Like so many projects and plans in the time of the novel coronavirus, this review is out of sync. It was a year ago that I undertook to write a double review of two then-new exhibitions on view in New York City. Countryside: The Future, occupying the entire rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum, is the multimedia culmination of years of interdisciplinary, globe-spanning research led by Rem Koolhaas, head of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, or OMA, and Samir Bantal, director of its think tank, AMO. Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures, at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by Sarah Hermanson Meister, was the museum’s first solo show devoted to the celebrated documentary photographer in more than half a century. Although the exhibitions are very different in scale, ambition, and emotional tenor, each is propelled by the efforts of urban artists and professionals to document and comprehend historical transformations in rural life. As it turned out, of course, the exhibitions had only just opened when both museums closed temporarily as New York declared a state of emergency — and as the whole world has struggled to contain a zoonotic disease whose transmission is enabled by the human disruption of wildlife habitat.
Koolhaas poses numerous effete and often rhetorical questions. ‘How to think about Africa?’ ‘Will Warming make us believe in God?’ ‘Does anyone still like cities?’
All of which is to say that it feels different to be reviewing Countryside: The Future a year after its opening, in the before times; to be reviewing it in pandemic times, as it is about to close. The curators’ central question now feels heavier, more freighted. How, they ask, should we inhabit the largest percentage of our planet, “the 98% of the Earth’s surface not occupied by cities”? 1 Countryside is not, explicitly, about climate change; but given that the climate crisis is now less a matter of discrete events than an encompassing existential framework, we might have anticipated that the curators would focus on, say, zero-carbon communes, permaculture villages, community-distributed wastewater systems, regionally-scaled watershed plans, towns with constructed aquifers, and other promising climate-responsive measures. Instead, Countryside considers numerous ancillary, sometimes effete and often rhetorical questions that are literally painted on the walls of the exhibition and also reproduced in an essay by Koolhaas in the pocket-sized book that accompanies the show. In the book, some questions are in bold type: “Why did we embrace the Market Economy at the exact moment that science knew Climate change was upon us?” “Will Warming make us believe in God?” “How to think about Africa?” “What is more important for humankind: the Tesla GigaFactory, the Thermae at Vals, CCTV, or a refugee camp?” “Does anyone still like cities?” And almost at the end: “How should we think about earth?”
The exhibition is a smorgasbord of wall texts, films, models, sculptures, artworks, and texts; of daunting problems and maybe-solutions that leave the visitor feeling helpless and confused.
The assorted exhibits that spiral up the famous quarter-mile ramp supply musings more than answers to such questions. In their presentation of landscapes of “leisure and escapism,” the curators track the transition from traditional pastoral culture to a trillion-dollar “wellness” industry of “corporate retreats and curated adventure”; a trajectory the begs the question of our capacity for authentic experience in nature. (“Can we relearn Romanticism?” is one of Koolhaas’s questions.) In their inquiry into rural communities as escapes from capitalist industry, they offer a survey of settlements from Charles Fourier’s early 19th-century social-utopian Phalanstery, to an anarchist commune in the woods of central France, to an off-grid trailer park located on the remains of a military base in the Mojave Desert; a tour that leaves us skeptical of our ability to pursue alternative freedoms. (“Were hippies right?” is another Koolhaas question.) Nearing the top of the ramp, as the wall texts disappear, we finally confront the question of species survival in the form of a goofy 3D-printed model of a woolly mammoth skeleton that has been unearthed by the melting of the Siberian permafrost. An answer of sorts is proposed in a display of various farmer and pollinator robots and a photomural of greenhouses filled with plants bathed in an eerie infrared glow. (“Can robots work in the dark?” is yet another Koolhaas question.) Countryside is, in short, a smorgasbord of wall texts, films, models, sculptures, artworks, and texts; of daunting problems and maybe-solutions that leave the visitor feeling helpless and confused.
The Guggenheim, one assumes, had expected Koolhaas and AMO to unpack for the museum-going public the current socio-economic forces at work and at play in the countryside, much as he had brilliantly revealed the forces that had shaped the modern city in his influential 1978 book, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. The problem is he has done just that; he has dissected the phenomena of countryside via the same cultural frameworks and critical methods he introduced in the earlier work and has been deploying ever since. Alas, they are insufficient to the problem at hand. In the Koolhaasian paradigm, it is the rational grid, one of the intellectual inventions of the Enlightenment, that is central to any understanding of the modern world. This grid serves at once as the spatial objectification and functional instrument of industrial capitalism; it is the controlling device from which individuals must escape in order to attain freedom and find pleasure.
The means of escape can take the form of a delirium of exuberant images and signs, or of a “hybrid architecture” of multivalent programs arranged in a loose fit around some spatially inventive form; see, for instance, OMA’s McCormick Tribune Campus at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In Delirious New York, the narrative centers on the original gridiron design for Manhattan, the famous Commissioners Plan of 1811 that has, over two centuries (and counting), sponsored the development of property and wealth on the island. In Koolhaas’s pages, citizens find their escape in the skyscraper, where unexpected combinations of programs rise up, one atop the other, in towers that culminate in riotous ornament. In the New York Athletic Club, near Wall Street, the hybrid pileup includes squash and handball courts, a boxing gym, an interior golf course, an oyster bar, and members’ rooms, all joined together in an erotic swirl of wealth and power. Several years after Delirious, Koolhaas used the term “bigness” to describe how these hybrid forms swell in size and, according to the logic of late capitalist consumption, propagate across the earth and swallow all aspects of urban life as well as great swathes of landscape; think Mall of America. 2
Countryside is hardly alone in promoting a Dutch-engineering paradigm; but it must be said that the more popular export model does indeed respond to climate change.
In selecting and framing the components of Countryside, the curators have clearly sought phenomena that reinforced these narratives of the grid and bigness. As the show unfolds, the visitor ascends the ramp from scenes of the pre-capitalist pastoral (ranging from ancient Chinese gardens to Marie Antoinette’s hameau), to the imposition of the Jeffersonian grid across the expanding United States, to the “Promethean” infrastructure projects of the 20th century and the hybrid global villages of this century, and then to that sober consideration of looming permafrost melt and attendant species extinction. Finally, at the very top, we arrive at an exhibit framed in the interrogative: Cartesian Euphoria? In this disquisition on the Cartesian grid, the curators make the case that this dominating structure is deeply Dutch. Or, as they put it: “Can we prove that René Descartes could only have invented his mathematical methodology because he was living in the hyper orthogonal landscapes of the Netherlands?” 3 Accordingly, we learn that Descartes fled France in search of religious freedom and lived much of his life in Holland, where he saw in the engineered countryside a correlative for the application of his ideas. We learn too that this historical legacy persists today in the country’s extensive grid of greenhouses and the beyond-bigness hydro-engineering works dedicated to defending the low-lying, flood-prone nation from the North Sea. This “Dutchness” surely informs the decision to present such projects as those robot-farmers, some of which are located in Fukushima, “a perfectly flat 125-acre tabula rasa created after farmlands and houses were washed away by the 2011 tsunami. 4 Or the “Great Green Wall,” a pan-African initiative to plant an immense band of trees east-west across the southern Sahara in order to resist desertification and enhance food production. Or the new Chinese “urban villages,” where citizen-farmers, living in residential apartment buildings, tend vast greenhouses on the outskirts of the city.
Koolhaas and his collaborators are hardly alone in promoting a Dutch-engineering paradigm; but it must be said that the more popular export model does indeed respond to climate change. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, senior Dutch officials were asked to share their expertise in water management with the city of New Orleans; similar exchanges continue to this day in many coastal American cities, and the Dutch have continued to evolve their own science. Holland’s current hybrid approach — in essence, living “wet” through controlled flooding combined with strategic retreat from the lowlands — would have made an especially potent contribution to Countryside. 6 In any case, Cartesian Euphoria? does present an alternative of sorts to the greenhouse botscape in the form of Lenora Ditzler’s experiment in “pixel farming.” An agricultural researcher based in the Netherlands, Ditzler has created an extreme version of biodiverse farming called “pixelated poly-culture,” in which plantings mix at such a fine scale that they can’t yet be harvested commercially and thus await the development of new fembots — “tender swarms of tiptoeing ecofeminist robots,” in Ditzler’s description 7 — who will wander about to find the properly ripe vegetables. In the exhibition, the fields look like close-up views of a luscious English garden; but then the camera zooms out and the planting diagrams appear and we see a grid, ten centimeters square, pixilated to delirium.
The ‘Martian’ gaze helps explain the spatial abstraction, emotional remoteness, and political detachment of Countryside.
That Rem Koolhaas cannot see beyond such rigid spatial frameworks — no matter the many contemporary examples of regenerative farming that don’t require robots, or the many emerging ecological paradigms for organizing landscape according to biomes and watersheds — seems to me bound up with the way he sees. I refer to his self-described “Martian” gaze. As Koolhaas told Troy Conrad Therrien, the Guggenheim curator, one of his early mentors taught him to “approach every situation like a Martian, completely foreign and amazed, and write it all down deadpan.” 8 This helps to explain the spatial abstraction, emotional remoteness, and political detachment of Countryside. For while the Martian can readily understand the continental-scale grid as a function of global capitalism writ large, he cannot perceive the root causes of specific conditions in particular places; nor can he assess the long-term impacts of observed phenomena because that would require sustained and grounded — non-Martian — commitment. In an exhibit focusing on the mountain gorilla habitat in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in Uganda, we view the gorillas and local farmers negotiate a swath of land, a “buffer zone” between the protected park and the nearby villages, created by an international NGO to “establish order” between animal and human realms. The curators describe this zone as a “new hybrid space of complex coexistence” 9; but they offer no analyses that would help us predict whether coexistence will prevail or whether one species will eventually predominate. (My bet is on the gorillas, if only because in the exhibition images they are viewing the photographers with what we might anthropomorphize as disdain.)
In another exhibit, we encounter the southern Italian villages of Riace and Camini, which in the past two decades have been revitalized through the resettlement of refugees from Asia and Africa. In snapshots, we see village elders and newcomers harvesting grain side by side, using traditional tools; meanwhile we read, on the wall text: “As in antiquity, when travelers from Greece, Arabia, and northern Africa populated the Italian shores, the village has again become an amalgam of different Mediterranean cultures.” 10 But what the exhibit cannot tell us, because it lacks data and projective analyses, is whether such assimilationist strategies might be scaled across Italy or all of Europe to accommodate the growing numbers of environmental refugees caused by climate change. What the exhibit does not show us are the increasing desertification and drought, and the attendant famine and civil strife over resources, that are causing the migrants to flee their homelands in the first place.
Environmental refugees are central figures in Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures; but the MoMA exhibition, which closed last fall, presented us with a very different way of seeing. In the 1930s, Dorothea Lange was a young portrait photographer with a thriving commercial studio in San Francisco; then, as Meister, the curator, writes, “in early 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, observing the suffering and anger swelling around her, she ventured out of the studio with her camera, initially unsure of what she might achieve but aware of photography’s capacity to make plain such hardships.” 11 Thus began one of the great documentary careers of the mid 20th century. Soon Lange was working on assignment for the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration), one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies, driving around the West and photographing people and places that had been devastated by poverty and drought. Many of her images depict sharecroppers and tenant farmers who’d migrated from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and Texas to pick crops in the large-scale factory farms of California. She was often accompanied by her husband, Paul Taylor, an agricultural economist. Their partnership was close and productive; in addition to their federal work, they collaborated on An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, in which Lange’s photographs were contextualized by Taylor’s copious field notes as well as newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and numerous quotations from the migrants themselves. In Meister’s assessment, the book “reveals her particular commitment — and Taylor’s — to the authentic voices of the individuals represented in her photographs.” 12
Lange may have set out on assignment to document human suffering and help promote New Deal policies. But her work evokes the profound scale of the resettlement patterns that emerged as poor farmers fled the Dust Bowl bound for California.
Lange may have set out on assignment from the government to make a visual record of human suffering and thus help promote New Deal social policies. 13 But in fact, through the accumulation of images and the density of accompanying captions and texts, her work evokes the profound scale of the resettlement patterns that had emerged as dispossessed farmers fled the Dust Bowl bound for California. Lange’s most famous photograph, taken in March 1936 and now known as Migrant Mother, depicts a 32-year-old woman of Cherokee descent from Oklahoma, a widow and mother of seven, then living in a tent and picking peas on a farm in Nipomo, near San Luis Obispo. The publication of the photograph less than a week later, in the San Francisco News, inspired the federal government to send 20,000 pounds of food to the migrant workers of California. 14 In the caption to another iconic image, Migrant Pea Pickers near Westley, California, from 1938, Lange doesn’t hesitate to identify the structural causes of the conditions she was witnessing: “Intensive, large-scale, and highly seasonal agriculture have created in California the largest wage-earning class, proportionately, of any important agricultural state. They have produced a large, landless, and mobile proletariat.” 15 Likewise, in Tractored Out, also from 1938, we see a furrowed field and abandoned farmhouse in the Texas panhandle, with this terse description: “Power farming displaces tenants from the land in the western dry cotton area.” As Wendy Red Star puts it in her catalogue essay, the photograph “captures the essence of the struggles of the Dust Bowl period, but it can also be understood in the context of the United States’ cyclical history of greed, destruction, and displacement.” 16
It is no exaggeration to say that our present is the future that Lange’s images foretold; the crisis of agriculture in the face of toxic capitalism and climatic disaster that is at the center of her famous photographs might also have served to focus and sharpen Countryside: The Future, where it is occasionally a subject but more often merely an unstated subtext. But the exhibition at the Guggenheim is so over-stuffed with rhetorical gestures and strange diversions — from pig decals and a hanging hay bale to a cow farm in the desert of Qatar to those hundreds of questions — that the countless parts and pieces never add up to any larger call to action. That this is intentional makes it no less puzzling or regrettable. After all, what’s the point of a bully pulpit like the Guggenheim Museum? In an interview towards the end of her career, Lange described her approach. “Everything is propaganda for what you believe in, actually, isn’t it?” she speculated. “I don’t see how it could be otherwise.” 17 What a difference from the Martian view, “foreign and amazed,” that has organized Countryside; as the Guggenheim curator puts it, in a video on the museum’s website, “Don’t come here looking for answers.”