The title of this post is taken from the Albanian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which I visited last week. The pavilion, in the Arsenale’s Sale d’Armi features work by two Albanian artists, Edi Hila and Adrian Paci. Hila contributes a series of seven paintings collectively titled ‘Penthouse.’
These are monochrome paintings of monumental, monolithic structures in front or three-quarter view. Three quarters of the vertical dimension of the structures are closed and blank (hence ‘potential’), only their top thirds showing signs of habitation suggested by windows, balconies and roofs.These enigmatic almost geological images are accompanied by a video by Paci, titled ‘The Column’ in the adjacent room. It shows a block of marble being quarried by a group of Chinese workmen in a site one assumes to be in China, and then transformed into a Corinthian column by Chinese workers as it is transported in the hold of a container ship across the ocean.
Footage of their manual labour – hammering away excess stone, measuring dimensions with fishing line, drawing the curves of the capital by hand, chipping and sanding, is juxtaposed with footage of the factory ship in the vast expanse of the ocean.
Finally the column is complete and the roof is pulled over the hold. We then witness time passing as lines of sunlight sway across the column’s surface, recording the movements of the sun and the ship almost funereally to the drone of the ship’s engine. Go here for a video clip of this.
The video is a slow, exquisitely shot vision of the intimate relations between the marble, labour, globalisation and time. It allows concrete reflection of the speed, scale and material realities of planetary change acts of construction produce – a block of marble is carefully, but violently dislodged from where it has been for millions of years; it is transported across the ocean to an unknown destination and transformed into a cultural artefact by workers who, as they work, are engulfed by white dust; it enters their pores and their lungs, becoming indistinguishable from them and them from it. Geology becomes biology, geological time incorporated into daily rhythms and bodily experience.
After watching this mesmerising video twice, I proceeded through the rest of the Arsenale exhibits, ending at the Mozambique Pavilion; as I exited, I saw the very column whose sculpting I had witnessed on video lying horizontal on the quay-side. There it was! The shift of register from virtual, abstract idea to real, tangible artefact, was shocking, exhilarating; the geological processes I had witnessed on the video were suddenly real and tangible. The anthropocene was not only represented in the video, it was exemplified in the column. I touched it, traced my finger down its imperfections, marble dust entered my pores. I was it and it was me.
While the intentions of ‘Potential Monuments of Unrealised Futures’ might not have been this, my reading of the partially inhabited monoliths of Hila’s paintings, the anthropocenic processes of Paci’s video and the geological/cultural artefact lying on the quay – is that they bear extraordinary witness to the entanglement of the human and the geological in our time, the time of the anthropocene. All three are not only potential monuments, but also ruins of the unknowable futures of the processes we have set in motion and are increasingly unable or unwilling to reverse.
Along similar lines is Phyllida Barlow’s current installation in the 100 metre long barrel vaulted Duveen Galleries at the Tate Britain titled ‘dock,’ this year’s Tate Britain Commission. This is an annual commission inviting an artist to create a new work that responds to the Tate collection and the history of Tate Britain. Inspired by Tate Britain’s proximity to the Thames, Barlow here develops her penchant for large-scale installations using throw-away materials into a sequence of suspended, stacked, warped, folded, jammed installations that take over the galleries, blocking views and impeding movement.
Timber, metal, polystyrene, tarpaulin, canvas, cardboard, and rope accumulate and are juxtaposed and layered to produce battered structures, ravaged by unknown events, seemingly deposited into the galleries with considerable force.
Images of tsunami or tornado wreckage or war rubble come to mind. This makes ‘dock’ at once monumental, yet at the same time ruinous, collapsed, violent and discarded. The neo-classical Duveen Galleries are transformed into a dock for detritus, the gathering of alluvial trash.
For me, ‘dock’ provides, like ‘Potential Monuments of Unrealised Futures,’ another inkling of the unknown, volatile futures set in motion by the anthropocene and what they might look like. It enabled me to connect with and hold thoughts about the planetary changes our species has set in motion and to reflect on how to tune to their consequences as they unfold.
Note: All screen shots by L Bremner at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.