Anchored by creative director Es Devlin's courtyard 'forest' at Somerset House, the biennale is as much about boundary-free thinking as it is individual countries' design traditions
At this time of year, it’s the RHS’s Chelsea Flower Show that normally has the monopoly on slotting a sanitised version of nature into a grand classical setting; with Chelsea bumped to September, in 2021 the honour has fallen to the London Design Biennale’s centrepiece, Forest for Change.
Designed by the biennale’s artistic director Es Devlin alongside landscape designer Philip Jaffa, it reimagines Somerset House’s stone courtyard as a leafy pleasure ground planted with 400 juvenile trees. Visitors meander through its paths to the sound of a birdsong soundtrack by Brian Eno, to a central clearing ringed with a series of information pillars, each one representing one of the UN’s 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development – from clean water to gender equality. It’s a soothing setting to contemplate some big issues, which could equally be said of the biennale as a whole.
Countries from across six continents are taking part in this year’s biennale under the blanket theme of ‘Resonance’, yet it is not exclusively territorial, and in some cases features are pointedly boundary-free. Designers in the Middle features the work of a collective of designers from Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine and Qatar, while, occupying the River Terrace, Ini Archibong’s Pavilion of the African Diaspora represents people of African heritage.
For Archibong, an American of Nigerian heritage living in Switzerland, this was a highly personal project. “There is a clear lack of monuments in places where Black people are represented; as a result, there are very few areas and moments for people of the African diaspora to congregate around their own needs and goals,” he says. “The pavilion aims to provide a space for the multitude of people that represent the diaspora – a culture that is so often marginalised to express themselves.”
Called The Sail, it is more folly than pavilion, a twisting, arching structure rising from a stone plinth that was inspired by conch and cowrie shells, both symbolic: the cowrie was for centuries used as currency across Africa, while the conch represents Triton’s horn, sounding to bring people together from distant lands. A place of gathering, it will host a talks programme that celebrates and elevates the global cultural influence of the African diaspora. It’s one of three similar structures planned, with The Wave set to be unveiled in New York City in autumn and The Shell making its debut at ArtBasel Miami in December. Each “represents a singular story and mythology about Black voices and their power to take us into the future,” says Archibong.
There’s a gentleness to some of what’s on show here, including Taiwan’s Swingphony, a room full of glowing lanterns with a set of metronomes at its centre, mostly ticking out of sync but occasionally coming together. There’s another metronome at the centre of Servaire & Co and Alter Projects’ contribution: a giant example beats time in the centre of the room, additionally awakening the senses via the scent diffuser that swings back and forth on top. Other countries want to jolt us out of our comfort zones with a more dystopian vision: Israel’s Boiler Room presents us with walls of on/off switches, each switch with its own hashtag, from #cancelculture to #climatemyth, a physical representation of the overflowing and often tense discourse that’s a feature of modern life.
There are new takes on material traditions, including Argentina’s Monte Abierto, for which artist Cristián Mohaded worked with artisan Lorenzo Reyes to create a room full of woven forms made from simbol, a plant that grows in their native Catamarca. Japan’s contribution is a wall-to-wall sculpture by Toshiki Hirano made from papier-mâché washi paper, on to which are projected vignettes that evoke both Tokyo and London, from tube station signs to daikon radishes, with the accompanying sounds of the cities.
Inevitably, with the impact of the pandemic, some of the pavilions are digital rather than physical. These include New York City’s contribution, Studio Elsewhere’s Recharge Room for frontline health workers during the pandemic at the city’s Mount Sinai Hospital. This immersive environment is designed to reduce trauma, anxiety and stress through its design, including plants, low lighting, soothing sounds and calm scenes of nature projected on to the wall.
The Design in an Age of Crisis gallery is the result of an open call to designers to put forward their radical thinking as to how design can change the world for the better, neatly looping back to many of the themes from the UN’s sustainable development goals. From Radical Gravity, a system of airdropped self-build shelters to be deployed after natural disasters, to Scott and Zhang’s orchestra of instruments made from waste materials, they are a reminder of design’s power to drive positive change.
On until 27 June, the biennale will host a programme of events, with four medals to be announced on 24 June.