Gloria: Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla

by Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy


Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are representing the United States in the 54th Venice Biennial (2011). For their exhibition, “Gloria”, for the US Pavilion, the artists expand on some of the themes and methods of their earlier works, such as the relationship between art and the cultural or military history of common objects, as well as the intersection of performance and sculpture. In these new works they also address burgeoning artistic concerns, including an interest in unlearning and relearning special skill sets, and choreography in space and of time. The discussion particularly focused on three sculptures, each incorporating performances by professional athletes.


SOFÍA HERNÁNDEZ CHONG CUY: Let’s begin with some basics, describing some of the artworks in “Gloria”, your exhibition in the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennial.

GUILLERMO CALZADILLA: Among the artworks we’ll present are two new sculptures: one is called Body in Flight (Delta) and the other Body in Flight (American). Each of them is a 1:1 scale replica of an airplane business class seat made of carved and stained wood. Each of them substitutes a piece of gymnastics equipment.

JENNIFER ALLORA: The American Airlines seat is going to substitute the pommel horse…

SHCC: …and the Delta Airlines seat has been transformed into a balance beam?

JA: Yes, the ergonomics and the design of the Delta seat seemed more suitable for the women’s routines, especially the two sinuous walls that flank the lie-flat bed. The American seat’s design seemed to us closer to the pommel horse, on which only male gymnasts perform.

SHCC: Will the gymnasts performing on the sculptures be wearing a particular outfit?

JA: USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for gymnastics in the United States with whom we are working on this project, has provided us with uniforms specially designed for the occasion.

SHCC: Listening to this description and looking at the preliminary sketches, these works seem like animated three-dimensional collages: a superimposition of somewhat existing images that together make something new. The performer over a sculpture appears to be doing something familiar, though in an unfamiliar setting… but how did you actually arrive at the idea of business-class airplane seats?

JA: They’re commodity fetishes, and a really interesting anthropological object.

GC: We find it interesting how each national airline tries to imagine, define and portray itself through these expensive, complicated designs that encapsulate ideas of travel, business and comfort. As sculptural objects, we think they could make interesting support structures, a base on which something happens. An influential work in this respect is Brancusi’s Bird in Space, and the idea of the base versus the object. The title of our Body in Flight echoes Brancusi’s, this time playing with the idea of a body that is actually moving.

JA: Bird in Space is all about aerodynamics. There’s an interesting contradiction between the experience of flight and the design of these seats, with being propelled through the air at 600 miles per hour and what the object is meant to do, which is to help the body be completely static.

SHCC: What exactly and how will the performers, the gymnasts, be interacting with the Body in Flight sculptures?

GC: We have developed a specific choreography for each of the two seats. The form of the seats, their shapes and their scale define what kind of gymnastic routines happen. It’s basically a juxtaposition of two things that are not normally linked together. We had to find a glue, an adhesive that could join these things in a meaningful way. Language becomes a very useful means to do that. Etymologies, procedures, operations, mediums, materials – all these things become content for the work. For example, before it became gymnastics gear, the pommel horse was originally designed to teach soldiers how to mount and dismount a horse. We’re interested in the relationship to the military that these supports carry.

SHCC: And in Track and Field (a third sculpture with performance commissioned for “Gloria” at the US Pavilion), you’re actually using existing military equipment as an assisted ready-made of sorts…

GC: Yes, that artwork is basically an upside-down military tank, and one of the tracks of the tank has a treadmill machine attached. When the treadmill is turned on and the conveyer-belt platform starts moving, the tank treads also turn.

JA: So we’re connecting two different types of conveyor belt systems that actually exist, the one of the treadmill and the one of the tank. The two are interacting, and one is generating the movement of the other, like two wheels in a clock. The performer in this sculpture is a track & field runner, running on the platform of the treadmill that makes the treads of the tank turn.

SHCC: And will the performance of the runner in Track and Field be recurring?

GC: Yes, for 45 minutes by one runner at a time, successively.

JA: 45 minutes is the ideal length of a cardio-workout. This is part of the meaning of the relationship between the performer and the object.

SHCC: With that sculpture and the runners it seems a more straightforward performance, and thus training; but what do the performances, and ultimately the rehearsals, with the gymnasts in the sculptures of Body in Flight consist of?

JA: We decided to bring a choreographer into the project because we wanted someone who comes from a dance background to be involved, specifically to help us figure out a language that could link together and break apart the different skills that gymnasts normally use. In normal gymnastics events, the athletes perform a skill, then catch their breath, and then they do another skill. And the length of their routine is usually two or three minutes because of the physical challenge of what they’re doing. We wanted to make something that lasted more like 15 minutes, so we were already talking about a longer format. Also, considering the fact that the object is not a conventional gymnastic apparatus, but a sculpture inspired by airplane seating, we knew that we would have to figure out how to get the gymnasts from one part of the object to another in a way that was meaningful and fluid, and that worked. So the choreographer is helping us to figure out how to weave together all these different things that they’re going to be doing.

GC: The choreographer we’ve been working with is Rebecca Davis, who used to work with Trisha Brown, so her knowledge comes from a tradition of modern dance. When we have all these gymnastic movements that can be done, then it becomes about transitions. How can you make a score that has different movements? Structurally, many things are changing completely. The first thing is length: the performances in Body in Flight last 15 minutes, not the three minutes of a typical gymnastic performance. Second, the form, shape and size of the sculptures are completely redefining the kinds of movements the gymnasts perform. Third, there is the spectator relationship to the event. Normally you are seeing a gymnastic event sitting down, whether at home watching TV or on the benches if you’re actually at a competition. But in the exhibition at the US Pavilion the audience can move around the object, physically much closer to the performer.

SHCC: And how are you choreographing time in the performance of the artworks, and in that relationship to the experience of the spectator in the US Pavilion?

GC: Our relationship to duration is based on the relationship between the object and the performer, the life of the object, the life of the performance. In other words, objects in our case are not props. They are highly elaborate sculptural forms that could exist in a meaningful way in and of themselves… without being touched. But we like to mix these things, because it introduces different moments of meaning in the work – a reorganization of life, temporalities and forms.

JA: There will be another artwork in “Gloria”, within the US pavilion, that incorporates live sound. It’s also a new work. We were thinking about the temporality of the exhibition and how the different rooms and works in the pavilion will interact with each other. Sound is hopefully going to be something that will link the different gallery spaces and artworks. There will also be a new film in the exhibition that is intentionally silent because of the strong sound component in that other work I mentioned. So, all these things will flow together.

SHCC: And specifically, in terms of the length of time of the actual performances, how is the exhibition organized?

GC: You’re going to see the support itself, the sculpture, and somebody doing a 15-minute choreography. When the choreography ends, you can see the sculpture on its own. So it’s 15 minutes of performance per sculpture at a time, and then there is a 15-minute break, and then 15 minutes on the other sculpture, then a 15-minute break, for the duration of the exhibition.

SHCC: Is there something in particular that has come as a surprise to you in the rehearsals with the athletes while you are preparing for the exhibition?

JA: Something that I didn’t plan but learned from the rehearsals, particularly in the case of Body in Flight, is that when the sculptures are without the performer they appear as a hyper-realistic sculptural object; and then when the performer comes into the situation, what they start doing makes the object become abstract, because of the way they start moving on it. So when it’s alone, it’s a highly representational figurative sculpture, and when a human figure comes in and starts doing these things in relation to the object, the object itself no longer seems representational, it totally becomes this abstract thing. That is what’s interesting about it, actually, the fact that you can see both things, and you can see this transformation in front of your eyes. It was just a chair a minute ago, and now it’s not; it’s this other thing that has a whole new set of meanings associated with it.

GC: Another interesting thing that has come up is that the gymnasts have begun to refer to the sculptures as “events”. In their field, each apparatus is called an event. So now, the eight gymnasts who will be performing in Venice have begun the work of mastering a new event: Body in Flight.

SHCC: With the performers in your various videos and sculptures you seem to transit back and forth between activism and fine art. Can you talk about your choice of performers, which have ranged from activists to musicians and dancers to athletes?

JA: We’ve been collaborating with different people to complete an artistic problem that we’ve set up in our work and that the performer needs to somehow resolve. Whereas in some earlier works the person involved didn’t necessarily have to perform anything remarkable, but just do what they would typically do, in recent works they perform a special ability. We’re more and more interested in working with people who have highly specialized skills. Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano (2008) is a work where this is especially made clear. This work required a pianist with an enormous amount of expertise to be able to play the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony from within the instrument, inverted and backwards.

JA: In Stop, Repair, Prepare it was very clear to us that if we put a hole in a piano, we needed to find a piece of music that we could also put a hole through, as well as a person that could interpret it from within. The sculpture is a kind of obstacle that forces the performers to rethink their skills and relearn them, maybe even to invent a new language. The performative sculptures in “Gloria” that we’ve discussed here follow that logic. We’re working with athletes who have mastered a specific skill, for example, in gymnastics, and the sculpture that we’re offering them in place of the pommel horse or balance beam asks them to think differently about how they can perform what they have perfected in their normal presentation.

GC: For the video Returning a Sound (2004), it made structural sense that an activist would be the motorcycle driver, riding through his work-site, the island of Vieques. The relationships that are drawn between gestures, actions, objects, context and locations have been recurrent in all our work. In the case of some of the works in “Gloria”, especially the ones we’re discussing here, we’ve been literal about these relationships. The exhibition is in the US pavilion, so we focused on US airlines for the sculptures, US Olympic gymnasts and the US Track and Field team for the performers, and so on…

JA: We also wanted to combine ideas of nationality and celebrity culture, which is part of US culture.

SHCC: When I read the title of the exhibition, “Gloria”, the first thing that came to mind was the pop song by Laura Branigan (actually adapted from the Italian song recorded by Umberto Tozzi). Ultimately, I can see how the title works transversally. It’s a name and a word that appears throughout history and it means so many things. How did you come to it?

GC: We wanted the title of the exhibition to be in Spanish. When we pinned it down to “Gloria“, we were also happy that it was a female name. In English, it translates to “glory,” and the title functions on the multiple registers working within the exhibition, such as religious glory, military glory, Olympic or sports glory, and so on.

JA: It’s one of those things that have many different meanings attached, through time and history, so it becomes an empty signifier: you can put in whatever content you want. And of course we were attracted to the musicality of the word. But the title actually came up while I was reading a book by José Martí, the Cuban poet and revolutionary. The word was mentioned in a sentence, and it stood out so perfectly.

SHCC: Why was it important for you that the title be in Spanish?

JA: We were looking earlier at English titles and nothing was working. We were also considering that it was the US Pavilion… There seems to have been a lot of talk that we were an interesting choice for the US Pavilion because we’re based in Puerto Rico, which is not part of the continental United States. I don’t know if this is a reason why we’ve been selected, but it was something that we also wanted to play with.

SHCC: And what do you think about the fact that you were selected to represent the US in the Venice Biennial when citizens in Puerto Rico, like you, Guillermo, don’t have the right to vote for the constitutional President that represents them?

GC: The first thing that I’ll say is that I cannot represent myself fully. It’s impossible. I can’t represent Jennifer either – all her emotions, feelings, thoughts, ideas. That’s impossible, too. It would take me my entire life to do it, and the more I tried, the more I would fail. So it’s very simple: it’s impossible for me to represent the US. That was a point of departure. What we do is play with images, situations, experiences, sounds, gestures, forms, procedures, matter… things that are part of the world, and recombine them in ways that we find interesting. That’s the work we’re doing for the exhibition.


Originally published on Mousse 29 (Summer 2011)


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