When the artist team Allora & Calzadilla was chosen to represent the United States at the 2011 Venice Biennale, the prestigious art exhibition that opens to the public this weekend, many art-world insiders were surprised. It wasn't a matter of not liking the artists — it was a matter of not even knowing them.
Unlike Bruce Nauman or Ed Ruscha, who have represented the U.S. in recent years, this pair was a departure from the art-world establishment.
Allora & Calzadilla were also an unusual choice geopolitically. Guillermo Calzadilla was born in 1971 in Havana, and Jennifer Allora in 1974 in Philadelphia. They met in art school in Florence, Italy, and now live and work together in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Their trajectory raises the question: What does it mean to be an American artist — or represent the U.S. as an artist — in an age of a global art market and international art schools?
The artists' installations at the Biennale, which include performances of aggressive routines by U.S. gymnasts that explore broader American shows of power, raise questions about national identity, as do several other contributions from the 88 national pavilions that make up the heart of the Biennale. In this respect, Allora & Calzadilla's work in the Biennial is part of a growing trend: artists representing their countries at the Venice Biennale in unorthodox ways or resisting the idea of national representation altogether.
The Biennale was founded in 1895 with a group exhibition format that continues today, and organizers decided early on to invite foreign countries to set up their own exhibition halls and showcase their leading artists on the model of a world's fair. Over the years, several countries built pavilions in the Giardini park in an architectural style of their choice, which are still in use.
But the very concept of the national pavilions has come under attack. Contemporary artists and curators on the whole do not like to color within the lines, especially when those lines are national borders.
"The pavilions work well architecturally — you have these great spaces to work in," says Ranjit Hoskote, a Mumbai writer and curator who organized the pavilion for India, one of seven countries participating in the Biennale for the first time."But to keep the model relevant today, when so many people have migrant or hybrid heritage, you have to think beyond national borders. You need a transnational imagination."
"We are seeing more people in the Biennale mixing things up," adds Anne Ellegood, a curator from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles who oversaw the 2011 Australian pavilion featuring conceptual sculptures by the Egyptian-born, Sydney-based Hany Armanious. "Our borders are so porous that you can't assume identity is rooted in your birthplace. It's not that simple anymore."
An American who had never been to Australia before this winter, Ellegood was an unexpected and roundabout choice for this pavilion: Armanious, who was picked by an Australian-based selection committee, tapped her as his curator.
In some cases, curators select artists who do not originate from the country being represented, or pick artists who no longer live there. In other instances, artists are exploring issues of national identity or globalism in their work. In some pavilions, it's both.
For the first time the organizers of the Polish pavilion selected a foreign artist to represent their country: Israeli Yael Bartana. Bartana's work deals directly with the history of Poland — her project consists of three videos that "document" a fictional political movement to bring 3.3 million Jews back to Poland, using this hypothetical to explore real issues related to Zionism, Polish anti-Semitism and the complexity of ethnic and religious integration.
For the Indian pavilion, Hoskote chose four artists, two of whom don't live in the country. "How do you choose one artist to represent a country as diverse as India, a country that is a continent?" he asks.
Zarina Hashmi, who lives in New York, contributed a suite of woodblock prints called "Home Is a Foreign Place." Praneet Soi, who lives in Amsterdam and Kolkata, India, made a mural in which global currents seem to course through nomadic figures. In selecting these artists, Hoskote says he was guided by ideas of "cultural citizenship more than narrow nationalism."
A few so-called national pavilions represent a cluster of countries instead of a single nation. The nonprofit Institute Italo-Latin American of Rome joined the Biennale several years ago to provide a platform for smaller Latin American countries that didn't have their own space. This year its pavilion includes artists from Europe as well as Latin America in the interests of "creating more of a dialogue," says spokesman Federico La Paglia.
Some work also comments on the Biennale itself, such as Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo's replica of the Golden Lion award she received from the Biennial in 2005 for best artist younger than 35. Her knockoff comes with a clever story: She says she was forced to hock her real award because of financial problems. (This year's Golden Lion awards, including one for best overall pavilion, will be handed out this weekend.)
The Central Asian Pavilion, which covers Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, has several artworks that dismantle clichés about ethnic identity. One takes the form of an eye chart, only instead of letters and numbers, there are images of mountains, camels, a teapot and an oil drill, among others.
"It's meant to investigate the common stereotypes about the region," says Georgy Mamedov, one of the show's curators, who says they made this artwork themselves based on a survey. The size of the symbol varies with how many people mentioned it in a poll. As for the idea of trying to represent a country at a pavilion, Mamedov calls the very premise "suspect — something that should be reconsidered by artists and curators alike."
Perhaps the most explicit critique of the Biennale's political framework comes from Fia Backström, a New York-based Swedish artist who, with another artist, represents the Nordic pavilion. For her project, "Borderless Bastards," she asked artists, writers and creative types across different countries to choose "a public sculpture of a common person from the time when your nation-state was created." She then created aluminum cut-outs bearing digital reproductions of those sculptures, placing these knockoffs near the pavilions of their countries of origin (except in the case of Serbia and Egypt, who denied permission). In this way her project spills outside of the Nordic pavilion to revisit dated symbols of national identity.
The U.S. artists take a different tack: They focus on their own country's culture, and the picture they paint is not pretty. Their entire project is called "Gloria," Latin for glory. In one work, outside the pavilion, a 52-ton tank installed upside down becomes a treadmill for U.S. track and field athletes — a celebration of American athleticism that doubles as a critique of the country's war economy.
Inside the pavilion, gymnasts wearing USA outfits do acrobatic routines on replicas of airplane seats and tray tables, which make their classic backbends and proud landings look strange and sometimes painful. The pavilion also contains a film shot in Vieques, Puerto Rico, called "Half-Mast/Full-Mast," in which men hoist themselves on flagpoles and, through great feats of strength, appear to fly nearly perpendicular to the pole.
Indianapolis Museum of Art curator Lisa Freiman, who organized the U.S. pavilion, said she encouraged Allora & Calzadilla to think about national issues when she was first preparing a proposal to represent the U.S.
"A lot of their work has dealt with the history of war, militarism and national power structure," she says. "So I asked them specifically to think about American identity and international competition and to make work that would catalyze discussion."
Last year, a final vetting committee within the U.S. Department of State, which receives recommendations from a committee of fine art experts, selected her proposal to sponsor.
Freiman says she was surprised that a project investigating American displays of power would be approved. She believes her timing made all the difference. "I would not have submitted this proposal when Bush was president. With Barack Obama in office and Hillary Clinton in the department of State, it's a very rare moment when a curator can present something that is a critique of established ideas of America."