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."