Sunday, 25 September 2016

A design for life?

I'd never been to a biennale before. Barely knew what one was. I loved rolling my tongue around the Italian pronunciation as I bought my ticket on a sunny afternoon in late September but I had no idea what I was entering into. As it turned out it was the first time London had hosted a Design Biennale so I was probably not alone.

Even though I was, strictly speaking, on a solo mission it didn't feel like it. The place was busy and it was orange too. Very orange. It felt at times like Easyjet, rather than Jaguar, were sponsoring the thing.

Thirty seven countries were represented. Exploring 'big questions about sustainability, migration, pollution, energy, cities, and social equality'. Sometimes overtly. Often prismatically. Occasionally simply bewilderingly.

Portugal claimed the dubious honour of gaining my biennale cherry. Unlike the country itself the experience was disappointing. Not traumatic but UN/Biased (what a shit name) and their use of maps and bacteria to comment on the problems of sexism in society was all a bit half-arsed. I don't question their intentions or that male hegemony is still a concern but this addressed nothing.

The German room, Utopia from Elsewhere, had a wanky John Malkovich text writ large and a darkened room where you could sit around a digitally generated fire. Pleasant enough but nothing more exciting than you'd find taking a random wander round the, free, galleries of Mayfair.

So, once I'd accepted that this was about art rather than politics, I was able to appreciate, on a reduced level, architect Rianne Makink and designer Jurgen Bey's installation (above) which, apparently, asks questions about how institutions collect history.

Makink and Bey were representing the Netherlands. Saudi Arabia had called on the services of the sisters Noura and Basma Bouzo. Their Water Machine took the form of a bubblegum dispenser and sought to make a point about our planet's handling of its resources. Water especially.

From Water Machine to Wish Machine. Autoban (Turkey) will chuck your message into a tube, send it round Somerset House, and then dispense it into a void. A kind of existential Santa letter, it'd be depressing if it wasn't fun to watch.

Fun certainly seems to be what it's about here. Not too much though. Serious points to make. Yasuhiro Suzuki was carrying the flag for Japan with A Journey Around The Neighbourhood Globe. A confusing pennant it was too. Pencils, apples, jigsaws, question marks, and the globe, itself, with a zip sewn into it. If you like to put the Japanese penchant for enigmatic behaviour on a pedestal you'll not be disappointed.

For France, Benjamin Loyaute's The Astounding Eyes of Syria shows the artist meeting with displaced Syrian kids. He collects their 'memories of sweets' but to save it being simply an exercise in virtue signalling he's set up a vending machine where you can buy packets of candy with the proceeds going to Syrians rendered homeless by the war. A small gesture but an admirable one.

For Israel Yaniv Kadoh's AIDrop first aid distribution system also offers practical solutions to real life situations. The claim being that his innovation can drop urgent provisions into disaster zones before other help can arrive. Not sure how realistic this is but, again, the intentions are to be acknowledged.

Mezzing in Lebanon, overlooking the Thames, was the best thing at the biennale by some distance. Even the arrival of some light drizzle couldn't dampen this winning performance. A recreation of a Beirut street market complete with food stalls, orange juice sellers, backgammon rooms, and beds to recline on. No shoes, mind!

The next few rooms were bound to suffer as a consequence and, well intentioned though it was, Chile's Counterculture Room paled next to the Levantine extravaganza. Using something called 'Cybersyn' to make points about Salvador Allende it was probably interesting but I couldn't make head nor tail of it.

The fairly uninspired Swedish and Croatian salons suffered even more in comparison. The clocks, candles, and Sunday supplement cool home furnishings (Sweden) and geometric shapes (Croatia) all looked nice enough but you may as well have been in Habitat. They don't even charge you an entrance fee.

Austria's LeveL (mischer traxler, lower case artist's own) gets things back on track, Essentially a riff on Alexander Calder's mesmerising mobiles with a bit of LED thrown in they may be far away from the political ideas expressed elsewhere but they're rather beguiling to look at.

The Spanish room is loosely themed around the city of Santander's adoption of technology to improve both urban life and the environment. VIRpolis ponder what such a smart city may look like in the year 2116. One with two of me in it it seems from the photo above. You lucky lucky people of the future.

Both the rather grandiosely monikered Time Tunnel (the one with me in) and the virtual reality room were enormously popular. Muy bien Espana pero esta vez sin cigarro.

The fifty four pylons in Tunisia's Pulse Diagram (above, Chacha Atallah and Haythem Zakaria) refer to the fifty four cities in Thomas More's Utopia. The Greek take on the Utopian Landscape (as you've probably gathered, a leitmotiv that runs though the whole show) is a digital recreation of a quarry in Dionysus.

All interesting enough but far better is the United Arab Emirati contribution:- al Falaj:Water Systems of the Gulf's Oasis. A vast system of planned irrigation once stretched across the Gulf. The UAE rooms show how and why it could, and should, be recreated. I place it in bronze medal position.

The Pakistani 'abstract playground', Daalaan, took me back out into the courtyard where it was no longer sunny. Nor was it raining. It was now windy. It was like the weather was changing to reflect all the different 'territories' on show.

Fernando Romero for Mexico's Border City ruminates on the US border (it wasn't gonna be the Guatemalan one, was it?), culture clash, and other highly topical issues. It's interesting enough but I feel there'll be a lot better stuff about that particular theme to come. Plus the music sounded like something they'd have used during a mental agility test on The Krypton Factor.

From Poland Klara Czerniewska and Maria Jeglinska have devised a game of Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse) with surreal, vaguely political posers plastered on to yellow boards. It might be fun to play if you come with a mate. I didn't.

Even with chums the Taiwanese Eatopia experience is not as much fun as it could be. You're not allowed to eat the food. The haunted forest room and friendly 'waiters' do make it a pleasurable experience though.

Italy hosts the world's most famous biennale (Venice) so they weren't missing out on the fun. Their selection of white flags (no sniggering, military historians) was an exhibition of its own - calling in artists from around the world. A nice touch.

Better still, and raking in the runner's up position behind the Lebanese, was South African Porky Hefer. His name alone deserves some sort of prize but his series of hanging nests in animal forms (Otium and Aceda) celebrated playfulness in a way that's all too rare. Even if both a killer whale and a piranha were resident in his menagerie.

In thirty five years Shenzhen in China has grown from a city of 300,000 to one of 17,000,000. A megalopolis and no mistake. URBANOS addressed the obvious challenges this transformation brings using Italo Calvino quotes, cool models, and lots of cardboard boxes.

Chakraview's Indian blast of colour seemed a positive note to leave on. The gallery here opens up on to the Embankment and the sun was out again. An Indian summer if not quite Indian weather.

There wasn't enough time to take everything in. The Indonesian, Norwegian, Swiss, and Russian rooms were so full of stuff to read I had to give them short shrift. That's a pity but it was my first time at one of these events and I'd not come prepared. When and if I come again I'll have a better idea what to expect and what that is is a very mixed bag indeed. But if the Lebanese food truck rocks up again then I'm keen.

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