Countryside, The Future: An Art Museum’s Take on Modern Environmental Issues – Lois Wu ’23

When I heard that The Guggenheim Museum was putting on an exhibition called Countryside, The Future about modern environmental issues and the historical, political, and socioeconomic contexts around them, I immediately knew that I had to see it. Looking at my calendar, I realized that I was already going to be in New York City during the opening weekend of the exhibit for the SAB Alumni in the Arts Meetup and at that moment it seemed like the stars had aligned and the universe was willing me to go.  

Looking across the top ramp of the Guggenheim

And so I went. Advertised as “not an art exhibition”, I was curious to see what architect Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, the directors of the exhibit, had created and what the visitor was supposed to get out of it. The exhibition was designed to focus on issues surrounding land use in the “countryside”, roughly defined as any non-urban area. Koolhas’ inspiration for the exhibit came from a realization that even though our world is urbanizing, with 2007 generally regarded as the point when more people lived in cities than in the countryside, our transition into urban living is not without its impacts on rural areas. I love art museums and think that finding a sustainable human-environment relationship is one of the most pressing issues of our day, but I don’t generally think of art museums as champions of environmental activism—I wanted to see how these topics were brought together in this “not-art-exhibition”. 

One of the sections of the exhibition

Even before stepping into the museum, I got a sense of the large scope of the exhibit from the massive tractor and “Indoor grow module” (a sort of mini-greenhouse that minimizes the natural resource use of plants) that took up much of the sidewalk space outside. After entering, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information everywhere—from the large stickers of different products and images pertaining to the countryside on the floor to the words written on the undersides of the ramps (not visible in any of the photographs), there was an immense amount of information to immediately take in. I do appreciate that the exhibition was very comprehensive—it was extremely well researched and had a little bit of everything from the ways politics has influenced the countryside (i.e. Stalin’s Five Year Plan, Qatar’s adaptation after their food crisis) to the ways Ancient Roman values of relaxation were embedded into their understanding of the countryside. The curators included a vast array of global perspectives and global approaches to the countryside and I applaud the geographical, political, and historical diversity of information. But at times, the sheer amount of information felt overwhelming and it was a little hard for me to grasp a through-line in the exhibition. Most of the exhibitions I’ve seen at the Guggenheim in the past display maybe one or two works of art in each section of the wall space; this one crammed multiple illustrations, blocks of text, and pictures in each section. In the audio guide created by the curators and directors of the exhibition, they explain that they want the visitors to leave with the message that the way we use and view the countryside must undergo great changes and that we should all participate in this reflection, but there was rarely a moment for the visitor to pause and reflect. Especially with the continuous spiral of the Guggenheim’s exhibition space, it was difficult to take a moment and digest what I had learned.

Visitors milling around the ground floor of the museum

I did still enjoy the exhibition and am glad that I had the opportunity to see it—the type of cross-sectoral thinking and collaboration used to create this exhibition is encouraging not just for finding solutions to the environmental issues of our day, but also for the always relevant issues of social justice. I hope to visit more “not art exhibitions” in well-established art institutions in the future and witness some positive change come from these innovative ways of garnering public attention.