In this excerpt from Island – our new book accompanying the British Pavilion exhibition at the Venice Biennale – Adam Caruso reveals what inspired his practice Caruso St John and artist Marcus Taylor to build a raft of scaffolding atop the ‘drowned’ pavilion in the Giardini. The structure now acts as a new public platform for talks, performances and afternoon tea. Here he tells how the idea was born, a concept he calls ‘optimistic, depressing and funny at the same time’.
In the depths of August 2017, Marcus sent an email asking if I knew anything about the Venice Architecture Biennale. He had read the call for proposals for the British Pavilion and had an idea he had set out in a short text. I told him that Caruso St John had participated in a few previous biennales and had some idea of the lie of the land. He could send me the text and I would get back to him. Marcus’s words described building a platform over the pavilion with scaffolding, to make a free space at the head of the Giardini, with the peak of the pavilion roof poking through like an island emerging from the water’s surface. He described a space that would be open and fresh, available for exhibitions and events. The rooms inside the pavilion itself would be left empty. It sounded a bit crazy, but it was an idea that got better the more you thought about it. Scaffolding was fast and easy, so it would be viable, and the idea had an economy of means that was appropriate for an exhibition. It was optimistic, depressing and funny at the same time.
Since Peter was on holiday, I could not discuss it with him, and the next day I called Marcus to say: why not? I slightly changed the text, mostly removing any references to the structure being elegant or well detailed, and we sent it in with a couple of reference images: a building dramatically submerged in a flood, and a beautiful etching of an 18th-century church under scaffolding.
The proposal was shortlisted, Peter was back, and in the second, more detailed submission the text was expanded to include excerpts from Kate Tempest’s Brews:
But we see –
the clouds like furious ink
thick liquid sinks and
whips the wind pitch-shifted
rumble, screams from a swollen grin –
and Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not
Although avoiding any direct commentary on the current situation in British politics, we mentioned how the spirit of previous biennale exhibitions would haunt the empty spaces and rooftop platform, and how those artists and their work came out of the events and upheavals of the 20th century. The Giardini, and the biennale itself, represent a moment in time when the world was divided along colonial lines. The pavilion has stood through two world wars, fascism, European integration, the fall of communism and, more recently, concerns of climate change and rising sea levels, with Venice being a city more vulnerable than most. These are challenges for all of us, in the way we design and build cities, consume and live our lives. Island is a project that seeks to open up a discussion about how Britain, Venice and places further afield have historically reacted to these forces, and how we are confronting them today. Our project is intended to have meaning, but any political resonances should be implicit and go beyond direct associations with contemporary events. We will leave it to the visitor to project their own meanings on to the project, and the many collaborators that we have invited are also free to interpret and use the open platform and empty rooms as they wish, making their own versions of Island. We want the British Pavilion to be as free and full of potential as Marcus’s first, intuitive reaction.
If the pavilion is intended to be open to many uses and readings, this publication is an opportunity to collect some of the ideas and people who have been on our minds while preparing for the biennale. The book combines content that has been specially commissioned with other material that has been instrumental to our thinking about the project, or that makes connections and associations that we find interesting. Together, these things begin to sketch out a complex and intricately interwoven constellation of themes, which are in equal measure coherent and contradictory.
The book begins with an essay by Penelope Curtis, that almost commissioned itself. Penelope contacted me about something else, but she knew we were doing the pavilion and that it was called Island. She had noticed over the past few years how many artists she was working with were interested in, and even obsessed with flooding and disasters. She asked if this could be relevant for our publication; I said yes. The essay, ‘Acqua Alta’, opens with the story of Géricault’s painting ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, and makes connections, thematically and technically, to our raft that are surprising and even a little disturbing. The artist John Akomfrah’s work has consistently engaged with issues of empire and the end of empire, with climate change and its inextricable relationship to capitalism and migration. This work shows Britain as both fortress and sanctuary, and the inclusion in the book of his piece ‘The Utopia Palimpsest’ is important.
The main ‘found’ material in the book is the complete text of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is shown in a delicate student edition dating from the late 19th century that Marcus had picked up. I have never really understood The Tempest, but it is exactly that difficulty and multivalence of meanings that connect it to our project. As complex and ambiguous as The Tempest is, there can be a faint whiff of triumphalism that shadows Shakespeare in this country, and this had to be balanced and contextualised in the book. Three wonderful stories by the Trinidad-born writer Sam Selvon, from the 1957 collection Ways of Sunlight, bring to life characters from the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants to the UK, recounting the incredible difficulties that confronted them upon arriving in London, and the irrepressible spirit and generosity that characterise their rich contribution to British culture. We have also reprinted, in their entirety, the three pieces by Kate Tempest that were quoted in our initial submissions to curate the British Pavilion. From her album Let Them Eat Chaos, they could almost be from Shakespeare’s play, yet they vividly describe situations and uncertainties that all too clearly come from contemporary Britain.
Different kinds of photographs run through the book. A folio of black and white prints by Hélène Binet describe the pavilion as built, showing our project within its setting in the Giardini, juxtaposing the rough-and-ready scaffold structure with the only slightly more refined neoclassicism of Enrico Trevisanato’s pavilion, which was originally designed in 1887 as a café. Another set of images served as part of our working method to develop the project, showing flooded buildings, scaffolding and structures that inhabit the space between architecture and event. The book is introduced by a work by Marcus Taylor, an uncanny imagining of the British Pavilion submerged beneath rising water.
Adam Caruso is the co-founder of Caruso St John Architects and co-curator of Island