Photo: Clemens Poole
I recently received the terrific news that a project I collaborated on last Spring, the Dominican Republic’s first Pavilion at the Architecture Biennial in Venice, has been selected to participate in MoMA’s upcoming exhibition Latin America in Construction.
As I learned through the course of project, the DR is a fascinating place and Dominicans are a proud and dynamic people. Fitting all their energy into an old shipyard building, the Isolotto in Venice’s Arsenale is a serious curatorial task, especially within the parameters of the 2014 Biennial’s theme, absorbing modernity. To put it in the words of the pavilion curators, “Dominicans are modern by attitude and necessity,” and finding a key to demonstrating this modern identity in both a unique and all-encompassing image was a large task. Combine that with the fact that the DR was totally new to the Venice game, and had shaky financial support for their project, and you’ve got as rich a drama as ever unfolded surrounding an installation. Fortunately, everyone was willing to roll up their sleeves and fight through the various obstacles that continually beset the project. We ended up quite literally building the exhibition with our own hands, brick by brick. Now, months after the opening of the 14th Architecture Biennial, those bricks are still standing, and not only that, their image of Dominican identity has been selected to be presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The Dominican Pavilion under construction
It’s great to look back at the hard work of all the people involved and see how it’s paying off on a global stage. I think this is always a concern for smaller nations that enter an international exhibition like the Biennial. I’m not going to say they’ve got a chip on their shoulder, but there is definitely something to prove. It was interesting to see up close how the Biennial plays out. No matter how you slice it, it’s a mad dash for resources. Who you know can mean everything. For many countries the issues start before they even get to Venice. Different governments value such opportunities very differently. In some cases the people chosen to represent a nation are selected through opaque, sometimes corrupt methods. The politics of everything from the space you can use, to who participates, to how many kilowatts of power you get bare an eerie similarity to global politics in general. Even who decides what makes up a country’s national identity can be motivated by agendas that have little to do with what truly represents the culture of a place.
I’ll spare you the gory details (that’s been handled by others ) but I will say that in the end the teams from many of the smaller countries did amazing work with what they had, and it shows. The Biennial as a whole is a wonderland of both opulent displays of wealth and power (you know who you are) and graceful and intelligent use of limited resources (e.g. the Pavilions of Kosovo or Latvia). Thankfully, the Biennial Jury tipped their hat to some of this shrewd hard work when they granted their second prize, the Silver Lion, to Chile’s elegant and rich Monolith Controversies. At the Dominican pavilion, we had the extreme good fortune of working next door to the Chileans and seeing first hand how well their team operated. Nothing pleases me more than seeing a well-designed project implemented by creative and capable people, and for first timers like us, sharing the space of the Isolotto with them was invaluable. Even so, it’s important to remember that hard work on extremely intelligent installations was done throughout the exhibition, and part of the fascinating experience of the Biennial is seeing so many ways of working and thinking about cultural representation.
The Dominican team transporting installation materials
For us, the folks on the ground ratcheting everything together (I can’t tell you how many times I heard the words quien tiene la chichara! echoing from the rafters), the greater politics of the institution were present, but our job was to work with what we had, and I can’t think of a more beautiful place to do this kind of project. The work was tough, but riding the Vaporetto to the job every day never got old. It was my first time in Italy, and well, like every other tourist for a thousand years, I fell in love with Italian cuisine. We ate at some great restaurants (my Chilean friend Gonzolo Puga’s favorite spot, Trattatoria dai Tosi, has the best pasta I’ve ever tasted), but I remember simple meals from the supermarket with even more fondness. Lunching alone, dangling my feet in the water at the end of Calle San Domenico Dorsoduro, munching on fresh bread, cheese, salami, and sundried tomatoes, and soaking up the late spring sunshine—perfect.
I loved waking up early before work and wandering through the city (usually with an eye out for the city’s elusive hardware stores), crossing bridges and slipping through narrow alleys. Away from the bustle of tourists and the Biennial, I realized there was a sort of adorable medieval darkness to not just the architecture, but also to the politics of the Biennial. After all, it makes sense that a city that was such an important platform for the development of modern banking and money lending would prop up its current economy with its very own theater of cultural commodification. But then, aren’t we all complicit in such cultural commodification? I also loved seeing the fully realized Biennial exhibition, in all its incredible scope and commercial glory. All systems to share culture are imperfect, but our job as artists is not just to see this imperfection, but also to make something from it. The Venice Biennial was a great opportunity for me to learn a lot and do good work, as it has been for so many people over the years, and I hope it will continue to be. Each participant stands to gain so much from this cultural commerce because we both produce and are produced by such structures of power and information. It was this modern, interconnected world that gave me the opportunity to work with LAD on this fantastically important project for the Dominican Republic, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
And that same modern trade system, the one we partially have Venice to thank for, not only allowed me to travel to a beautiful city and work on an ambitious project, but also allowed for the creation of my favorite Venetian vice: café correto.