UNITED STATES PAVILION, VENICE BIENNALE
JUNE 4 – NOVEMBER 27, 2011
First, there’s the tank, lying upside down in the gravel. Then there’s the architrave: STATI UNITI D’AMERICA, in Trajan column capitals. And then there’s the 7’6” copy of the U.S. Capitol’s crowning Statue of Freedom, in blackened bronze, lying inside the “Solaris 442 sun bed.” Welcome to Gloria, the United States Padiglione at the Venice Biennale, featuring six works by the Puerto Rico based collaborative Allora & Calzadilla.
Gloria, while visually impressive, professionally executed, and strategically canny, is, unfortunately, an intellectual mess. The work’s production values are impeccable. The tank outside the pavilion is visually arresting in two-tone Mideast sand paint tan and black, a fashion favorite combination. The charred statue on the tanning bed is unexpected and humorous (although the artists’ aggressive intention—to assault viewers’ eyes and skin with ultraviolet tanning lights—was entirely declawed with confounding florescents). Inside, a 20 foot pipe organ with an ATM in its backside erupts randomly when the ATM is used (it’s real, and delivers cash from your account if you’d like), and gymnasts performing routines developed by U.S. champion David Durante and choreographer Rebecca Davis on life-sized wooden clones of first-class airline seats/beds provide the movement that stops and retains audiences. And a stacked, split-screen subversive video (Half Mast/Full Mast), about the now-closed Vieques bombing range, depicts gymnasts imitating flags, sideways on poles.
The strategy, which reflects the professionalization and institutionalization of art, is three-fold: First, the conscripted co-opting of outside parties (two snookered government-sponsored athletic teams depicted as duped pawns and æsthetic obliviates, a representative of the dance community, a composer, and a Machiavellian corporate sponsor which provides the ATM), whose skin is thus in the game, human shields against criticism. Second, interactivity: the placing of the ATM card into the machine to activate swelling, emotion laden, chameleonic sounds, “empowering” the visitor. Third, requisite academic apologia (the airline seats are “stained like polychromatic religious icons”), designed to impress the laity and cement curatorial authority.
It’s a nice try, but doesn’t bear much scrutiny. For starters, there’s the issue of sponsorship. The Pavilion is sponsored by the United States Department of State, which, you might be interested to learn, has a Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which itself has conscripted “more than 40 Nobel Laureates and more than 300 current or former heads of state and government.” Let me get this straight: half of this team initiates military and political mischief while the other half “promotes international mutual understanding through a wide range of academic, cultural, professional, and sports exchange programs?” Then there’s the marquee sponsor Hugo Boss, a German corporation; a handful of Puerto Rico (a non-voting unincorporated territory of the U.S. since 1898) based benefactors. Even the tank is foreign: it’s a British MK-5 “sourced from Manchester.” And then there’s tainted Diebold, whose primary claim to fame is its naked conflict of interest in politically supporting the Republican Party while manufacturing and administering voting machines best known for their lack of security.
The artists’ kitchen sink approach, to tackle U.S. “military, religious, Olympic, economic, and cultural grandeur,” embarrassingly overreaches. The upside down tank juxtaposed with an athlete, the statue in a tanning bed, the first class dancing gymnasts, and the pipe organ ATM all mix garbled metaphors, failing to communicate, despite claims of “gendering” and “profanation.”
As to the curatorial hoopla: It’s unclear whether the prose accompanying the exhibit is written by the artists or by U.S. Commissioner and Indianapolis Museum of Art Senior Curator Lisa Freiman. Either way, it’s fatuous gibberish: the gymnasts “[leave] behind their dynamic bodily traces in chalky residues, sweat, and dirt”; the ATM sounds “create an unavoidable abstract aural representation of international global commerce”; “the juxtaposition of the ‘sunbed’ and the Statue of Freedom calls into question the idea of natural sunlight and bronzing as a medium for traditional sculpture, [etc.]….”
Which is all too bad. Allora & Calzadilla’s Stop, Repair, Prepare piano performance at MoMA was engaging, if calculated (gather a crowd: works every time; they’re hardly alone: Marina Abramović, Tino Sehgal, and the French Pavilion’s Christian Boltanski all utilize this gimmick); and recognition of Hispanic artists is long overdue—and timely, as the U.S. populace Latinizes. But soft-pedaling imperialism is insulting: Jenny Holzer’s torture docs are crystal clear; and Mark Lombardi actually died in the thick of his efforts. Thousands of Iraqis also died, or had their lives destroyed in two aggressive petrowars. Compared to graphically showing the real results of American force, putting a U.S. athlete on a treadmill conveys exactly what? The Republican benefactors of the Indiana museum might not like the answer—if these artists had the courage of conviction to explicitly state their position. But Venice is a world away from Indianapolis, and anyway, high cultured hands are always clean.