Sunday, June 12, 2011

Venice Biennale 2010: Allora y Calzadilla

Track and Field 2010; Allora y Calzadilla

By Katie Smither

Despite sending half the summer Olympic team to the Venice Biennale, the USofA did not walk away with best in show.  That award, the Golden Lion, went to Germany’s pavilion: Christian Marclay for “The Clock,” which we can hash out another day... But first we must talk about US (U.S.), because we did cause a stir, in great American fashion. The artists representing America for 2011?  Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla: a collaborative couple whose body of work often touches on issues of national identity, politics, juxtaposition of objects and their meanings, and the performative gesture…to oversimplify.  Preluding their work for the Biennale, you may have seen Stop, Repair, Prepare at MoMA last winter. Their nomination came as a surprise this year for a number of reasons.  The duo is the first plural entity chosen to represent the United States, they are not a powerhouse symbol of American art like past representatives have been (Bruce Nauman, Golden Lion 2009), nor do they hail from the 50 United States, but rather live and work in Puerto Rico.  Allora, born in Pennsylvania, and Calzadilla, born in Cuba, currently making Puerto Rico their home and office, represent a different kind of American artist at the Biennale.  One not yet canonized, influenced by several cultural facets of “American”, and critically, politically, aggressively activist.  It needs to be said, this risky and progressive choice of artist for the US pavilion holds its own value before we even see the work.
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Body in Flight (American) and Body in Flight (Delta)

For the Biennale, Allora and Calzadilla present Gloria, a five piece exhibition deeply concerned with what it means to be American today, specifically focusing on competition, condition, and display.  The upturned tank of Track and Field immediately imposes upon the entire Biennale with its size and incessant racket.  A figure poised atop a pedestal, US Olympians alternate running in place.  Indoors, two gymnasts perform choreographed routines upon sculptural reproductions of first-class airline seats.  In this, Body in Flight, the theatrical quality of the gymnastic routine is dislocated to the confines of a small gallery room where dramatic display becomes excessive and uncomfortable, USA emblazoning across uniforms, while still maintaining the allure and beauty of accomplishment and skill.  Algorithm is a custom-fabricated organ fashioned to play in direct response to a built-in ATM machine used by visitors to the pavilion.  It sings and glorifies a unique composition for each individual transaction.  Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed is exactly that, and painfully literal. This is when it gets apparent that they were trying to do a lot in a short amount of time. The exhibition wraps up with Half Mast/ Full Mast, a video continuing the collaborators’ series on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which the US Navy used as a military base and bombing practice range after relocating citizens.  Through a fractured frame, the video shows a man lifting himself horizontally in place of a national flag over different cites relevant to the island’s historical struggle for freedom and rights.

On the whole, I have mixed feelings about Gloria.  I respect what Allora and Calzadilla are trying to do.  These pieces are loud and aggressive, and some things they do well.  The absurdity is often effective, creating a disturbing middle ground between horror and humor.  Using the belligerent and imposing nature of US policymaking and military strategy as a method for presenting artworks creates a painfully tangible affect, holding a mirror up to the beast, and they function as critique that way.  But is it dangerous for an artist to adopt the methodology of the system they critique as a means to build metaphor?  My concern is that in the overstatement and imposition that mirrors American systems, the work itself, perhaps its poetry, becomes cold, calculated, overly didactic, and hyper-aware of its diplomacy, its many ways of relating to the international viewer.  Surely art-making requires its distinct way of functioning to function well.

I also wonder if there are epic contradictions in the cost required to produce these grand, perfect objects of “American art” that then critique consumerism with an ATM, indulgence and narcissism with a tanning-bed, and capitalist imperialism with a tank.  It’s a tank!  Do you know how much that cost to get to Venice?  Only the USA would do that…right?  So in mimicking, do Allora and Calzadilla’s works come close to committing the crimes they condemn?  Does the work lose power associated with the artists’ individual methodologies by adopting another system’s?  Or is the artistic gesture and the final product worth that sacrifice?
-Katie Smither