February 25, 2020
At Rem Koolhaas’s Countryside, the Medium Doesn’t Fit the Message—If There is One
The memelike exhibition will please crowds of most stripes, but it’s doomed by an excess of unorganized, sentimentalist content.
There is something for everyone at Rem Koolhaas’s new show at the Guggenheim. Countryside, the Future is the spawn of OMA’s in-house think tank AMO and includes hundreds of photographs, texts, maps and other data visualizations, installations, more text, and other endless assorted ephemera—Playmobil toys, Halo screengrabs, Country Woman magazine covers, Han dynasty paintings, and even a roving Stalin cutout. The museum’s corkscrew rotunda is covered, indeed drenched, with these artifacts, all of which are linked, we are told, by their being “non-urban.”
The non-urban parts of the world are complex and big (many times larger than Texas, the exhibition’s choice unit of measurement), and Countryside is at least notionally modest in keeping this mind throughout its admittedly “pointillist” presentation of a “selection of radical changes” happening outside of cities. But working definitions of terms like city, rural, non-urban, etc. are elusive if not completely absent, and even when those rhetorical distinctions feel anachronistic and misaligned with spatial reality, Countryside resorts to worn urban/rural dichotomies that do little to educate, let alone intrigue.
An example of the show’s failure to deploy meaningful distinctions can be found printed on a curtain, titled “Leisure and Escapism,” at the beginning of the exhibition. Koolhaas and the curatorial team (primarily AMO, led by Samir Bantal, plus two Guggenheim curators and an army of graduate students) document various connotations of the rural throughout history—from a place of creative and idealized experience to a commodified site of neoliberal relaxation today. The rotunda column, which functions as a sort of “sidebar” marking the end of each section, on this level displays country- and city-themed Playmobil maquettes; the accompanying texts say these illustrate how the city is portrayed as a zone of consumption and entertainment, and how the image of the countryside as “complex and dangerous” is transmitted. But these attributions, by the curtain’s own implication, could easily be swapped throughout different times and places. One doesn’t really get a better or more rich idea of the “countryside” than what they came in with.
The next level, called “Political Redesign,” shows (somewhat obviously) how top-down decrees from 20th-century political leaders like Mao, Stalin, and FDR changed their respective countrysides. Here, the curators pilot a strategy that persists throughout: the assertion of self-evident theses that are then supported by handpicked examples. According to Koolhaas, Germany plunged into fascism with the help of rural fetishization; Mao’s spatial order fascinated Western intellectuals; agricultural policies can send a country into famine. The narratives are interesting (something for everyone) and the visuals are striking and memelike (if not science fair–esque), though one wonders if each of these were better left as term papers or journal articles. Thankfully, as one exits the section, the rotunda column is found covered in reproductions of country music album covers, and one can even listen to Patsy Cline or “Jolene.”
The nominal thesis binding together the next section’s presentation of anthropological vignettes is their elucidation of “new ways in which the countryside is inhabited today.” These are outlined in bays with titles like “Village Life” and “Modern Life,” and it’s hard to miss a latent romanticization of the countryside, where technology and tradition allegedly converge to produce exciting new places and cultures. Voi, a city in Kenya, is raised as an exemplar of glocal development due to its Chinese-funded rail station; the refugee repopulation of German “ghost towns” and Italian villages is rosily framed as an opportunity for cultural hybridism and economic rehabilitation. (A more complete and less neoliberal look at the exclusion and friction associated with these demographic changes is absent.) A selective overview of China’s changing countryside and urban hierarchy—among the most large-scale and consequential spatial shifts of recent decades—takes up an accordingly large portion of this section, though it further betrays Koolhaas’s shaky (or altogether AWOL) distinction between rural and non-urban development.
This and other sections of Countryside also reveal the curators’ own assumptions and experiences—which is only natural, though they are presumed to be shared by the exhibition’s visitors. Koolhaas’s rural nostalgia and optimism comes from a clearly cosmopolitan, Western European place, and his naive fascination with real-world examples of theoretical tensions (modernity vs. tradition, local vs. global) is universalized to the entire museum-going audience. That perspective certainly illuminates who constitutes the “we” that recurs throughout the exhibition (city dwellers), a suspicion compounded by Koolhaas’s and the Guggenheim’s proud and constant reminder of Countryside’s context: Manhattan, the vaunted archetype of urban density. The implication is that visitors, invariably urbanites, have a lot to learn about the rural other at this exhibition.
“Preservation,” which occupies the fifth level, looks at the inherent quandaries of the term in an environmental context, and somewhat inexplicably lays out cultural investigations of topics like permafrost and gorillas. (Of recent primatology: It “reflects paradigmatic changes in discussion of gender and race, feminism, and postcolonial theory.”) These are cursory narratives with one-note take-aways—sea level rise will impact coastal communities, as illustrated by a handful of Evgenia Arbugaeva’s photographs of the Russian port city of Tiksi—and it’s another place where a clear definition of the “urban” feels sorely missed. Indeed, if the countryside has been defined by its opposition to the urban, then these stories are random, unaffiliated environmental topics, disconnected to the foil of the urban or the cultural evocation of the rural.
There are interesting and timely conversations, but not all science is inherently “rural” and by sloppily conflating these terms, the exhibition produces a glut of unorganized content lacking a unifying theme or reason for inclusion. The result is a kitchen sink of adapted book chapters, recycled conference papers, expanded blog posts. The cartographic comparisons and tongue-in-cheek installations will entertain visitors, and commentators will relish finding sanguine political or social messages in the presentation, but what emerges is a fairly uncritical look at sweeping but not-entirely-relevant spatial and cultural categories.
By the time one arrives at the top, skylit level, one is exhausted, but hopefully invigorated by Robot Stalin roving throughout, alongside other now-requisite “interactive” and cheeky, Instagrammable parts of contemporary museum shows. In “Cartesian Euphoria?,” the concluding section, the curators have “assembled extreme manifestations of…experimental thinking combined with the most advanced unfolding technologies, all in non-urban situations.” These include such assorted works as bits of environmental activism, a photograph of the Max Planck Institute’s massive and massively complex imaging machinery, and an installation of PhenoMate, a machine that detects and maximizes chlorophyll production in plants.
OMA has long been busy preparing for a post-Koolhaas era, and Koolhaas himself must be understandably eager to cement his legacy in the broader cultural domain. He has said, “I am interested in the countryside now for the same reason that I was paying attention to New York in the ‘70s: Because no one else was looking.” But is that true? And even if it was, why do we defer to his authority on rurality when he’s spent an architectural career working in metropolitan contexts? Debating the facial accuracy and merits of his rationale is exhausting, but beneath it is something more vivid: a seasoned, savvy architect pursuing relevance in a world that’s changing faster than a catch-all show like his Countryside can meaningfully convey.