09 April 2020
The title is an immediate giveaway: Countryside, The Future - “This show has nothing to do with art, nothing to do with architecture. It’s a show about sociality, anthropology and politics.” It was informed by the rude awakening of its originator and creator as he set out to enjoy his bucolic, rural buen retiro in Switzerland, but failed to recognise the rural, agricultural village he had known twenty years previously and wondered what had happened in the meantime, while he was busy with the “Manhattanisation of the world.”
This is the new, Titanic brainchild of Rem Koolhaas, the architect and planner of urban-centric projects par excellence. With this exhibition, he is telling a story that he believes has never been told. Countryside, The Future is a project that took more than four years to come to fruition, and was developed in collaboration with AMO, the Koolhaas studio research department, led by Samir Bantal, and Troy Conrad Therrien, the Guggenheim’s Curator of Architecture and students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, USA, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the University of Wageningen, Netherlands, and the University of Nairobi.
The rural, remote and wild regions that we call “countryside” make up 98% of the surface of the earth not taken up by cities, and the front on which the most powerful forces of our time, such as climate and ecological devastation, migration, technology and demographic fluctuations come to blows. Increasingly subject to a “Cartesian” regime – fenced in, mechanised and optimised to boost production, these places are changing, becoming unrecognisable. This exhibition is a sort of odyssey into areas marked by global forces and experiments on the very sidelines of our public conscience and awareness. A test site in Fukushima for robots responsible for the maintenance of infrastructures and agriculture in Japan; thawing permafrost in central Siberia, an area that is having to face up to possible population displacement; the refugees who have brought back to life some of the villages in the German countryside; the mountain gorilla subspecies that attack humans in “their” part of Uganda; the American Midwest, where industrial-scale agricultural operations are threatening regenerative farming methods; the Chinese villages that have been turned into workshops, e-commerce shops and distribution centres all at once.
“Countryside” hardly, barely redolent of the smell of manure and animals, therefore, rather the final frontier of technology and digitisation. The protagonists of this space are biotechnologies and genetic engineering, robots and latest-generation greenhouses, the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. There are data centres, drones and satellites, robotic farms on which plants rely on sophisticated led lighting rather than natural light, machines that control photosynthesis and fish farms that raise the question of whether the oceans should also be regarded as countryside.
The exhibition is arranged in the form of a cyclopean installation that starts outside and continues along the Guggenheim Museum ramp. Each level tells the story, with images, films, texts and objects, of the sites chosen as study cases because they symbolised the themes the curators wanted to explore: from the wellness industry and beauty farms that subvert the concept of “countryside” to the actions of people who buy up huge “non-urbanised” areas in the name of “ecological preservation” and the “Cartesianising” of agricultural land increasingly seen as a series of geometric grids thanks to global warming.
This is an encyclopaedic exhibition, in which one runs the risk of “drowning” in the wealth of information and data, which at times seems to going back over old ground, but without ever tipping over into nostalgia or regret, and which underscores the power of research. There is perhaps a tinge of irony in the decision to stage it in a place like New York, and in the deafening silence occasioned by the resounding absence of the word “metropolis.” But can we be really sure, however, that all this really has got nothing to do with the city and that the “new countryside” sketched out so masterfully by Rem Koolhaas, is not already the future frontier of urbanisation?
Countryside, The Future
Until 14th August 2020
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue, New York