Mr Londoner heads to the Georgian splendours of Somerset House for the Capital’s third Design Biennale.
When Sir William Chambers built Somerset House in 1776, it was decreed that there would be no trees or gardens within his grand design. And yet, today, standing in front of the building’s neo-classical facade is an unexpected arrival. A forest of 400 trees featuring 23 different species, seemingly teems with wildlife as the recordings of wild birds chirp out over a formerly treeless quadrangle. This dramatic and beautiful addition is sadly temporary however. Called the Forest of Dreams, this is the centre-piece of the London Design Biennale, now in its third year and held-over from 2020 because of the pandemic.
The Biennale, to quote its creators: “Presents London as the global stage for world-leading design-led creativity and research.” The show extends over all three of Somerset House’s majestic Palladian wings. It spotlights design ideas from 30 countries, six continents and numerous organisations – from Cambridge University to the New York municipality.
The event’s artistic director is stage designer and artist Es (Esmerelda) Devlin. Born in Kingston-Upon-Thames, Devlin initially worked in theatre and experimental opera. Her collaborators include Beyoncé, Adele and the Royal Opera House. Her work is often playful. She’s clearly had some fun creating a forest in a place not meant for trees. But there’s a serious message at its heart. Pillars describing the United Nations 17 development goals – from fighting poverty to tackling climate change – dominate a clearing in the forest.
The exhibition’s theme is one of resonance – exploring how all of human activity resonates for good and ill, creating challenges and opportunities for us all. Topics sub-divide into issues of health, society, work and climate. But the intervening pandemic has thrown these critical challenges into even sharper perspective. Covid-19 has shown that we’re not all in this together. It has highlighted already deep global inequalities and pressures on a straining eco-structure in a digital age of instant and mass communication. Have we reached a tipping point? a watershed moment? Might we all come together to make the world a better place …? These are just some of questions the Biennale explores.
Participating countries each host a design pavilion. These spaces seek to share ideas and responses to common experiences and questions. Approaches are immersive, surprising and sometimes challenging. Sound, light and scent all feature. There’s a great deal to see. One could spend all day at the Biennale, even though the timed tickets designate just two hours for each visitor. The stand-out pavilions for me include Taiwan’s immersive offer – Swingphony. This colourful display is inspired by the incense, paper lanterns and sights and sounds of the country’s Buddhist temples. A set of ticking musical metronomes set the pace, making the link between electromagnetic pulses and alpha waves in humans.
Czechoslovakia’s contribution – Planes of Perception – plays on the building’s architecture. Designer Petr Stanický has installed aluminium frames and sheets which change the visitor perspective as one navigates the space. The Greek Pavilion takes a different approach. It celebrates the nation’s olive trees, some of which live over 1,000 years, standing sentinel over the things we do on our fragile planet.
Nostalgia is the theme of Guatemala’s Pavilion. This acoustic installation features a handmade sculpture of bamboo rain sticks. Water as the very essence of life is the powerful message. The artwork can be manipulated by visitors to produce music generated from a specially-commissioned soundtrack by Joaquin Orellana. Musical notes also resonate in Chile’s pavilion. Here, specially-selected geological samples can be gently played as if they were precious percussive instruments.
Design in an Age of Crisis is an exhibition within an exhibition. UK Think-tank Chatham House has teamed up with the Biennale’s creatives to present a new platform for the international exchange of ideas. The focus is not just on design, but on policy and beyond. The display seeks out very practical responses on a range of issues, from over-consumption to innovative and (in one case, musical) uses for waste products.
Elsewhere, we learn from clean-tech company the Tyre Collective, that tyres are the stealth pollutant we never think about. Over a million tonnes of tyre-wear particles from vehicles are produced in Europe every year, creating a deadly dust that poisons our environment. Tyre wear is the second-largest micro-plastic pollutant in our oceans after single-use plastic. It accounts for up to half of all air particulates on our roads. The Tyre Collective seeks solutions to capture this unseen pollutant at its very source – the vehicles themselves.
Ini Archibong’s Pavilion of the African Diaspora sits on the Somerset House terrace, overlooking the river at the rear of the building. Described as ‘a sanctuary for storytelling’, this pavilion at the centre of a programme of events and discussions throughout June. One of the talks, from Archibong himself, includes ‘Navigating the design industry while black’. The pavilion’s soaring sail-like structure is reminiscent both of a slave ship and the shape of a cowrie or conch shell – the Triton’s Horn – used to call people to action.
The Ghana pavilion is called Amplify. Designers Chrissa Amuah and Alice Asafu-Adjaye explore cultural exchanges between the former Gold Coast and Europe. It features beautiful brass castings, created through the ancient lost-wax method. Here a wax mould, which melts away during the firing, is used to create intricate metalwork designs.
The Biennale’s guide quotes the late American chemist Linus Pauling. He said; “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” And visitors are invited to contribute their own thoughts, dreams – and even confessions in the Latvian Pavilion – at various points throughout the exhibition.
Featured image: The greenhouse effect. Somerset House is now home to Es Devlin’s Forest of Dreams @Meetmrlondoner
About the author:
Mr Londoner is writer, broadcaster and former museum director Antony Robbins. The London Design Biennale closes on 27 June. Standard tickets cost £22.