Blunder at the Biennale
Panero, James, New Criterion
The United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has always been a tool of American propaganda. The question is what message to send. Every two years, the U.S. Department of State produces an exhibition in Venice with art that it purports to select through an open contest but, in fact, chooses behind closed doors in Washington. Since 1961, the mandate of this decision-making process has come out of the Fulbright-Hays Act, which enables the government to demonstrate American cultural interests, developments, and achievements overseas. The U.S. Pavilion reveals what the government values at home and how it chooses to represent those values abroad. One might say that the exhibition offers a unique visualization of American diplomacy.
At this year's Biennale, this visualization includes an overturned military tank, an ATM machine attached to a pipe organ, the Statue of Freedom from the Capitol dome tipped on its side, and a set of airplane seats with American athletes performing exercise routines around them. The State Department tapped the artist-duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla and paid them, judging from similar bequests, around $300,000 to create this assembly, which the artists titled "Gloria."
Through a proposal submitted by Lisa Freiman, the curator of contemporary art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the artists made six works for the Pavilion. Freiman lined up $1 million or more to finance the elaborate spectacle from a few high-profile art collectors, mostly Latin American, and the clothing brand Hugo Boss. The exhibition opened on June 4 and will be seen by an estimated 300,000 visitors before closing on November 27,2011.
"Gloria" is a show of American power gone deliberately awry, but as a pratfall it falls flat. Nestled in a park called the Giardini near the southeast tip of Venice, the U.S. Pavilion, designed in the Palladian style by the acclaimed American architects Delano and Aldrich in 1930, is one of the more reserved structures of the thirty national exhibition halls. This year, Track and Field, the largest work of the State Department show, operates as an outdoor folly to attract visitors into this sedate building. Allora & Calzadilla, as the pair are known, took a fifty-two-ton Centurion tank, supposedly used in the Korean War but painted desert tan, flipped it on its back, and placed it in front of the pavilion hall. On top of the right tread, which clatters loudly around the tank wheels and resounds through the rest of the park, the artists mounted an exercise treadmill. Here real-life athletes from USA Track & Field, including the former Olympic medalist Dan O'Brien, jog at intervals during the exhibition while wearing U.S. team clothing. The effect, a rather unconvincing one considering the treadmill's inelegant placement on the vehicle, is that the champion athlete is running on the tank tread itself. The meaning is that an unsubtle (and unsustainable) link exists between American militarism and athletic competition.
Inside the pavilion hall, a pair of works called Body in Flight (Delta) and Body in Flight (American) resemble business-class airline seats, on which the artists directed gymnasts from USA Gymnastics to perform a choreographed routine. The two works together provide a visual satire of the international (again, competitive) business interests of the United States.
For the next work, called Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed, the artists took a downsized replica of the Capitol dome's Statue of Freedom, tipped it on its side, and placed it on an illuminated tanning bed (supposedly the UV bulbs were swapped for non-cancer-causing fluorescents). Much like the destitution of statues from the Soviet Union or more recently of Muammar Gaddafi, here American freedom has been toppled, not by revolution but vanity.
In another room, Algorithm joins an ATM to a pipe organ, creating a facile connection between capitalism and religion. For the final work, Half Mast/Full Mast, the artists filmed a twenty-one-minute, two-channel video installation on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which was used for military training by the American navy until 2003 and has since been undergoing environmental remediation. …