Australian Art’s New Permanent Home in Venice

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 9.24.07 pmArchitecture exhbit (interior). Photo credit: Kyriaco Nikias

As I walk towards the Giardini canal past the Uruguayan pavilion, an unsigned black monolith emerges from the shadows of tree branches. A serpentine metal ramp takes me around the building to reveal a cantilevered flap, in black granite like the façades, labelled ‘Australia’, floating above a porch that provides a view over the canal to the Greek Pavilion. Almost thirty years after Philip Cox built his temporary pavilion for Australia at the Giardini, the new pavilion, opened in 2015, gives a permanent home to displays of Australian art in Venice.

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View from the approach. Photo credit: Kyriaco Nikias

An international exhibition of architecture in Venice has been taking place biennially in Venice since 1980, almost one hundred years after the establishment of the Art Biennale, held in alternate years to the architectural one. The Giardini della Biennale, east of St Mark’s, are the 19th Century public gardens which house thirty permanent national pavilions. Australia’s new pavilion is the first new construction in the Giardini for two decades. The approval granted to remove the ‘Cox box’ was owed to its fortuitous lack of heritage listing in a city whose ostensible purpose is to preserve what John Ruskin described as its ‘Byronic ideal’. In Venice, even subtle change is rejected. Australia has triumphed over the city’s Byzantine bureaucracy, because we were perhaps unregrettably short-sighted in 1988.

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View North along the Giardini canal. Photo credit: Kyriaco Nikias

The $7.5-million-dollar construction, almost entirely privately funded, was subject to a difficult brief for an architect undertaking a work of such public interest—to be ‘not a work of architecture, but a space for art’. If the other national pavilions pose one threat to their interior displays, it is that the voice of their architecture sounds louder than the art within. In respecting their brief, the architects Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) have failed because the product is a rather good piece of architecture. The Australia Council’s brief for DCM was most probably aimed at avoiding the fate of the Russians, whose kitsch Soviet folly stains the experience of the visitor with a preconception of Russian art I assume is a curse on contemporary Russian artists seeking to exhibit there. The new pavilion is not innovative, but in following the traditional ‘white box’ model for exhibition spaces, they have entitled Australian artists to the privilege of a blank canvas.

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View South along Giardini canal. Photo credit: Kyriaco Nikias

On all four façades the pavilion is clad in square tablets of Zimbabwean black granite, an unfortunate compromise from the South Australian stone first intended. But for a building erected mostly at the expense of private benefactors, it is no less beautiful. The darkness of the granite deadens the glare of the Venetian sun, to which the pavilion is exposed alongside the canal. On this side, the light reveals the subtle grain in the black granite tablets whose tessellation along the façades is uniform and interspersed only by a thin break between each element. The façade follows flatly the direction of the canal, only interrupted by two flaps, mechanically openable, but otherwise unnoticeable when closed. The appearance of the building is closed, only one guided ramp takes you to the entrance, creating a sense of intrigue. The upper floor which houses exhibition space gives the deceptive impression that it floats over the canal, but actually extends no further than the canal’s edge; this illusion nevertheless imparting lightness to a heavy façade and blockish building.

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View from ramp. Photo credit: Kyriaco Nikias

Inside there is remarkably little in DCM’s design because they have created a plastic space responsive to whatever the artist wishes to display. This year’s submission has recreated within the pavilion the multisensory experience of an Australian pool, filling half the space with shallow water. The recorded voices of well-known Australians from different backgrounds recall the social role of pools from personal experience. Visitors sit on specially-designed pool chairs, listening to the stories, while the lighting and scents in the room, similarly the works of different artists, immerse you in the theatre of an iconic Australian public space. Each component of sound, sight, and smell works subtly as part of a whole. And in this, Australia has competently addressed the discussion Biennale director Alejandro Aravena intended, on the social role of architecture which exists beyond the beauty of form and utility of structure.

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Detail. Photo credit: Kyriaco Nikias

If Biennale were ever a competition between artists for a crown of national superiority (at least for some nations), the outward message of Australia’s pavilion, and this year’s submission, are a mature message to a worldwide conversation. The new pavilion meets the need to provide a changeable space for art without its own design repressing the expression of what may be contained inside. It is a deferential design, a display of DCM’s humility, in contrast with the ostentatious and obtrusive architecture of the like of Gehry.

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Architecture exhibit (interior). Photo credit: Kyriaco Nikias

Unlike the places built by such ‘starchitects’, visitors to the Australian pavilion will unlikely ask at first instance who built it, or visit it because it was the work of DCM. But they are instead given the chance to appreciate and remember what was contained within the pavilion, without the pavilion’s architecture passing on any tainted conception of Australian art. The new pavilion cements our national presence at Biennale with enviable seriousness. It is good architecture of which we should be proud, an embassy for Australian art in one of the art world’s most important cities.

– Kyriaco Nikias

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