Sensationalising the Countryside: Another Gimmick?
Countryside, The Future
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
20.02.20 – 15.02.21
Translated by Bridget Noetzel
With its dubious yet attractive promises about the saving of time, the reduction of labor, and the expansion of value, […] the gimmick is […] capitalism’s most successful aesthetic category but also its biggest embarrassment and structural problem.¹
In November there were very few people on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile. The elite were enjoying this rare silence, but with the dual weights of the pandemic and the election, anxiety about the future was palpable. Amid this nervousness, a huge Deutz-Fahr tractor, worth 300,000 US dollars and controlled remotely by an iPad, suddenly towered over the front entrance to the Guggenheim. This display was a new gimmick that traded on the concept of the ready-made, and provided a loud, aggressive opening to the exhibition: ‘The countryside has besieged the city.’
This was not just a revolutionary declaration made by Mao Zedong; it was also how Donald Trump won the election. His four-year term has fully revealed the irreconcilable divide between cities and rural areas in the United States.
At the Guggenheim, curator and ‘super-starchitect’ Rem Koolhaas and his army of curators used this tractor to reveal their predictions for the future. In a massive gimmick entitled Countryside, The Future he simply wanted to highlight and sensationalise the city and its technology and modernity, in an attempt to accelerate the city laying siege to the countryside.
In the audio guide, Koolhaas announced that, as a general rule for all non-urban space, the countryside covers 98 per cent of the Earth, but it ‘is largely off ( our ) radar’.² With the ‘our’ in parenthesis, which is very meaningful but not entirely clear, is Koolhaas really skewering all of the architects, himself included, who have always been partial to cities? Or is he taking aim at all of those ideas that, since the Enlightenment, have viewed the countryside as a mere blood bank for the city?
The questions do not stop there – this exhibition is comprised of a massive string of questions. In the first gallery, a 7-metre-high wall is covered with nearly 1,000 questions that Koolhaas has been pondering, impressing the viewer with the depth and breadth of his thinking. But if you move closer, many of the questions wander outside the subject of the exhibition – specious questions such as ‘Will we find an alternative to death?’³ Following the sloping spiral ramps designed by twentieth-century master architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the exhibition unfolds upwards and forwards in the style of a ‘pointillist portrait’.⁴ Koolhaas uses his immense curiosity to take us from the otium of ancient Rome to the xiaoyao in Tao Yuanming’s fable, The Peach Blossom Spring ( 421 CE ), from Stalin’s land reforms to the revival of Germany’s agricultural towns amid the surge in migrants, to how science and technology are changing the ocean, the land, the forests and the atmosphere. Every example is just a superficial flirtation… The exhibition is best summarised as a mega-World’s Fair condensed to the Upper East Side.
In a career spanning nearly forty years, Koolhaas’s feelers have never left the city. In 1978, Delirious New York, the ‘retroactive manifesto’ he wrote for Manhattan, cemented his exalted position as an observer of the city. Later, he would redefine cities through large-scale designs, such as the new China Central Television ( CCTV ) Headquarters. The viewer cannot help but ask: Is he curating this exhibition because he’s bored with cities?
Countryside, The Future is a gimmick that establishes its purpose through a series of negations. Koolhaas clearly declares, ‘It’s also not an architecture exhibition’.⁵ Therefore, he avoids direct historical examples of master architects intervening in the countryside, including the many experiments of Le Corbusier and Wright in the 1930s. Because ‘[t]his is not an art show’,⁶ Koolhaas exhibits only replicas or test pieces, attempting to reshape the Guggenheim with his ideas and explorations in Walter Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction. ‘It’s also not […] a science exhibit.’⁷ However, the ubiquitous textual explanations, the dazzling charts, and the steady stream of pictures and videos are removed from their complex original contexts and comprise a mirage of information that eventually traps the viewer in a cage of video screens and picture walls. In this way, the exhibition design replicates a social media aesthetic. Will the visitors, who are mostly urban residents and tourists, be compelled to scroll and like, together engaging in a pastoral dream with a sci-fi, cyberpunk sensibility and not a trace of those barnyard smells?
The use of vague questions and constant negation to produce a new curatorial purpose has already become a common gimmick in research-based exhibitions, which take the easy way out and avoid critique from architectural circles. As architectural historian Joan Ockman critiqued in her article ‘Slashed’, at a time when history and theory have been gradually replaced by research and curatorship in architecture schools around the world, the critical capacity of architecture lies in the ‘process of being profoundly reshaped by market forces, by consumer values, by globalisation, and by digital media’.⁸ Through a series of negations, this exhibition develops new possibilities and holds tightly to the false avant-garde of ‘research’. In fact, by avoiding the interrogation of the exhibition’s ontological value and meaning, the curators overlook the production that comes from fear of the society in which we live.
This omission received its most direct confirmation in the fact that the three Russian farm women in 1909 from the promotional materials only appeared once at the beginning of the exhibition before becoming a gimmick designed to attract urban audiences. The growers that Koolhaas documents are agricultural scientists who come from colleges and wear white lab coats. Where are the other true protagonists of the countryside – the farmers and labourers? Koolhaas shines a dazzling light on agricultural science and technology that is rising worldwide, but neglects the historical origins, expansion, and current state of uneven urban-rural development in Latin America, Southeast Asia and even North America. Perhaps this is because poor farmers would not invite Rem Koolhaas to create a project.
This kind of evasive gimmick is Koolhaas’s sole privilege as a global architectural celebrity in the current neoliberal system. Only someone like him, who has abundant financial resources and academic support, could present his journey of rural exploration on the Upper East Side. ‘Curatorship’ is only determined by where his sponsors and admirers lead him. When the seriousness of a curator is replaced by the auteur-ship of a megastar, an awkwardly concocted montage blanketed in a celebrity’s aura occupies most of the exhibition space. He flattens the complexity of his examples in the name of ‘the saving of time’, he avoids tough questions in the name of ‘the reduction of labour’, and he wears away the exhibition narrative in the name of ‘the expansion of value’. In Theory of the Gimmick, Sianne Ngai commented that, in a world overflowing with advertising and markets, ‘thought is simultaneously reified and fetishised, “gimmick” and “concept” are well-nigh synonymous’.⁹ After the final disconnect between exhibition content and idea, observation and criticism, I would rather watch a world travel documentary with Koolhaas as a guide.
Looking up from the museum lobby, a line of text traces the ramp on every level. I felt compelled to follow the direction of the text, such that I was awkwardly spinning in place. It was only when I finished reading that I realised that it was admonishing viewers to go to the countryside to experience real life in nature. The exhibition catalogue was made pocket-sized, seducing visitors into believing that the entirety of the vast countryside could be found in just this little booklet – another capitalist gimmick. Is this exhibition just a massive advertisement in a society of the spectacle, sensationalising the countryside as a site for large-scale invasion by architects? Rem Koolhaas and Li Ziqi seem to be coordinating from afar to take a group of flâneurs on an imaginary holiday in the countryside.¹⁰
I may have missed the most profound part of the exhibition. On Fifth Avenue, in addition to that unfathomable tractor, an independent tomato grow module was built at the entrance to the museum prior to the pandemic. Under bright pink neon lights, the module showed urban visitors cutting-edge farming technologies – what a great gimmick! However, because of the pandemic, the exhibition had to close just three weeks after the opening, and those urban audiences fled Manhattan island in a panic to seek refuge in the countryside. David Litvin, the farmer in charge of the module, decided to continue tending the plants and distribute the 45 kilograms of tomatoes that the module produced per week to the homeless and unemployed, who were urgently in need of food. In August the module was dismantled and shipped back to the production line in Ohio.
Gimmicks will always elicit some interest from those in cities, in exchange for short-lived applause that invariably dies. However, land cannot be transformed into a deceptive gimmick, whether that land is the fertile soil of technology illuminated by pink lights or the vast fields under the open sky. In addition to crops that are planted in the ground once a year, the farmers maintain their perseverance and commitment because they are clearer than anyone that there is no harvest without labour. This may be the implicit criticism that the countryside has to offer: honesty and tenacity rooted in backward production methods may be the last line of defence against the city of gimmicks, which has been fully infused with capital, technology and spectacle. In the countryside, they examine a problem for a long time and do not expect shiny gimmicks to replace essential labour. Perhaps we should all go on Koolhaas’s journey; we should sit on ( any country’s ) slopes and learn from the countryside and the farmers.
1. Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form ( Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press ), 2020, p. 2.
2. AMO and Rem Koolhaas, Countryside, A Report, exh. cat. ( New York: Taschen ), 2020, p. 2.
3. Countryside, The Future, press kit <guggenheim.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Countryside-The-Future_PressKit_021920.pdf>.
8. Joan Ockman, ‘Slashed’, E-Flux Architecture, 27 October 2017 <e-flux.com/architecture/history-theory/159236/slashed/>.
9. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, p. 204.
10. Li Ziqi is a popular YouTuber, who makes videos about traditional food preparation and handicraft techniques in a rural village in Sichuan, China.
11月上东区博物馆大道上人烟寥寥。上流阶级享受着这难得的静谧，却又在疫情与选举的双重重压下对未来倍感焦虑。一片紧张中，在古根海姆博物馆的正门口，却突兀矗立着一台可以用 iPad 远程操控、售价 30 万美金的道依茨-法尔（ Deutz-Fahr ）重型农业拖拉机。这一陈设既是借用现成品概念（ Readymade ）的新 “戏法”（ gimmick ），也是一份高调且具侵略性的展览开篇宣言：“农村已经包围城市。”
而在古根海姆，策展人、超级巨星建筑师（ Super-starchitect ）雷姆·库哈斯（ Rem Koolhaas ） 和他军队般浩荡的策展团队，用这台拖拉机揭晓他们对未来的预测。只不过，在这场题为《乡村，即未来》（ Countryside, The Future ）的大型戏法中，他更像是为城市与其科技现代性明灯指路、提前渲染，摧枯拉朽地带领城市包围农村。 在导语中他声称，作为一切非城市空间的总称，乡村占据地球上 98%的面积，却几乎 “不出现在（ 我们 ）的雷达关注中”。括号中指代不明、颇具深意的“我们”：到底是库哈斯在控诉包括他本人在内、那些长期偏爱城市的建筑师？还是控诉启蒙运动已来所有轻视乡村为城市输血仓的思潮？
疑问远未在此结束——这场展览本身就是由一连串巨大的问题所组成。第一个展厅里，一面约7米高的墙上印满近1000个库哈斯所思考的问题，让观者对其思维的深度与广度肃然起敬。可若凑近看，许多问题都是在展览主题之外的思绪游走，如“我们能找到除死亡之外的终结方式吗？”一类的鱼目混珠。沿着 20 世纪建筑大师弗兰克·洛伊德·赖特（ Frank Lloyd Wright ）设计的螺旋形坡道长廊，展览以一种“点彩画派的肖像”（ pointillist portrait ）的风格一路向上、向前铺散开来。库哈斯用庞大的好奇心将我们一路古罗马田园的“悠闲”（ otium ）带至陶渊明桃源的“逍遥”，从苏联的土改牵到难民潮中德国农业小镇的重生，再看自然科技如何改变海洋、陆地、森林、大气层，每一个案例都浅尝辄止……展览最好的概括，是一场浓缩至上东区的超级世博会。 在近40年的职业生涯中，库哈斯的触角从未离开过城市。1979 年，他为曼哈顿所作的回溯式宣言《癫狂纽约》（ Delirious New York ）奠定了他城市观察者的翘楚地位，而后更通过如中央 电视台新址这样的大规模设计重新定义城市。观者不禁发问：策划本次展览，是因为他对城市感到无聊了么？
《乡村，即未来》是一场在不断否认中确立自身目标的戏法。库哈斯开宗明义地宣称“这不是一场建筑展”。所以他回避了历史上建筑大师介入乡村的直接案例，比如20世纪30年代勒·柯布西耶（ Le Corbusier ）与赖特的诸多尝试。“这又不是一场艺术展。”所以库哈斯理所当然地只展出复制品或试验品，企图在本雅明（ Walter Benjamin ）的“机械复制时代”中以他的概念与探索重塑古根海姆。“这更不是一场科技展览。”但铺天盖地的文字叙述、炫酷耀眼的图表、源源不断的照片与影像都被从其原本的复杂背景中剥离出来，构成信息的海市蜃楼，最终如蚕茧一般将人劫持在屏幕与照片墙的囚笼之中。展览设计如此复刻社交网络审美，本就以城市居民与游客为主的参观人群，是否也被迫继续承担滑一滑并点赞的角色，共做一场带有科幻赛博朋克气氛、又不含乡下腥脏臭味的田园好梦？
泛泛而谈的发问与借不断否认来产生新的策展目的，已然成为建筑学界“研究型”（ researchbased ）展览避重就轻、逃避批判的常用戏法。如建筑史学者琼·欧克曼（ Joan Ockman ）在《斜杠》（ Slashed ）一文中所批判的，当全球各地建筑学院教育中的历史、理论逐渐被研究、策展所代替时，所呈现出的其实是建筑的批判能力“逐渐被市场浪潮、被消费者价值、被全球化、被新媒体所彻底重塑的过程。”这场展览在通过不断否认去开发新的可能，并紧抱“研究”的伪先锋性，其实在回避对展览本体价值与意义的拷问，更是对所处现实社会出于恐惧而产生的遗略。
最直接的印证：出现在各种宣传封面上的那三位 1909 年的俄罗斯农妇，仅在展览开头出现一次，沦为吸引城市观众的戏法；库哈斯所记录的耕种者却是来自学院、身着白大褂的农业科 学家；那其他乡村真正的主人——“农民”与“劳动者”——又在展览何处？库哈斯映射着全球化浪潮中农业自然科技的耀眼光芒，却忽视在拉美、东南亚、甚至是在北美城乡发展不平衡的历史根源、形成与现状。或许因为贫苦的农民是不会请库哈斯做项目的吧。
这类逃避的戏法，是库哈斯作为世界顶级建筑明星在现有的新自由主义体系中所独享的特权。唯有手握财富资本与学术支持的他，才能在上东区呈现自已的乡村探险之旅。所谓“策展”， 不过取决于他的赞助者与赞美者将他引向何方。当策展人的严肃性被巨星的作者性（ auteur-ship ） 所替代，占据大量展览空间的只会是明星光晕（ aura ）下生硬捏造的蒙太奇，压扁案例的复杂以“节省时间”，回避难啃的问题以“降低劳动”，打磨展览叙事以“鼓吹价值”。正如倪迢雁在《戏法的理论》（ Theory of the Gimmick ）中批评到，在当今广告与市场膨胀的世界中，想法“既被具像化、又被盲目崇拜，‘戏法’与‘概念’几乎是同义词。”4既然展览内容与思想、观察与批判之间最终脱钩，那我宁愿看一部库哈斯亲自导览的世界旅行纪录片。
抬头仰望博物馆中庭，每一层坡道的屋檐下，都无孔不入地嵌入一段文字。我的目光不得不追随文字的方向，尴尬地在原地旋转。读完才发觉，不过是规劝观者到乡村去体验真正的自然生活。展览画册被做成口袋尺寸，便要吸引观众仅仅在这本小册子中就能获得庞大乡村的全貌——又一个资本主义的戏法。所以这场展览其实是一个景观社会（ Society of the Spectacle ）中的大型广告，将乡村渲染成为下一个建筑师们大举入侵的场地？库哈斯与李子柒无形间遥相呼应着，带领着一众城市游荡子们（ flâneur ）开启心灵的乡村度假。 可能，我错过了展览最深刻的部分：在第五大道上，除了那台不知所措的拖拉机，疫情之前的博物馆门口还搭建了一个在耀眼的霓虹粉光灯下西红柿的独立农业舱，以向城市观众现场演示前沿农业科技——好一个戏法！可当疫情突降、展览仅开幕三周后就关门，城市观众们仓皇逃离 曼哈顿孤岛、奔向乡村避难时，负责种植仓的农民大卫·利特文（ David Litvin ）决定坚守在城市中照料西红柿大棚，每周产量超45公斤，以发放给急需食物的失业者与流浪者。八月，大棚被移 除，重新运回俄亥俄州的生产线上。
戏法总能激起城里人些许兴趣，换来几声短暂叫好，却终究只能停驻一时。可土地无法幻化为骗人的戏法：不论是闪耀在粉光灯里的科技沃土还是暴露在苍天之下的无边田野中，扎在土里的，除一年一时的作物之外，还有农民的坚守与承诺，因为他们比任何人都清楚：没有耕耘就 不会有收获。这或许是乡村所真正蕴含的批判性：扎根于落后生产条件中的坦诚与坚韧，未尝不能是资本、科技与景观全面入侵的戏法城市中竖起的最后一道防线：持久的注视来浇灌一个问题，不期待以华丽绚烂的戏法替代最根本的劳作。或许我们都应加入库哈斯的旅程，坐在（任一国家的）黄土高坡上“向乡村与农民学习”（ Learning from the Countryside and Farmers ）。