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Exhibition Review: The Biennial of the Americas

By David Hill
July 22, 2013
Photo © Cristobal Palma
Alex Schweder, The Hotel Rehearsal, 2013

For the second Biennial of the Americas, executive curator Carson Chan has turned the city of Denver into a giant outdoor exhibition space. Chan, who is based in Berlin and also curated the 2012 Marrakech Biennale, says he sought to get away from the typical gallery-bound art exhibition. “It’s really hard to get people to go inside a museum,” he says. “Plus, I wanted people to encounter art without even necessarily knowing that it’s art.”

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The Biennial is billed as a celebration of ideas, art, and culture of the Americas, with public symposiums, workshops, performances, exhibitions, and parties. (“Davos meets the Aspen Ideas Festival,” quipped Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who conceived the inaugural Biennial of the Americas in 2010.) Chan, working with Paul Andersen, Gaspar Libedinsky, and Cortney Stell, developed the exhibition, titled, Draft Urbanism. The name, Chan says, is meant to convey the idea that urbanism is constantly in flux, but it’s also a nod to Colorado’s craft beer culture and longstanding love affair with bars and taverns. Indeed, the Denver Beer Company created a new brew just for the Biennial, with Maya nuts from Nicaragua, barley from Canada, and hops from Colorado.

For Draft Urbanism, which opened on Tuesday and runs through September 2, Chan and his colleagues asked four architecture firms to build large-scale installations that respond directly to some of Denver’s urban challenges. They also invited more than 30 artists, poets, and philosophers from the Americas—including Julieta Aranda, Douglas Coupland, James Franco (yes, that James Franco), Cyprien Gaillard, Liam Gillick, Laurel Nakadate, and others—to create works on billboards and bus-shelter signs that reflect on “the urban condition.” So, for example, on a lonely stretch of road in an industrial area north of downtown, drivers will no doubt do a double-take when they see Coupland’s contribution, a single billboard with the provocative words, “Welcome to Detroit. The entire world is now Detroit.” Closer to downtown, Gaillard’s billboard combines a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Last Judgment” with a Coors Light beer advertising slogan, “Catch the Silver Bullet,” a commentary, perhaps, on contemporary consumer culture.

Many of the two-dimensional works are in such obscure locations—alleys, parking lots, far-flung neighborhoods—that one wonders how many people will actually notice them. (And it would take several days and a full tank of gas to see them all.) That can’t be said of the four architecture installations, all located in well-traveled parts of downtown.

In Skyline Park, just off the 16th Street pedestrian mall, brothers Felipe Mesa and Federico Mesa, of Colombia’s plan:b arquitectos, created Skyline Cloud (2013), a group of 11-foot-high modules to provide shade on a blank lawn. Made of steel frames and nylon fabric, the semi-portable modules resemble inverted, hexagonal umbrellas that can be used separately or in a series. They’re simple, whimsical, and a smart response to a vexing urban problem: how to attract people to underutilized spaces.

Similarly, Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Mine Pavilion (2013) creates visual and functional interest in an urban no-man’s land, in this case a median strip on Speer Boulevard that divides downtown with the city’s Auraria Campus, home to three colleges and universities. The Chilean firm created a wooden structure—50 feet high, 50 feet long, 10 feet wide—that serves as a link for pedestrians crossing the busy corridor. Made of unfinished beetle-kill wood from Colorado’s mountains, it’s a tower, a tunnel, and a sculpture—and it could even be used as a billboard or a movie screen.

Back on the 16th Street Mall, the firm June14 Meyer-Grohbrügge&Chermayeff, with offices in New York and Berlin, designed four butterfly enclosures made of steel tubing and white nylon netting. One covers two wooden benches; another covers two phone booths. Pedestrians can enter the structures at certain times of the day. The architects say that by introducing another element, in this case butterflies, to an already diverse environment, mall-goers will be subtly “disturbed” and reminded of that diversity. That may be true, but others will no doubt simply be delighted to encounter butterflies in an urban setting.

For all its growth in recent years, downtown Denver is still pock-marked with numerous surface parking lots, a lingering effect of misguided 1970s urban renewal. Architect and performance artist Alex Schweder set up The Hotel Rehearsal in one such lot, about a block from the 16th Street Mall. It’s a temporary hotel room perched about 25 feet into the air on a scissor lift extending up from a parked Chevrolet E-350 van. (Schweder himself will spend several nights in the hotel room, which contains a bed, a shower, and a toilet.) The piece plays on both the potential use for such sites—several new Denver hotels have been built on former parking lots—and the inherent flux of urban spaces.

Draft Urbanism’s public artwork feels scattered, both geographically and thematically. (There’s also a separate exhibition of works by Colorado artists, called First Draft, in the city’s historic McNichols Building.) But the architecture installations are well-conceived and thought-provoking examples of how cities are in a continual state of reinvention.

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