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At the Venice Biennale, national artists know no boundaries

National pavilions can be a point of pride at the event. But many artists chafe at the idea of national representation.

June 06, 2011|Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Gymnasts are included in Allora & Calzadilla's "Gloria," at the Venice Biennale's U.S. Pavilion.
Gymnasts are included in Allora & Calzadilla's "Gloria,"… (Jori Finkel / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Venice, Italy — — 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.

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