Location| Venice Biennale 2011: Photos and Reflections (Part Two: United States)

Ah Venice..... (photo: D. Barenscott)
Part One of my reflections on the Venice Biennale began with Canada this week, and now my attention turns to the United States--no surprise there, and perhaps a bit too expected, but as you will see, the pavilion was impossible to ignore. With rumours of James Franco representing the United States circulating around the exhibition all year, I can readily admit a spectacular quality was already attached to the US show well ahead of my visit. And quite literally within a few days of arriving in the city, we had heard rumours again that the previously cancelled and then postponed Franco installation (off-site and not at the official pavilion) was going to go ahead in a matter of days. Now for any of you who have visited Venice, you know the labyrinth of small islands and thousands of snaking streets and campos pose a challenge to the most seasoned traveler. And so in the end, we were quite honestly disappointed not to be able to find the Franco project, but what we found at the Giardini in the American building was still quite something to behold.

Venice Biennale 2011 (photo: D. Barenscott)
Approaching the pavilion, we were already puzzled with the presence of a massive military tank near the entrance. I had made efforts to avoid reading too much about what I would see there, so I did not connect the tank to the US pavilion, assuming that it was part of something  that the Israelis were showing in the adjacent exhibition (my bad, I know). Moving closer, we caught sight of a very athletic woman running on what appeared to be a treadmill on top of the massive vehicle, causing the wheel mechanism below to move. I immediately smiled at the irony of this very typically North American leisure pastime, treadmill running (something I actually enjoy myself), connected to what many would perceive as an unrelated reference to the military industrial complex. But as we entered the US exhibition and got to know the work of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla—a collaborative artist duo who live and work in the American territory of Puerto Rico— it became apparent that their unexpected juxtapositions were part of a broader project to bring themes of commerce, entertainment, competition, and nationalism into a productive tension.

Unexpected juxtapostions abound in Allora and Calzadilla's exhibition Gloria at the US Pavilion.
Featured here is Track and Field (2011) (photo: D. Barenscott).
Upon entry, visitors are immediately met with another odd sight—a human size neo-classically rendered statue lying inside a sun-tanning bed. With the provocative title Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed, the statue’s visual vocabulary and location inside the entrance way’s architectural dome (referencing the US Capital dome and rotunda) signals its idealized representation. But in a clever twist, the artists render this national symbol of an ideal nation in connection to the idealized and individuated notions of beauty associated with the pursuit of youth in American culture.

Allora and Calzadilla, Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed (2011)
(photo: D. Barenscott)
The pursuit of beauty and perfection in the national social body is also represented in Allora and Calzadilla’s Body of Flight installation and performance. Recreating in sculpted form Delta and American airlines’ business class seats, the artists partnered with American Olympic gymnasts to create an intentionally “contaminated” gymnastic routine that the athletes would perform with and around the seats. When we arrived at the pavilion, we were fortunate to get a front seat for the rigorous fifteen minute gymnastic routine performed right inside the gallery space in front of our eyes. I still cannot believe the physical endurance demonstrated by the gymnast, and found myself understanding how the artists were exploring ideas associating modernity, innovation, and design, with embodied notions of flexibility and performance.

All images are part of the artists' Body in Flight (2011) project. I was unable to find out the name
of the US gymnast, but she was absolutely amazing! (photo: D. Barenscott)
Finally, the piece that left us most amused was the massive sculptural object, Algorithm, which was located in its own room. Well over twenty feet tall, the object appears to be some kind of a monster organ from one side, but as soon as you move around it, one immediately recognizes its function as an ATM machine. We had already been warned upon entry that all of the art works were “fully functional,” so I understood that I would be putting my own bank card at risk if I actually placed it inside the machine. Pulling out an SFU copy card with a magnetic strip, I placed it inside the machine and was prompted to push a few buttons. Almost immediately, the large sculpture began to project a very loud series of sounds and spit my card back out at me.

Allora and Calzadilla, Algorithm (2011)
As we spoke with a pavilion representative, we learned that the artists had collaborated with a composer to create a variety of atonal and structured musical compositions to correspond unpredictably to the way users engaged with the machine. I watched as several visitors approached and used the machine, thinking about how such a mechanized part of our lives becomes so completely defamiliarized through the unexpected connection to a musical algorithm. The music had a very trance like quality, as if we were enjoying the sounds in a church, and I think that association with the detached and very mystical workings of international commerce was the very point that the artists wanted to make.  Loved it and all that Allora and Calzadilla brought to the table for the US offering at Venice. If only they could have talked James Franco into making an appearance running on the tank—now that would have been very very cool to unpack and discuss.