Review by Eleanor Nairne
An athlete jogs on a running machine connected to the right track of an upturned military tank. Hoisted several metres into the air, his all-American, Abercrombie and Fitch good looks are clear for all to see. Located in the heart of the Giardini, Track & Field (2010) mesmerizes passers-by and entertains those queueing for the nearby Mike Nelson exhibition, making a show-stopping start to the American Pavilion. The work typifies the practice of Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, which blends sculpture, video and performance to create striking visual images that condense a multitude of conflicting ideas about American life. The treadmill might be a motif for the tedium of soldiering or for the inevitable escalation of arms; the runner (an affiliate of the USA Track & Field Team) seems to represent the national obsession with sportsmanship and the competitive pomp of war.
The artists are an unusual choice from Senior Curator Lisa Freiman and a welcome change after the safe selection of Bruce Nauman in 2009. The first collaborative to feature in the pavilion, they are neither from nor are based in the country they represent: Allora is of Puerto Rican descent while Calzadilla is Cuban; they have been working together since 1995 and are based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But it is precisely this background that makes the artists a fitting match for a country of such ethnic heterogeneity, as they conjure a perspective of America seen but rarely expressed by its many diaspora. The Venice biennale, an Olympics of contemporary art in which nations jostle to promote their artistic hegemony, becomes instead a playground for debate. As Allora & Calzadilla explain, ‘all of the works follow in a spirit of critical play and profanation’.
This playfulness is made audible in Algorithm (2011), a sculpture comprised of a custom-built organ attached to a fully-functioning ATM machine. The cacophony created by visitors withdrawing cash parodies the normal discretion around the act, while making light of the idea that in America money is ‘music to the ear’. In the left- and right-hand galleries it is the economy of global travel that is brought centre stage with Body in Flight (Delta) and Body in Flight (American) (2011), two new performance works which feature replicas of the latest business-class seats. The wooden versions have been turned into a balance beam and a pommel horse for routines choreographed in collaboration with gymnast David Durante and dancer Rebecca Davis. Watching the extraordinary displays of physical agility, which highlight the extreme flexibility of the body, the viewer is encouraged to lose sight of themselves as a visitor in a gallery. When the performance is finished, the seats remain as solitary sculptural forms that invite consideration - perhaps of how prone commercial airlines are to ‘bend over backwards’ in order to distract from the ecological implications of global travel, or of how the carbon footprint from itinerant curators and international biennials fuels their environmentally unsound business. Once again, Allora & Calzadilla have conjured a series of performative analogies that magnify the ambiguities surrounding the leading political controversies of today.