it into play one more time, would be a radical political act.
AM: I would do it if all the other pavilions did as well. It should be a Biennale project, just to show the entire bare infrastructure, the Giardini and the pavilions as a place for cultural debates… people could visit the Giardini with its empty spaces, and have their own visions. It’s a place with a history and reminiscences of its past, but it’s still a strong comment on the present.
The work at the centre of the pavilion is about the Giardini. The idea is to consider the Giardini part of the work, to talk about it. I think the new work is a reflection on all this, an invitation to about this territory.
MW: A territory that I think in 1895 was already occupied by over two hundred thousand visitors.
BM: At the Biennale?
MW: Yes. In the very first edition. And I don’t know what the number is now, but I imagine it’s much higher. If this is a factory designed precisely to work with a particular product in mind, a particular type of artist, a particular type of nation, a particular concept of exchange, and so on, it’s also a machine through which the population of a city needs to pass. So it’s not just an ideal city in metaphorical terms, as mentioned when discussing its real-estate value and all that, it’s also a city in terms of the basic number of people that occupy it.
What matters most is that the space of production keeps operating. But what still fascinates me is the refusal to allow people to visit the garden when there is no Biennale.
AM: I’m not sure whether you are only allowed through it if you work for the Biennale, but the park, between editions, is like a ghost city. Then during the Biennale it is activated and a repertoire of special effects begins. I began to draw analogies between the Biennale and a film studio, and in fact there is a historical relationship between the two.
MW: So workers only, no leisure. What would be the institutional reason for this? It clearly is a beautiful garden, yet its beauty is not the issue, there is no need for this garden to be beautiful and to be experienced as such by individual citizens. On the contrary, you are only allowed to experience it with a hundred thousand other people in an intense spectacle of production. The greatest fear for the Biennale is for people to see empty pavilions, which is exactly what you propose. You would address their fear directly.
AM: This reminds me of Documenta and its relationship with the Biennale, the comparisons people establish between the old machine and the new machine set up forty years ago. And of course, there is the Museum Fridericianum. If we had directors like Catherine David, who was the first person who attempted to discuss multiculturalism and make the city into a sort of filter, the osmotic kind of city that becomes a place of work, it would be comfortable. But Documenta doesn’t have this heavy structure of the Giardini, and Venice is more glamorous and perverse.
MW: Where does the Milan Triennale fit into this history?
AM: I think it is probably closer to the model of the Exposition Universelle and the World Fair. It is interesting to compare the Biennale with other sites for large exhibitions such as Documenta and art fairs like Basel, Arco or Chicago – nobody knew Kassel before Documenta. The two strategies are very different and each new director tries to make Documenta evolve. In the case of the Biennale this is very difficult. The characteristics of the city and the spaces designed to accommodate the shows are very well defined. What I consider obsolete is the structure based on nations.
MW: This one has the garden wall to ensure the experience of an empty pavilion is avoided, for this would correspond to the experience of a dead country with no art. So you have a machine that can be turned on every two years, and must be seen by everybody, but when it’s turned off, should be seen by no one. The machine itself is not to be experienced.
AM: We began to photograph how it was when we first entered the pavilion. I think it is important to have this view every two years of some kind of cycle, some kind of construction, some kind of destruction to prompt a new construction.
MW: Maybe this relates to your point about theme parks, which cannot be visited either when they are not in operation. A roller coaster that doesn’t move cannot be visited, it’s surrounded by high walls like the Giardini. Perhaps the gardens are never dead in people’s imagination, and maybe one can argue that when this Biennale closes, others are opening in Korea, in Shanghai and in Beijing. As for the Biennale system, invented at the end of the nineteenth century, it is always in use somewhere. Yet you have a pavilion that floats in a garden that floats in Venice that floats in Italy, which floats in the Mediterranean. Such an incredible series of layers that by the time you reach the work of art it’s no longer in the world. So, in this sense it’s also the perfect gallery. It doesn’t need the usual white walls.
AM: You start to wonder whether that’s correct, and try to find the artefact that represents control in this country. What would be interesting now perhaps would be to reverse the situation, although I would think that for someone coming from afar, the pavilion is the ultimate frame for something that they are already prepared to see, don’t you think? It’s like the Las Vegas model.
MW: As a visitor, you’ve been so isolated that you can now experience a phenomenon, a single nation state, which is usually impossible to experience, because a nation state no longer exists as such. So you could take your observation that there is a major geopolitical dimension here, and reverse the usual perspective by saying that at this point in time the true purpose of this machine that played a crucial role in setting up the international art system is to use art to maintain a geopolitical mythology that cannot be found in everyday life.
AM: It’s the theme park of geopolitics.
MW: You can go there and say, “Ah! Germany. Ah! The United States”, as if such things exist, when not even the mythology can be experienced anywhere else, outside of war. The more the flags are waved the less sure the stability of the nation represented by the flag actually is. The more one feels the unique conditions of a place, the less one needs to wave a flag. The greater the nervousness about lost identity, the more flag-waving and, inevitably, the more deaths in the name of the supposedly secure nation. The symbol is a substitute for the missing object. The Giardini is one of the few places where everything is as it is fantasised to be. Like Disneyland, everything is in its place.
AM: One thing related to this circulation. How people move in these spaces as visitors, as tourists. How this movement, in a gallery, functions in a certain way. This is a specialised audience on the day of the opening, the first two days even, an audience from within the cultural system. Later on it begins to extend to the tourists, and perhaps to the citizens of Venice.
I lived in Venice for three months and I did not set foot on San Marco Square. Three months without visiting San Marco… During the Biennale period you go to San Marco day and night because it is the place to be and to meet. There is circulation, traffic, movement in the city, etc., and this involves the idea of waiting, waiting in queues. A lot of queues lead to the buildings and museums and then at the Biennale you reproduce the queues to get into the pavilions. The protocol implies waiting for something without exactly knowing what there is to see. It’s a ritual that already exists. The idea of queues, of waiting, the protocol to get to places interests me a lot. It’s not the movement of the garden; it has another movement from building to building. And of course you decide whether you go to Italy or to Hungary first etc., a decision motivated by your own information or maybe by your sympathy or curiosity. This could be something interesting to explore.
MW: I was thinking again of your idea of a theme park. There are other theme parks where they simulate activity, pretending to cut corn the way it used to be cut, and when you visit the Biennale you to see the simulation of the artist and the simulation of the nation. Relics, like religious relics. Let’s go and see a representation of the artist! It still exists, because here is the Brazilian Pavilion, and here are the young Brazilian artists at work, but what you are really celebrating is not the youth, novelty, modernity, of such a figure but quite the opposite, you celebrate the fact that the concept of art is produced continuously by this machine, regardless of the individuals on display.
AM: Have you been in Barcelona to the pace called Poble Espanyol?
MW: Yes. It’s unbelievable.
AM: I think the Poble Espanyol should be contextualised. The Poble Espanyol is the kind of Giardini with its pavilions of arts and crafts…
MW: And some people actually live there as well.
AM: Artisans making objects, demonstrations of crafts…
BM: The truth is that Barcelona is an expert city when it comes to international exhibitions.
AM: I think the Poble Espanyol is a theme park, a theme park for the country itself, built in 1929.
MW: In 1929 you had the national pavilions, Mies van der Rohe made his remarkable German pavilion.
AM: Why was the Poble Espanyol created? In political terms its transition was very interesting, because during the Franco dictatorship the Poble Espanyol symbolised a national identity that is not so well defined right now. Even the name was symptomatic. People were sceptical regarding the propaganda imposition, but it was a place for all kinds of folk activities. It was appropriated by the Franco regime for the promotion of tourism, as had occurred previously with flamenco and bullfighting. At the time, people were reticent, and their reluctance was like a refusal of stereotypes.
MW: That’s a situation in which the pavilion is full rather than empty, full of life, and I think that Beatriz Colomina’s analysis of Mies’ pavilion resonates with the opposite quality to that of your proposal because that pavilion was empty. As Beatriz points out, when the architect asked the German government what was going to be displayed, they said “Nothing, the pavilion itself will be the display”, and it was long after the building was demolished that architecture critics decided to celebrate it; for some time the discourse was as empty as the structure.
AM: It was a special representation.
MW: Yes. And the concept of the empty pavilion is important for your project. Yet perhaps the empty pavilion is no longer possible in the same way. Even before it is opened, an empty pavilion has to be turned into a conceptually full idea, through this conversation for example.
AM: Full of ideology.
Source: »Muntadas On Translation: I Giardini«, with permission of the authors.
Antoni Muntadas, born 1942 in Barcelona [E]; 1963–67 studied architecture at the University of Barcelona; received an M.A. from Escuela Tecnica Superior Ingenieros Industriales, Barcelona; 1971–73 studied at Pratt Graphics Center in New York; has taught extensively, at the University of California in San Diego, Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, Center for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology [M.I.T.] and the San Francisco Art Institute, among other institutions; lives and works in New York City [USA] and Barcelona [E].
Mark Wigley is a Professor of Architecture at Columbia University. He is the author of “The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida”s Haunt” , “White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture” , and “Constant”s New Babylon: The Hyper-Architecture of Desire” . He co-edited “The Activist Drawing: Situationist Architectures from Constant”s New Babylon to Beyond” , and is currently working on a prehistory of virtual space.