The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity
Aldo van Eyck

Exhibition at the XIV Triennale di Milano, 1968

Almost nobody was able to see the 1968 Triennale di Milano. Following the student protests in Paris and other European cities, students in Milan took to the streets to challenge the old system to force change. The protests led to the occupation of the Triennale on 30 May 1968, the day of its opening, when several presentations were destroyed.[c]

Lead by curator Giancarlo De Carlo, this edition of the Triennale, titled The Greater Number, focused on the increase in the world’s population, the bankruptcy of the welfare state, and the discrepancy between Western abundance and the poverty of the developing world. At the invitation of De Carlo, Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck responded to the theme with The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity, an exhibition presenting a dystopian picture of society’s inability to deal with ‘the large number’.[a] “Society — our kind — deals with greater number, and the environmental problems it poses, like a halfwit with two left hands”, van Eyck reflected in the Harvard Educational Review [b] in 1969.

The Enigma of Vast Multiplicity is seen as Van Eyck’s most radical work. The installation is reconstructed here following the original floor plan [d] which gave precise details on how visitors should move through it, and what could be seen, read or heard.

Visitors would cross through a forest of tree trunks to enter a space lined with distorting broken mirrors, while laughter came out of speakers. In the next room, huge photographs depicted Western civilisation as, unlike most traditional cultures, unable to solve the problem of the large number. “Mourn also for all butterflies”, announced a wall text. Hidden in the last space, an installation of multicoloured streamers brought a message of hope — a vast multiplicity does not necessarily lead to catastrophe.

For this re-staging, spatial designer Olivier Goethals has reinterpreted a number of elements; the forest and mirrors now form a whole in which visitors see themselves, others, and the environment reflected. The original background sounds are replaced by recordings from the 1968 student protests — a reinterpretation of Luigi Nono’s work by sound and performance collective BMB con. A square forum offers space for discussion, reflection and presentation, and in the final spaces the floor plans of 1968 and 2019 have been placed on top of each other.