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an installation by kate otten architects

Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

“The Laboratory of the Future” curated by Lesley Lokko

in the section titled “Dangerous Liaisons


In response to the invitation and brief from the curator, Lesley Lokko, and through the lens of how we conceptualise and make architecture, we have designed a piece called ‘threads’.  This architectural installation tells a visual story of Johannesburg, the city where our work as architects takes place.  It is a story about how gold came to be here, the mining thereof and the outcomes of this process, narrated by women through different weavings and readings that describe this long history.

'threads', an installation at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, Photography by Ste Murray, image courtesy Kate Otten, ENQUIRE

We have designed, crafted and drawn the various parts of the piece and then worked closely with two creative collectives for the realisation of the work.  It speaks to our intuitive and collaborative mode of making architecture where colour, light and pattern are important elements in our expression as well as the tactile act of making by hand. ‘threads’ offers different ways of seeing, creating new opportunities for making place for the future that nurtures the human spirit.

The golden thread of Johannesburg’s history started some two billion years ago when a massive meteorite crashed into the earth approximately 100kms south of the city sending debris and gold deposits flying, which eventually came to rest in an arc-shaped ridge radiating from the Vredefort Dome – now a world heritage site.  The discovery of this gold in 1886, and the gold rush that followed, led to the establishment of Johannesburg and the start of a Dangerous Liaison - between land and people, between great wealth and exploitation.  

Unlike a linear recording, ‘threads’ tells a story that is a simultaneous, intuitive reading of landscape and social geographies, told through age-old traditions of craft and making by hand. 

There are many readings of this work including an anthropological one where the mohair tapestry is a cloak to wrap the body, the beadwork a necklace to adorn it. The cloak is simultaneously a sociological mapping of the surface landscape and topography where green spaces correspond to privileged, wealthy areas and tree-less areas to poor neighbourhoods, with mining waste dividing the two. Gold mines are represented by yellow pompoms and water courses by blue threads. A round loom was specifically designed for the piece so that the radial nature of the meteorite's impact could be represented.   

Detail shot of 'threads', an installation at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, Photography by Ste Murray, image courtesy Kate Otten

The beaded necklace is an astrological reading of the night sky above the Vredefort Dome depicting the milky way and constellations.  Through this reading, the extracted gold is claimed as an African artefact rather than a commodity to be exported abroad.  The glass beads were carefully chosen for colour and consistency and the direction and change of direction of the pattern of threading meticulously ordered to achieve the desired asymmetrical shapes. 

The backdrop to the work is a contour map showing the mining towns found along the arc-shaped ridge.  The piece is lit from above marking shadows on the floor that represent the geology of the area and inscribe it in a circle, defining a space between the floor and weavings.   This 3-dimensional, immersive space invites the viewer to experience the piece from above and below, from ‘inside’ and from ‘outside’ as one would a work of architecture.

‘threads’ piece has won the following awards:

  • Gauteng Institute for architects’ award of excellence
  • Gauteng Institute for architects’ People’s choice award.

Further Reading In Articles

African Artist Directory

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