Ramping Up The Countryside

Installation View of “Countryside, The Future”, 20 February – 14 August 2020. Photography by Laurian Ghinitoiu. Image courtesy of AMO.
The bale of hay hangs before the Semiotics Column. Photography by Laurian Ghinitoiu. Image courtesy of AMO.
Installation View of “Countryside, The Future”, 20 February – 14 August 2020. Photography by David Heald. Image courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
Installation View of “Countryside, The Future”, 20 February – 14 August 2020. Photography by David Heald. Image courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
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ART Power HK

In its current show, Countryside, The Future, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York has swapped art for an epic exhibition about the countryside. The show is clever, packed with information and spectacle, but what exactly is its message?

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of AMO and Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Installation View of “Countryside, The Future”, 20 February – 14 August 2020. Photography by Laurian Ghinitoiu. Image courtesy of AMO.

 

At the heart of a Frank Lloyd Wright architectural masterpiece, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, is a ramp over 300 metres long that spirals up from ground level around the rotunda and its cylindrical atrium. This ramp is actually the main gallery, and since the museum opened in 1959, it has always hosted art. But the show now installed is quite different. “Countryside, The Future” is an epic survey about the huge territory beyond cities, ignored by most city dwellers. Look up as you enter the museum and the subject is signaled by a bale of hay, which hangs like a giant Weetabix half way up the rotunda’s atrium.

 

The bale of hay hangs before the Semiotics Column. Photography by Laurian Ghinitoiu. Image courtesy of AMO.

 

Why a show about the countryside? At its start, there is an explanation from Dutch “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas, co-curator of the show. Over 20 years, he observed that a particular Swiss village had depopulated, yet grown three times in size. “How can a village empty and grow at the same time?” he asks. He and co-curators AMO, a Rotterdam think tank, have been collecting data that may explain what is going on with the countryside.

As you gently wend your way up the sloping ramp, the exhibition unfolds around major themes, the first of which is “Leisure.” The idea of the countryside as a paradise dates back to the 3rd century BCE, when Taoist master Zhuang Zhou proposed “xiaoyao,” which is wandering freely in the landscape (a parallel to the 20th century idea of psychogeography, or wandering freely in the city), but also being in tune with nature. Peasant life was idealised by Marie Antoinette, France’s last queen before the French Revolution, who created a rustic retreat in the grounds of Versailles to enjoy and socialise within. Such fantasies of a better life in the countryside permeate mass media of the last century, and at the rotunda’s perimeter, there is a montage of photographs from advertising, fashion shoots, country music albums, and more, plastered on a “Semiotics Column” that runs vertically through all levels. But it is in the “Leisure” section that we see the first signs of a certain looseness in the show’s content. It talks about the “Wellness Economy,” worth over US $4 trillion in 2018—in fact that figure includes a lot that is not based in the countryside, from cruise ships to the trillion-dollar personal care products industry.

 

Installation View of “Countryside, The Future”, 20 February – 14 August 2020. Photography by David Heald. Image courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

 

Still, the show offers more education than exaggeration. The stretch of displays about “Political Redesign” surveys the staggering scale of state-planned interventions to re-engineer the countryside, from the American Midwest to the collectivisations of Stalin and Mao, and more. Further up the ramp, “(Re) Population” samples places where country life has been revived, from experimental off-grid communes in the United States such as Arcosanti, to the near dead Italian hill village of Camini, brought back to life by immigrants. Moving up, we enter the “Nature/Preservation” section, which samples issues from melting permafrost and gorilla conservation, to selling wilderness to wealthy eco-minded guardians. Finally, on the highest levels, the show presents an idea of new countryside under the banner “Cartesian Euphoria.” The word Cartesian (after the geometry of Descartes) is used as shorthand for a rational, sectored territory in which the mechanisation of agriculture is extended and robots are farmers. In fact, Cartesian division of land has long been with us, not least (as the show itself points out) with the Homestead Act of 1862, which turned America’s continental land grab over to settlers.

Talking of robots, there are four wandering through the show. Autonomous trolleys carry life-size cut-out characters, including a figure from the painting Girl in the Fields (1932) by Kazimir Malevich and a Roman shepherd. The robots sense your presence to avoid contact, but sometimes when one is close, it just won’t go away, like eager dogs.

 

Installation View of “Countryside, The Future”, 20 February – 14 August 2020. Photography by David Heald. Image courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

 

“Countryside: The Future” is clever, epic and spectacular, but is there a clear message? Certainly, it redirects the spotlight away from our tight urban world. But in its ambition, there may be overstretch. The answer to Koolhaas’ question about an emptying yet expanding village is submerged in an overload of material. Even so, many issues, from farm animal welfare to the plight of bees—crucial to our food supply—are passed over. The show has nothing to say about the general conservatism of rural populations in contrast to urban progressive liberalism.

The most crucial question of all is how to change the relationship between city and countryside. The show is an acknowledgement that most of the world’s population has been urban since 2014, and we are shown how the countryside becomes a “Cartesian” field to feed that population. Neither countryside nor city are sustainable in this relationship. Ultimately, we must be in harmony with nature to survive, and that means dissolving the rural/urban divide. The show does little to address this challenge, save for a passing look at a contemporary urban farming initiative in Shouguang, Shandong Province, China. A different epic show, “Taking the Country’s Side” curated by Sébastien Marot at Archizoom in Lausanne, Switzerland, better focused and researched, tackles this question head-on.

Despite reservations about “Countryside, The Future,” it is a pleasure to walk and work your way up through the subject. Giving the countryside a bold platform makes the show a must-see if you are in New York.

 

 

Countryside, The Future
20 February – 31 August 2020
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

** In response to COVID-19, the Solomon R. Guggenheim is temporarily closed. We recommend checking their website for up-to-date information.

 

 

 
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