Rem Koolhaas’s Many Questions about the Countryside
Countryside, The Future
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
20.02.20 – 15.02.21
Translated by Bridget Noetzel
The fourth-floor ramp of the spiralling Guggenheim presents an organisation chart for the Chinese government under the heading ‘Statecraft’. It provides viewers with background information on China’s ‘new countryside’, and offers case studies for Dongfeng, Jiangsu province, a Taobao village that shifted to furniture manufacturing; Shouguang, Shandong province, known for its large-scale vegetable farming; and Liuzhuang, Henan province, a typical example of collective economic development.
As one caption explains, ‘While China’s political system is often presented in Western media as a monolithic stronghold, closer examination reveals a more complex interplay of various forms and levels of government at work.’¹ The diagram details the top-to-bottom structure of the government, from the urban residents committees under the neighbourhood committee offices at the bottom, to the Politburo Standing Committee and the three institutions it oversees – the State Council, the National People’s Congress, and the CCP Central Committee – at the top. The vertical hierarchy is clear, but the horizontal integration is relatively ineffective. This was just my intuitive perception of the diagram, and it may be why donations were poorly handled during the pandemic.
To a certain extent, Rem Koolhaas’s Countryside, The Future faces a similar predicament. The exhibition attempts a panoramic discussion of the countryside, divided into five sections: ‘Leisure and Escapism’, ‘Political Redesign’, ‘( Re- )Population’, ‘Nature/Preservation’ and ‘Cartesianism’. However, the concentrated information in the texts and images, presented on a massive scale, is cursory, rarely exploring the subjects in depth. The images, screens and texts tower over viewers, making them feel enveloped in discourses and abstract concepts. You feel as if a PowerPoint presentation has been projected into a physical space, or as if you have lost your way in this spectacular, collaged and fragmented information matrix.
According to the curators, the exhibition is a ‘pointillist portrait’, ‘a global sampling of the current condition of the “countryside”’.² Koolhaas has said that the countryside is ‘a glaringly inadequate term’³ for all of the non-urban areas that occupy 98 per cent of the Earth’s surface and are home to just over 50 per cent of the world’s population. This clearly highlights the narrow reality of urban life, but it is also an introduction to a grand proposal in which the designers ambitiously take you on a journey across fields, forests and oceans.
We learn that otium, the term that the ancient Romans used to describe pastoral life, could correspond to xiaoyao ( a state of free wandering ) in Chinese. We learn that one hundred years ago the German architect Herman Sörgel began planning the massive Atlantropa project: he envisioned lowering the level of the Mediterranean Sea by 100 metres, thereby linking the African and European continents. We learn that an octopus has three hearts, blue blood and eight tentacles covered in suckers, and that it could become a pet, like a puppy from the sea. We learn that the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center ( TRIC ) will host a 540,000-square-metre Tesla battery factory, the largest building on Earth by surface area. We learn that the Kenyan countryside is attempting to foster development models that neither continue the legacy of colonialism nor accept the excessive intervention of Chinese capital. We learn that hippies in the United States built commune-like farms in the 1960s and 1970s, and many still exist, including The Farm in Tennessee and Black Bear Ranch in California. We learn about gorillas interacting with tourists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; about Stalin attempting to change the course of rivers in the Soviet Union; and about Qatar’s dairy industry arising almost overnight. We also learn about the thawing of permafrost in Siberia and robot manufacturing in Japan…
The countryside is immense, but the exhibition outlines only a few ambiguous features. Cases are distilled down to a few paragraphs of description, phenomena are compressed into a briefing of beautifully paired pictures and texts, and ideas are completely replaced by headlines and slogans. Therefore, viewers feel as if they are salvaging a shipwreck from the bottom of the ocean. Every tiny fragment retrieved seems enchanting at first glance, but it is only a remnant that cannot help us restore the whole.
In his working methods, Koolhaas, a journalist-turned-architect, embraces both an aloof neutrality and a picture-led mode of reflection. This also partially explains the style of the exhibition: the headings and exhibition texts are inspiring and attractive, and the illustrative additions and visual elements are eye-catching and direct. At the same time, the exhibition reveals the two facets most worth denouncing in any research-based creative endeavour.
First, through design, any complex subject can become a simple, clean visual. Koolhaas’s version of the countryside is bright and clean, like the tomato grow module he placed at the entrance to the Guggenheim. Pink light shines out of the white box through the glass and the natural growing conditions can be artificially optimised by remotely adjusting certain parameters, thereby transforming the module into an unmanned, antiseptic and efficient demonstration and a background against which passers-by can take selfies. The countryside, with its new circumstances that so urgently need to be explored, is still understood and digested according to the aesthetics and logic of the city.
The second is the flood of questions. The exhibition catalogue entitled Countryside, A Report ends with hundreds of questions: ‘Could there ever be a new anarchy?’ ‘Is the preservation of culture and of nature having similar effects on both?’ ‘How to think about Africa?’ ‘Did TED kill innovation?’ ‘Does nature now live in universities?’ ‘Does anyone still like cities?’ ‘Was Chernobyl a prototype?’⁴ Consistent with Koolhaas’s list of topics, case studies and phenomena in the exhibition, these questions cover the exhibition space and even permeate the show’s merchandise.
Many of these questions, born of curiosity and doubt, are valuable, but more and more exhibitions get bogged down in them, and more and more works of art frankly declare that they don’t offer solutions. Koolhaas’s questions show his insights and reflections, but he vaguely, entirely and strangely uses a series of questions to replace thinking about and answering just one of these questions.
The material is interesting, and the questions are valuable, but the exhibition is like a pile of tangled threads. In the course of five years of research, Koolhaas and AMO worked with several universities, including the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the United States, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and the University of Nairobi in Kenya. The name of every participant is listed in the acknowledgements. This massive exhibition team is divided by institution, with a clear vertical hierarchy, but there does not seem to have been much horizontal integration.
1. Countryside, The Future, press kit <guggenheim.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Countryside-The-Future_PressKit_021920.pdf>.
2. Michael Kimmelman, ‘Why Rem Koolhaas Brought a Tractor to the Guggenheim’, The New York Times, 27 February 2020 <nytimes.com/2020/02/20/arts/design/rem-koolhaas-guggenheim.html>.
3. Countryside, The Future, press kit.
在古根海姆螺旋大厅的四层坡道上，一幅解释中国政府组织运作的图表以《治国之道》( State Craft )为题立于展墙，为观众理解中国新农村建设提供背景，与转型制造家具的江苏东风淘宝村、以大规模蔬菜产业闻名的山东寿光、集体经济发展典型的河南刘庄等个案并置在一起。
“尽管中国的政治体系常被西方媒体视为一股整体统一的强大势力（ a monolithic stronghold ），但细看之下就会发现，它其实是各种形式和级别的政府之间一种更为复杂的相互作用”，图说这样写道。图表详细罗列了自上而下的机构单位，小到街道办事处下设的城市居民委员会，上至中央政治局常委会及其统管的三大板块：国务院、全国人大、中共中央委员会。
展览让我们知道了古罗马人对田园生活的描述“otium”可以对应到中文的“逍遥”；知道了德国建筑师Herman Sörgel在一百年前提出的Atlantropa巨型工程，他幻想将地中海降低100米，从而连接非洲和欧洲大陆；知道了有三颗心脏、蓝色血液、八条触手布满吸盘的章鱼，也许能像小狗一样，成为人类海洋中的宠物；知道了内华达州的沙漠里的工业中心TRIC，将建成占地约54万平方米的特斯拉电池工厂，成为世界上占地面积最大的建筑；知道了肯尼亚的农村，如何试图寻找不受殖民遗风也不受中国投资过多干预的发展方式；知道了六七十年代美国嬉皮士兴建的类公社性质的农场，有许多仍然存在，包括田纳西的The Farm和加州的黑熊牧场。我们知道了大猩猩在刚果与游客的互动；斯大林曾试图改变苏维埃河流的走向；卡塔尔的乳制品产业几乎完成于一夜之间。还有西伯利亚的冻土融化、日本的机器人生产等等等等。