U.S. Introspection in Venice

The selection of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla to represent the United States in the 2011 Venice Biennale is sure to have raised some eyebrows. The artist collective based in Puerto Rico is far from a household name in the United States, and their subtle aesthetic commentary on issues of politics and culture are, at times, critical of contemporary American realities. Their selection is quite the risk for the US Pavilion, which in 2009 won the Golden Lion – the Biennale’s highest honor – for its Bruce Nauman retrospective. This year, instead of Nauman’s flashing neon lights and disjointed body parts, viewers will see Gloria, an elaborate 6-part installation featuring an Olympic athlete running on a treadmill installed on top of a military tank, a fully-functioning ATM inside a pipe-organ, a gymnast performing on top of wooden Business Class airline seats, and other large-scale creations and performances. Their technical mastery, conceptual creativity, and ironic humor make for a radically new and controversial approach to the representation of the United States in the contemporary art world’s center stage.

Although Allora and Calzadilla share an international focus in their artistic and exhibition choices, Puerto Rico has been an unlikely yet determinant launching pad for their career. Allora and Calzadilla owe their beginnings as key players in the global art scene to the island’s art establishment. Calzadilla studied in the Puerto Rican School of Plastic Arts, and he and Allora chose to settle in San Juan after meeting on a study abroad program in Florence in the early 90s. From the onset of their joint career, some of the most powerful and internationally-minded collectors in Puerto Rico have supported and promoted their work. Their participation in a 1997 show at Galería Luigi Marrozzini in Old San Juan led to their inclusion in the 1998 Sao Paulo Biennale, when Allora and Calzadilla were just 24 and 27 years old, respectively. Sao Paulo was their first international show, and from there the domino chain of success led to Venice 2011.

Puerto Rico itself has also been an occasional influence in Allora and Calzadilla’s thematic and aesthetic decisions, and it has played a significant role in their current Venice venture. The effects of the island’s colonial association with the United States are boldly featured in some of their most famous works. Half Mast/ Full Mast (2010), a 21-minute two-channel video installation, deals with the Puerto Rican municipality of Vieques, which the US Navy used as a bombing range for over 60 years, causing irreparable damage to the island’s human and environmental resources.

It is no coincidence that this particular video forms part of the Venice exhibition. According to U.S. pavilion commissioner Lisa D. Freiman, the Department of State’s decision to have works like these represent the United States in the Biennale could have only occurred at this moment in time. Through Allora and Calzadilla, the country explores tenuous issues of nationhood, imperialism, and global competitiveness, which are at the forefront of current American discussions about the Obama administration, Iraq, and health care reform. In Venice, the United States is looking at itself both from the inside and the outside, attempting to redefine its local character in a continuously changing international community.

Allora and Calzadilla, for their part, refrain from providing answers or definitions. They question and expose the intricacies of these debates, and encourage their audience to dwell on what is at stake.