Letters from the Landscape

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A Palimpsest of Landscape and Time

Marks on the landscape hold the memory of ancient material choreographies of water, fire, earth — within, around, and over which the fleeting presence of human imagination is carved, folded, and draped.

La Biennale di Venezia is one of the world’s most prestigious architectural events, attracting a multitude of diverse academics, practitioners, writers, and critics from around the world, to present, discuss, and debate a broad range of ideas through the architectural lens.

With a strong focus on Africa, Scottish-Ghanian architect, academic, and novelist, Lesley Lokko — the first African appointed by the La Biennaledi Venezia to curate the year’s event — has framed the exhibition around two primary themes: decolonisation and decarbonisation. The exhibition opened to the public on May 20th, and runs through till November 26th, 2023.

Entitled The Laboratory of the Future, the exhibition places Africa at centre stage of the global architectural conversation — for the first time in the biennale’s history. The curator’s phrase ‘what happens in Africa happens to us all’ is not only a powerful affirmation, but also challenges us to take responsibility, as Africans, not only to participate, but to lead.

Drawings Atlas of time

Letters from the Landscape is included in one of four Curator’s Special Projects, Mnemonic, and is an experimental mapping project, explored across multiple scales of place and time, in which landscape and artefact are interchangeable and recorded in fragments, imprints, and residues.

A series of handmade paper sheets were cast over the surface of two-and-a-half-billion-year-old rock at the Nooitgedacht archaeological site in South Africa’s arid Northern Cape region. Paper pulp, made from plants and water gathered from site, was cast over the rock surface where, with gentle hand-applied pressure, the marks from 300-million-year-old glaciers and 1500-year-old engraved art were imprinted to form a palimpsest of landscape and time.

Much like evidence on natural surfaces, the presence of water (required in the paper-making process) evaporates to leave no trace except the paper itself, the properties of which, through the process of drying, become vulnerable to the impacts of bending, folding, imprinting, tearing, even burning… visceral tactics of drawing, which the paper itself ‘remembers.’

Process IMG 0736 1
Process Hands 1
Process Paper casting on site

Forced into the handmade paper sheets, is a series of startling statistics around the global commercial paper-making industry’s impact on fresh water supply. The imprints, made with A4-sized, laser-cut stencils, are as violent and uncompromising as the impacts of industrialisation that bend, tear, and overwrite the landscape. The structure of the paper is altered, and new marks remembered.

Framed by a three-part film providing the landscape context and an audio recording of an ancient Khwedam story about living kindly, the installation suggests fragments of an atlas, pages in a book, or sections through a landscape. Much like the water from which papermaking is so reliant, traces of the original landscape exist here only in fragments. Suspended in the gallery, they are unsettled, and touch the surroundings of Venice only in shadow, whisper, and suggestion.

Paper is the medium through which ideas have been recorded, agreements settled, and territories claimed. In this installation, paper is the landscape, the artefact, and the laboratory. While deeply embedded in themes of memory, the apparent delicacy masks an ominous reality about our relationship with landscape, that now, more than ever, ‘hangs in the balance’.

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