Curators explain ideas framed by new public space on roof
Caruso St John’s installation at the British Pavilion opens at the Venice Biennale today.
Called Island, it is a publicly accessible platform built on the roof, pierced by the very top of the pavilion.
The architects, working with artist Marcus Taylor, have rejected the traditional format of an exhibition and left the interior of the pavilion empty.
The installation, commissioned by the British Council’s Sarah Mann, is a reference to Brexit as well as Venice’s precarious maritime position, as the curators explain in the interview and statement below.
The roof will play host to a number of events including a performance of Shakespeare’s Tempest.
The biennale itself is curated by Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Ireland’s Grafton architects under the theme Freespace. It opens to the public on Saturday and runs until November 25.
British Pavilion curators’ statement
But we see clouds like furious ink / Thick liquid sinks and whips the wind
Pitch shifted rumble screams from a swollen grin / There’s a big storm rolling in
- From Brews by Kate Tempest. Let Them Eat Chaos
These lines could be a modern interpretation of the opening of the Tempest. Instead they are by the young British performance poet Kate Tempest, who eloquently navigates us through the architecture of daily life in Britain, in her album Let Them Eat Chaos. In Shakespeare’s play, Prospero’s invoked storm, and the washing up of the voyagers on an unnamed Mediterranean island, provides an encounter of old and new worlds. The voyagers are wrecked but unharmed.
The design for the British Pavilion for the 2018 biennale responds to the theme of Freespace through the construction of a new public space on the roof of the original building. This elevated position offers visitors a popular meeting place, a unique and generous view out from the Giardini to the Lagoon, and a place of respite. The pavilion itself is open to the public but empty, with just the peak of its tiled roof visible in the centre of the public space above, suggesting a sunken world beneath.
The two spaces will host a programme of events including poetry, performance and film, as well as architectural debate. Neighbouring national pavilions will also be invited to hold their own events at the British Pavilion.
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not
- Caliban in The Tempest by William Shakespeare Act 3 Scene 2
There will be many ways to interpret the experience of visiting Island, the 2018 British Pavilion. An island can be a place of both refuge and exile. The state of the building, which will be completely covered with scaffolding to support the new platform above, embraces many themes; including abandonment, reconstruction, sanctuary, Brexit, isolation, colonialism and climate change. A simple interpretation would be to see the layout as having an above and below, heaven and hell, future and past. This is not the intention. At times the situation could be the reverse, where the abandoned pavilion becomes a sanctuary during oppressive heat or a storm.
In the empty pavilion, the whole history of the place can be told. The galleries are resonant with the marks, stories and ideas of the exhibitors and audiences who have passed through the building at previous biennales. The building itself, opened in 1897 as a tea house within the Giardini, and adapted for use as the British Pavilion at the 1909 biennale, represents a moment in time when the world was divided along colonial lines. It has stood through two world wars, fascism, the formation of the European Community, the fall of communism and now major concerns of climate change and rising sea levels, Venice being a city more vulnerable than most. These are challenges for all of us, the way we build, design cities, consume and live our lives.
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t
- Miranda in The Tempest by William Shakespeare Act 5 Scene 1
Q&A with Adam Caruso, Peter St John and Marcus Taylor, curators of Island at the British Pavilion 2018
Q: What is the concept behind the title Island?
A: The title refers to many things, but firstly to Shakespeare’s Tempest, where the protagonists are shipwrecked in a storm, and saved from drowning by being washed up on the beach of an unknown island, which turns out to be a paradise of sorts.
So it is about being saved and lost at the same time. The title Island also makes you think of Venice, with its precarious relationship to the sea. And then of course, being the British Pavilion, it makes you think of Brexit and the current renegotiation, with all its questions and uncertainties.
Finally, it refers to the constructed space we are making on the roof of the pavilion, a kind of raft which will have its own independence and serenity, lifted above the Giardini, with a beautiful view over the lagoon. The British Pavilion is, in a way, already a bit aloof, in its raised position at the end of the Giardini, on a little hill which is actually the highest piece of natural ground in Venice. The design will exaggerate this.
Q: You plan to transform the building into a generous public space. What is your approach?
A: In the past few architecture biennales, the pavilion has held curated exhibitions on architectural themes. So we have taken a different approach for a change. There will be no exhibits; instead we have made a construction that can be experienced like a building. Its public nature is very important, that you are free to wander about, to meet people and participate or not. There will be a programme of events and performances but also, like any public space, you don’t know how it will be used. It will be a dramatic space to be in, whether it is busy or empty.
Q: You are re-imagining the British Pavilion as an open public space. What does the actual Pavilion represent?
A: The open public space is both the new space above and the empty pavilion below. Empty buildings have a different scale, light and acoustic, and they’re very atmospheric. You may have visited the building before and remember how different it felt then. It’s not intended to represent anything directly, but it will hold memories of things that happened there, traces of which you might see on the walls. It should be a quiet, cool place to go to, to get away from all the other exhibitions. And occasionally it will come to life with the meetings and conferences that we are planning to hold there.
Q: You mention climate change, abandonment, colonialism, Brexit, isolation, reconstruction and sanctuary when describing the concept behind Island. How are these themes going to be translated in your proposal for the British Pavilion?
A: The proposal has several dimensions; the construction of spaces that you can visit, the discussions and performances that will take place there, the publication with its texts, imagery and poetry, and photographs that will be taken of it. Through all these different impressions the themes are exposed. We hope that even people who don’t get to visit it but see it in the media will discuss it and have their own idea of its provocation.
Q: What is the significance of your references to both Shakespeare’s Tempest and young British spoken-word artist Kate Tempest?
A: There are aspects of sadness, contemplation, even of desperation in the themes of this project, but also of poetry and celebration. The pavilion will be a meeting space in the Giardini in which lots of different things can happen. Hopefully these will be ancient and modern, local, national and international. There will be a performance of The Tempest on the rooftop platform, and Kate Tempest will also perform.
Q: What does the ‘Holy Rosary Church at Shettihalli’ image represent in the context of your proposal?
A: The Holy Rosary Church at Shettihalli is a beautiful, almost anthropomorphic image. It’s both horrific and funny, and it’s ambiguous whether you should identify with the awfulness of its circumstances or its embarrassment having sunk, been overwhelmed or ran aground. It certainly suggests a hiatus, a reassessment, a new different world that has to be addressed.
The proposal engages with the image of the sea, of floating and sinking, by making a platform at the roof level of the pavilion which will be made of wood and perhaps feel a bit like a raft. When you’re up there, just the roof of the pavilion is sticking out, a sort of embarrassment, and a fragment of the building below. It makes the platform imperfect, bringing the upper space and lower space together.
Q: How does your proposal for the British Pavilion build on Marcus Taylor’s and Caruso St John’s previous work/relationship and how are you bringing together your respective backgrounds in art and architecture?
A: Marcus’ work has always had an architectural scale, and he’s interested in making buildings. We’ve always been interested in art and enjoy working with artists. So it’s a good collaboration.
Artists have a broader, more intuitive way of working than architects, who are restricted by many conventions. So it will be a different affair from most architecture biennales, and its effect more difficult to describe. Art shouldn’t be easy to understand, easy to describe, but just be somehow powerful and affecting. We hope that all the spaces of the pavilion will have that feeling.