Forbidden Forest Resonates at London Design Biennale

Forest with Global Goals Pavilion at Somerset House, London Design Biennale
Forest with Global Goals Pavilion at Somerset House, London Design Biennale

The third London Design Biennale Launches at Somerset House this week. The exhibition opened on the 1st June and it will run every day and early evening until 27th June 2021.

The entrance to Somerset House can be found on the Strand, in Central London. Somerset House was designed by William Chambers in 1776 and is a neoclassical complex overlooking the River Thames, just East of Waterloo Bridge. This monumental building with a large rectangular courtyard and impressive terrace provides the ideal backdrop for a festival celebrating contemporary creativity. (1)

Set around a theme of ‘Design in an age of crisis’ the organisers have invited countries, territories and cities to submit entries to represent their own cultures, design directions and locations. The result is a joining together of design work that reflects the global world we live in and some of the challenges faced by us all.

The centrepiece of this artistic trip around the world is the ‘Global Goals Pavilion’ which features a ‘forest for change’. This impressive wooded area contains 400 recently planted young and fully grown  trees and bushes to create a real growing haven of leafy green flora. Designer Philip Jaffa and Scotsscape landscape designers worked together to fulfil this uniquely green brief.

An opening in the forest reveals a circular paved area with tall bannered plinths. These rainbow pillars proclaim the United Nations Global Goals which strive to create a better and fairer world by 2030.  The UN Global Goals range from eradicating poverty and hunger, ensuring clean water and sanitation, tackling the climate crisis and providing peace and justice for all. (2)(3)

More than 50 countries responded to the ‘call for entries’ and were eager to participate in the debate about how to address the crisis that is happening around the globe. The organisers considered some of the key issues to be “Poor health and unhealthy living conditions of millions of people, the climate emergency; the social inequalities embedded in our societies; and the rapid transformations in work and the economy which affects opportunities for us all.” The exhibition demonstrated the “desire to address these issues” and offers a unique place to “see us join forces and resources to (begin) to make the world a better place” (4)

The Biennale was arranged with the support of HM Government funding as part of the £1.57 billion funding program ‘Here for Culture’. (5)

The Highlights

The theme this year is ‘resonance’ which involves vibration, resonating sounds and creating a reaction, for example, a sympathetic response. The Collins dictionary defines resonance in various ways depending on whether the context is regarding electronics, medicine, chemistry, physics or music. If something has resonance for someone “it has a special meaning or is particularly important to them.” The Artistic Director for the prestigious project is Es Devlin stated insightfully: “We live in an age of hyper resonance, the consequences of which are both exhilarating and devastating. Everything we design and everything we produce resonantes.” (4)(6)

One of the most exciting entries is from the Czech Republic. Petr Stanicky’s ‘Planes of Perception’ is a site-specific structure that assembles 18th century windows arranged at unexpected angles, linked by mirrored ‘planes’ of space. A large metal angled viewing tube reaches up from the viewer towards the sky, through the original Victorian curved architectural window, with its elegant curved top and individual planes. Challenging our normal spatial view of the world the artist invites us to reevaluate our perception of both interior and exterior and how we see the world. (7)

Another strong submission to the collection is from Ghana in Africa. Textile Designer Chrissa Amuah and Architect Alice Asafu-Adjaye have collaborated and named the visually impactful 3 dimensional artwork ‘Amplify’. A wall of metallic textured discs are decorated with intricate organic patterns. The spherical pieces protrude different amounts from the gallery’s wall which is painted a rich terracotta colour. (8)

The floor to ceiling work explores cultural links between Ghana and its previous colonial rulers the UK and Denmark. The strikingly hand-decorated golden rounded shapes are reminiscent of musical cymbals, suns, craftwork and coins and “suggest an equilibrium of environmental and cultural sensitivity that resonantes in the 21st century.” (9)

Other participants that offered a nod to music included London based Anne-Laure Pingreoun and Alter projects. Their kinetic artwork is a beautiful life size brass metronome which sits on its mirrored base in the middle of its own historic room. “The olfactory emotion is amplified by an ASMR sound that plunges the visitor into an ultra sensory experience.” explain the designers. (10)

Taiwan introduced the show with a strong visual statement of more than one hundred lit paper lamps suspended from a fine metal structure around 3 sides of a large room. The producers of this project supported by the Ministry ofCulture in Taiwan are Hsiang Hsieh, Mimi Chang and Tommy Liu. A metronome installed in the centre of the space creates a ‘swingphony’ as the lights swing and glow to symbolise goodwill, faith and compassion.” Regardless of the arrangement, a synchronised rhythm always inspires belief” (11)

The Pavilion of the African Diaspora is signposted with a twisted tensile structure on the riverside terrace. This ivory coloured sail curves up into the sky and back down to earth like a majestic linen fountain.

Another surprising and large installation is Finland’s ‘Echo Chamber’ which is an inflatable silver reflection space. Visitors who don’t know each other are offered an opportunity to consider their experiences and life perspectives together. The “reflective space both literally and emotionally” was designed by Enni-Kukka Tuomala who is an empathy artist. (12)

The Designers in the Middle pavilion contains a variety of sculptural exhibits that question visual forms and their relationships to one another through geometric sculptures and stylised graphic designs. Exploring the ability for design to bridge gaps in otherwise highly tense and diverse societies “designers from the Middle East wish to tell a story.” They describe a Casbah of narrow streets that is full of life, coexistence and harmony” (13)

Another visually stunning experience is from Poland which considers ‘The Clothed Home: Tuning into the Seasonal Imagination’. The way textiles are used to reflect the changes of the seasons within a domestic interiors setting is explored by this bright and uplifting gallery space. Traditional woven and dyed fabric is hung and draped dramatically and a colour palette fabric artwork shows how warm colours can be used to ‘heat up’ a room in the bitter winters and conversely how a cool hue can soothe and refresh a sitting room or bedroom in the height of summer. (14)

An array of architectural and educational institutions have also contributed individual exhibits which add extra enjoyment and stimulation of this multi-sensory cultural adventure. We liked the MDF (medium density fibreboard) tree sculptures at the end of teh exhibits. These encourage visitors to give feedback and ask questions of others by adding luggage labels to the ‘branches’.

Impressive Achievement

The Biennale event aims to present London as “the global stage for world-leading contemporary design and design-led innovation, creativity and research.” The installations explore “the vital role of design in addressing challenges and providing solutions.” Ideas such as the pandemic, the climate crisis, social heritage and social equality are explored through the diverse displays encountered as the visitor explores the spacious wings of the Victorian mansion. (3)

It is wonderful to know that all these countries aspire to such environmentally positive and equality driven ideals. Actually meeting the basic needs of all communities and minimising our effect on global warming will be the ‘proof of the pudding’. This is especially important to consider at this time when richer countries like the UK are struggling to continue to fund their life saving charitable programs abroad, in crisis hit places like Yemen.

Our only criticism of an otherwise fantastic show is that the entry price of £22.50 for general admission and £16 for concessions could be seen as a bit elitist and not very accessible for many low income households in England who will have contributed through their taxes to sponsoring the event.

Considering the logistical and practical constraints of delivering a full scale international design festival amidst the travel bans and lockdowns during a global coronavirus outbreak, this Design Biennale is an exceptionally impressive achievement.

(1) Somerset House, Wikipedia, 7 June 2021 Somerset House, Wikipedia

(2) ‘The Global Goals Pavilion’ Forest for Change, 7 June 2021 ‘The Global Goals Pavilion’ Forest for Change

(3) ‘The Global Goals’ For Sustainable Development, 7 June 2021 ‘The Global Goals’ For Sustainable Development

(4) London Design Biennale 2021 Exhibition Leaflet and Map, 7 June 2021

(5) Here For Culture, HM Government, 7 June 2021 Here For Culture, HM Government

(6) Definition of  ‘resonance’ Collins Dictionary, 7 June 2021 Definition of ‘resonance’ Collins Dictionary

(7) ‘Czech Republic’ Planes of Perception, Installation by Petr Stanicky, 7 June 2021 ‘Czech Republic’ Planes of Perception, Installation by Petr Stanicky

(8) ‘Ghana’ and ‘Amplify’ Chrissa Amuah and Alice Asafu-Adjaye,  7 June 2021 ‘Ghana’ and ‘Amplify’ Chrissa Amuah and Alice Asafu-Adjaye

(9)‘Can we design a better world?’ London Design Biennale, 7 June 2021 ‘Can we design a better world?’ London Design Biennale

(10) ‘Servaire & Co and Alter Projects ‘Metronome’ 7 June 2021 ‘Servaire & Co and Alter Projects ‘Metronome’

(11) ‘Taiwan, Swingphony’ 7 June 2021 ‘Taiwan, Swingphony’

(12) ‘Finland’ Empathy Echo Chamber’ by Enni-Kukka Tuomala ‘Finland’ Empathy Echo Chamber’ by Enni-Kukka Tuomala

(13) ‘Designers in the Middle Stream of Consciousness’ 7 June 2021 ‘Designers in the Middle Stream of Consciousness’

(14) ‘Poland, The Clothed Home: Tuning in to the Seasonal Imagination’ 7 June 2021 ‘Poland, The Clothed Home: Tuning in to the Seasonal Imagination’