Olympic medalists could help the U.S. win another kind of gold—the Golden Lion prize for best National Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale—as part of the multimedia performance, sculpture, video, and sound exhibition by Puerto Rico-based conceptualists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. There was some surprise when the pair was chosen to be the U.S. representatives for 2011, following the recent big-name artists, including the posthumous presentation of work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 2007 or Bruce Nauman’s Golden Lion–winning installation in 2009, shown in Venice. The married couple is also breaking ground as the first collaborative group and the first performance artists to exhibit for the U.S. Pavilion, in addition to representing artists working out of Puerto Rico for the first time, though Allora originally hails from Philadelphia and Calzadilla from Havana, Cuba.
Lisa Freiman, senior curator and chair of the Contemporary Art Department at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Commissioner of the 2011 U.S. Pavilion, will open six new projects by Allora & Calzadilla. The art press has hyped the exhibition since details were announced—both for its high production value and for addressing identity politics inside and outside the context of the Biennale’s archaic system of national pavilions and prizes. “Gloria” consists of an ambitious array of custom hybrids: a pipe organ/functioning A.T.M. that generates a new song with every transaction; an upside-down military tank with treads that serve as a platform and treadmill for a long-distance runner; and airline seats used as balance beams for female gymnasts and pommel horses for the males. The professional athletes will perform choreographed routines throughout the Biennale’s nearly six-month duration ending November 27.
(Image: Allora & Calzadilla, Gloria, Venice Biennale 2011 (installation view). Courtesy of the artists. Photo credit: Lucy Hogg)
The Biennale has always been about site and history, and Allora & Calzadilla strategically take advantage of the space in and around the Guggenheim-owned U.S. Pavilion, a Palladian-style structure built in the 1930s. One piece, Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed, is an altered bronze replica of the Statue of Freedom—a sculpture that has adorned the top of the U.S. Capitol Building since 1863—placed below the pavilion’s similar rotunda inside a tanning bed. At a cost of more than $1 million, it's a spectacle that doesn’t come cheap. Funds for the project were allocated from the U.S. State Department and private donations, as well as sponsorship from the German clothing company Hugo Boss.
“Gloria” actually marks a return appearance by Allora and Calzadilla’s to the Biennale, and keeps with their interest in slightly absurdist imagery smartly laced with political commentary. Hope Hippo was shown by the duo in the 2005 Biennale’s Arsenale exhibition, and consisted of a person sitting atop a full-scale mud hippopotamus, reading the newspaper and blowing a whistle for every mention of social injustice. This year’s “Half Mast/Full Mast” connects directly to the artists’ previous work, and is the third film about the Puerto Rican island Vieques, a bombing test site controlled by the U.S. Navy until 2003. A two-channel video of layered projections shot on the island aligns a singular flagpole against different landscapes. Live gymnasts take the position of human flags at full and half-mast, against images of places that reference the island’s environmental and social trials and triumphs.
In Spanish and Italian, gloria translates to glory, a word encompassing religious splendor, pride, honor, and military and athletic victory. Poised in the Giardini, a space that’s been long championed and criticized for displaying contemporary art in a pageantry of nations, Allora & Calzadilla’s “Gloria” speaks to postcolonialist issues faced by Puerto Rico as a territory of the U.S. and more broadly to American and European history of competitiveness, power, and imperialism reflected by the structure of the Biennale’s 116-year old institution.