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Allora & Calzadilla, Half Mast\Full Mast (2010). Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Gloria: The US at the 54th Venice Biennial

by Meredith Sims


The 54th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2011 is titled ILLUMInations. It is no surprise, therefore, that the question of identity, both personal and national, and the freedom--perceived, permitted or otherwise--of the individual to express or inhabit that identity are threads that run throughout the exhibition. That the US national identity is interrogated with such success in the US Pavilion is thanks in no small part to Lisa Freiman, senior curator and chair of the Department of Contemporary Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and this year’s commissioner for the United States.

Freiman sought to expand how the U.S. presented itself at the Biennale, selecting two artists who, while not unknown, did not have the big name status of previous representatives and who were also younger. Selection of the artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla and their projects represents a number of firsts for the U.S. Pavilion: the first combined performance and installation, the first representation from an artistic collaborative, and the first time the artists have been based in the US Commonwealth, in this case Puerto Rico, rather than mainland USA.

Freiman’s speech at the opening press conference was refreshing in its direct, jargon free, and optimistic assessment of what she hoped for the installation and what it had to say about the US in today’s world. In an earlier interview, she had expressed some surprise that the project was selected by the State Department, given the nature of the artists’ political commentary. This choice contrasts with current political dialogue, which tends to eschew dissension or contradictory opinion as a necessary process to achieving a worthy and mutually beneficial end. As a meditation on national identity, the art is stimulating, creative, and posits the US as a nation capable of critical self-reflection and willing to engage globally. 

Allora & Calzadilla, Track and Fied (2011). Photo: Andrew Bordwin.

Jennifer Allora, originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Guillermo Calzadilla, from Havana, Cuba, are currently based in San Juan, Puerto Rico and have been working together since 1995. Their art is politically informed and based in a dialogue between substance, the physicality of the raw materials of their work, and subtext, the meanings that can be assigned to it through symbolic, historical and political references. They like to turn things upside down, sometimes literally as in the discussion table that becomes a boat in their video Under Discussion (2005), and juxtapose disparate objects and experiences, creating an atypical view while maintaining a cohesive (or adhesive, since Calzadilla referred to the conceptual “glue” that holds their objects together) thread of ideas or ideology which one can use to navigate their installations. This is by no means forced or doctrinaire; their touch is far defter than that. The underlying seriousness of their work is lightened by playfulness and the incongruity of the combinations they choose for many of their installations.

For the US Pavilion, Allora and Calzadilla created six site-responsive works and entitled the collective installation Gloria, a Spanish derivative of the word glory. This could refer to the honor and distinction of the Olympic athletes who participate, or equally, the glory of US military might. It also hints at the recurring theme of duality: female/ male (Gloria versus Uncle Sam), strength versus flexibility, nation versus individual, among others. In particular it is reiterated by differences between the male and female athletes who perform respectively in Body in Flight (American) and Body in Flight (Delta). In these performances, the sheer strength of the male gymnasts impresses and captivates, overpowering the rhythmic balance of the female routine. A metaphor, perhaps, for how strength and power generally are perceived as being of more value than flexibility and grace.

As a commentary on the US as a global identity, the project extends world-wide. All of the materials Allora and Calzadilla use come from different places: a military tank from England, an organ handcrafted in Germany, a bronze statue and airline seats fabricated in California, a tanning bed from Indianapolis, and an ATM from Milan.  It also extends to artistic collaborative: An engineer was required to help develop the computer program that runs the ATM, and a choreographer developed the gymnastic routines as performance with some assistance from the athletes themselves. Three of the works include performances from U.S. Track and Field members or USA Gymnastics, including Olympian Dan O’Brien, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, 2007 U.S. all-around champion David Durante, and 2005 World all-around champion and 2008 Olympic team silver-medalist Chellsie Memmel.

Allora & Calzadilla, Algorithm(2011). Photo: Andrew Bordwin.

One thing the US is not usually accused of is subtlety, and the installation is kicked off by the in-your-face Track and Field, a 52 ton military tank turned upside down and transformed into a running machine, situated in front of the pavilion. The rotating tread is mirrored by the smaller rotation of a treadmill fitted to the top (formerly the bottom) of the tank where, periodically, an athlete climbs to begin their workout. This piece also provides a metaphor for the pervasiveness of US culture, as the sound of the tank’s treads turning reverberates around nearby pavilions, not particularly unpleasant but a little puzzling, as the ear seeks out the source of noise.

On entering the US pavilion one is greeted first by the work Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed. This is an altered replica of the Statue of Freedom, 1863, also known as Armed Freedom, a bronze status designed by Thomas Crawford that crowns the dome of the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. The statue, which depicts a female figure representing Liberty, is lying down, resting in a Solaris sun bed. Is this a statement on the current state of freedom or simply a comment on the artificial patina of freedom, the shiny glow beneath which a messier reality exists? 

In adjoining rooms, balanced to the left and right, one finds the installations of Body in Flight (Delta) and Body in Flight (American) featuring carved wooden replicas of current business-class seating on those airlines.  When seen vacant, what most immediately occurs is the memory of September 11. The form and indentations from those who were there before are obvious and invoke a sense of vacancy, a poignant missing that once again reminds us of those lost during those attacks.

Allora & Calzadilla, Body in Flight (American) (2011). Photo: Andrew Bordwin.

In performance, the seats take on a different complexion as alternatives to the familiar pommel horse and balance beams used by gymnasts. The choreography for each performance is precise and well beyond the usual three-minute gymnastic routine, stretching the athletes who must also replicate each performance exactly. The gymnasts wear their US red, white and blue costumes, which threads into their routine the question of national identity and the perception of the US globally.

In the room immediately behind the masculine performance of Body in Flight (American) is the installation Half Mast\Full Mast (2010), a twenty-one minute video which consists of dual screens, one on top of the other. Through the projections of scenes from the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, a flagpole maintains its presence in the center of each screen, connecting them vertically and creating a feeling of permanence and continuity. At regular intervals, on either the lower or the upper screen, a participant enters and walks towards the flagpole, where they hoist themselves, using raw physical power to hold their body horizontally, a human flag.   On first approach, this is an engaging view of raw personal power. On further review, the grey skies take on a darker hue, reflecting the heaviness of the island’s earlier military history: formerly used as a United States Navy bombing range and testing ground, international controversy and decades of protests eventually led to the Navy's departure in 2003. The scenes in the video depict places symbolic to the struggle to restore the island to its inhabitants and to a sustainable environmental and developmental footing. It is only with the closing of the US bases that the island once again belongs to its occupants. In the artists’ video Returning a Sound (2004), a figure navigates the entire island by moped, making the point that it is now possible to do so. Much of the island has since been designated a National Wildlife Refuge.

Behind Body in Flight (Delta) is the room containing Algorithm. The use of sound has been a recurring theme in Allora and Calzidilla’s work and it is integral to Algorithm, a towering organ sculpture with an embedded and fully functional ATM machine. Each transaction creates its own unique musical dialogue from air pushed through the organ pipes.  The sounds and the tower soaring to the sky-lit ceiling engage the viewer and distract to a degree from the commercial nature of the embedded ATM, leaving sufficient room to consider which is dominant: the power of money and global commerce, or the ability of each individual to determine and choose their own destiny? The playing of the ATM keyboard is after all a choice and the expression unique for each composition.

Allora & Calzadilla, Body in Flight (American) (2011). Photo: Andrew Bordwin.


Meredith Sims, a freelance writer originally from Perth, Australia, now resides in Atlanta, GA. 

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