words by Alice Bucknell
On view through August at the Guggenheim Museum, “Countryside, The Future” addresses urgent environmental, political, and socioeconomic issues through the lens of architect Rem Koolhaas and researcher Samir Bantal.
Gazing down the coiled ramp of the Guggenheim, a smattering of supersized stickers litters the lobby of the prestigious New York museum. Three tractor tires, some sheep, a clip-out French peasant from Jean-François Millet's 1857 painting The Gleaners and a marbled blue Earth are among the visual detritus greeting visitors—but a boisterous kindergarten activity this is not. The culmination of a ten-year research project masterminded by Rem Koolhaas, founder of the legendary architecture office OMA, and Samir Bantal of AMO, its research strongarm, “Countryside, The Future” aims to radically reshape our understanding of the rural, that mysterious “ignored realm” that constitutes 98% of the Earth’s surface not occupied by cities.
“Countryside” joins the ranks of equally monumental architect-designed exhibitions in the Guggenheim’s sixty-year history, including Jean Nouvel’s 2001 homage to Brazil, Frank Gehry’s brawny 1998 show on motorcycles, and Zaha Hadid’s trippy 1992 presentation of Soviet Russian avant-garde art. In this meandering, ambulatory space that spooks many a curator, architect-curators seem to thrive: for multi-layered, non-linear exhibitions like this one, the Guggenheim is a boon.
The exhibition’s core argument will be engaging to some and troubling to others in its vast, hallucinogenic disorder. With all the adrenaline of Koolhaas’s cult 1978 manifesto Delirious New York, “Countryside” skirts around the building’s spiral like a cyclone of PhD proposals, offering up dozens of micro-cases for redefining the countryside. While 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050, the exhibition is hellbent on proving that the rural is at least as global as the urban (if not more so), both in the myriad ways it sustains urban life and how it serves as a new frontier for future living. One moment, it zooms across vast swaths of the African desert planning to become arable; the next, it deposits us under the pinkish incubator glow of one of the world’s largest greenhouses in the Netherlands.
In this dizzying show, one thing is made abundantly clear: the countryside of lore—all rolling fields, bucolic farms and unmarred natural utopias—has dissipated under a new form of ultra-productive hypernature engineered to serve the capitalistic logic of a new world order set by cities. The exhibition succeeds in stoking a tension between the enduring vision of rural utopia—a globally disseminated, millennia-old fantasy that found its footing in ancient religion, philosophy and art history—and its Frankenstein-like rebirth following the introduction of modern technoscience and economic systems. Less convincing is the show’s tendency to lean into Age of Instagram gimmicks: an iPad-operated tractor installed outside the museum for the duration of the exhibition is a cringe-worthy effort to bring the countryside to the urbanite’s doorstep.
The curatorial decision to lump the various strains of rural, remote, oceanic and truly wild territory into what it is not—i.e., the 98% percent of our planet that hasn’t been urbanized—is at best hazy and speculative, and at worst negligent. Koolhaas anticipates this baked-in criticism by framing it as a “pointillist portrait of the current condition of the countryside.” But beyond oversimplification, there are other objections to be found in the exhibition’s neutral presentation. It enthusiastically embraces ideas of posthumanism and hypernature, presenting without critique a brave new world of engineered nature: data farms, AI-powered factories, and streamlined tech campuses. Questions surrounding the ethics of human labor, however, are discreetly avoided, as are less sexy images of rural life sans supercomputers.
Like an architect, “Countryside, the Future” is prone to a top-down read of a sprawling, messy system that, despite ten years of research, still feels misread at times. Unlike an architect, it takes exceptional pleasure reveling in this disorder. Both globalizing and hyper-specific in its discussion of the countryside, the exhibition will blast the popular stand-by image of the rural out of the water (or cornfield). Nonetheless, in the process of rendering the countryside as something spectacular and sublime—much like the way Koolhaas sold the mythos of the city in the ‘70s—the subjective experiences of those living in the countryside are here devalued and discarded. Mobilizing intrigue in the rural when the rest of the world has turned to cities is a worthy goal, but with the exhibition slated to travel exclusively to global metropolises, it begs the question: who is this exhibition serving? Will it only perpetuate a new set of stereotypes for what the “countryside” truly is, who it’s for, and what it’s becoming?