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American gym session
von Thomas Wagner | 6/15/2011

History, or so Karl Marx once said, repeats itself, the first time it's a tragedy the second time a farce. In the United States pavilion in the Giardini there's possibly a third variation on show: history as a sports lesson. Anyone who think this is an essentially fun deal its wrong. Rather, with "Gloria" Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who have worked as a duo since 1995, dedicate themselves to the abyss and absurdities of a not only national (i.e., American) body politics. The notion of the body as the venue of politics is certainly not new. For the Ancient Greeks, the Olympiad was a battle of warriors. And the way Allora and Calzadilla illuminate the body as a display of power, politics, business and religion and reflect on this with a combination of sculpture, performance and video in more or less topical linkages proves to be highly original. What they unearth are not always pleasant insights into the mechanisms of body control.

Train with a tank

It all starts quite spectacularly: out in front of the pavilion is a veritable, khaki tank turned on its turret like an upended insect. A treadmill is attached to the massive tracks that face upwards like a row of feet helplessly waving in the air; on it, one pro athlete after another jogs, wearing the US national track squad strip. Whether they are egged on by the loud sound of the clattering tracks or themselves dictate the pace remains unclear. If one considers the performative installation to be a surreal ensemble, as it were, wedding essentially irreconcilable elements symbolically (the not quite chance meeting of a tank and a treadmill on the national dissecting table), then both readings are equally appealing. In the one instance, it is the body of the (ostensibly civilian) athlete who drivers the machinery of war, and in the other it is the machinery of war that dictates the athlete's pace. "Track and Field" is the punning title and thus battlefield and track do indeed converge and everything that happens here or there happens in the name of fame, for the power and glory of the nation.

War and sport as fame agencies

It would be overly simplistic to consider the ensemble in light of the slogan of the East German peace movement of "swords to ploughshares" as merely a temporary anti-war monument that straightforwardly turns tanks into treadmills. Things are more complicated. Sports as the national fame agency has fatally long since dovetailed with the army as the other major national fame agency. Only if one adds the ostensibly more civil forms of a national politics of the body (discernible in a sculpture, three performative installations and a video inside the pavilion), does the complexity and flexibility of the malleable and bendable American people's body and its links to physical exercise and fame become apparent.

Liberty triumphs in war and peace

Directly behind the entrance to the pavilion, under its rotunda, you come across a miniature bronze replica of the "Statue of Freedom" that graced the dome of the Capitol in Washington until 1863 and is also known as "Liberty triumphs in war and peace". Now the allegorical figure lies awkwardly and stiff on a sunbed and has to tolerate tanning as it must its title as "Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed". Has the redoubtable nation suddenly become weak? Or is liberty itself now browned off, blackened, perhaps even burnt up?

Working out in business class

What follows are two other works each in its own space. "Body in Flight (Delta)" and "Body in Flight (American)" are each wooden reconstructions of the exclusive Business Class seats of US airlines that can be turned into beds for night-flights. They mutate into gymnastic apparatuses that assume the feel of strange altars at which the mass of physical exercise is celebrated. The effective airborne business bed becomes a gym beam, parallel bars or a horse, on which (rigorously separated) female and male athletes perform their gymnastics, thus proving both their flexibility and their power. In this way, business becomes an acrobatic exercise and the body the tool of business success. The ensemble is rounded out by two things: a video "Half Mast/Full Mast" in which men hang their bodies at right angles from flagpoles like so many flags fluttering in the wind, and an organ into which an ATM has been inserted such that when you withdraw cash the organ plays a forever different, randomly generated sequences of sounds or melody.

Everyone's a flag

If one thing is clear then that instead of merely conducting symbolic politics or easily attacking America's approach in Iraq or Afghanistan, Allora and Calzadilla seek to expose deeper national strata. Religion as a business, business as an exercise in flexibility and adjustment, and finally sports as pseudo-military physical exercise – all of this may seem a bit banal if reduced to mere proposals. But that the performative installations certainly are not. If you watch a female gymnast smoothly twisting round the airplane seats, praising, honoring and celebrating them with her body like a temple dancer, then one may have the sneaking suspicion that the American dream of freedom has through its path into the body turned into a nightmare. Indeed, it is not the rivalry of ideas but of that for the will to power and the will to victory that infuses the bodies. Everything about these embodiments is spruce, all the bodies function, run through their performance, and yet are nothing more than marionettes in a brutal game of power and fame, victory and defeat. The fact that the body of the American nation is not free but has a distinctive thrust and goal can be seen from how each individual body can be used where and how, from how malleable they are or easy to manipulate. Even the flag and the body cannot be separated. Kurt Tucholsky ascertained as long ago as 1931: "Everybody has a liver, a spleen, a lung and a flag; all four organs are crucial to life. There are said to be people without a liver, without a spleen and with only half a lung; but there are no people without a flag." Gloria! Gloria! The treadmill awaits us unflagging viewers.

Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Beyond fear and Africa" by Thomas Wagner
> "Distributing pigeons in the park" by Thomas Wagner
> "We are leaving the American sector ..." by Joerg Bader and Thomas Wagner
> "Along for the ride" by Annette Tietenberg

„Body in Flight (Delta)“ and „Body in Flight (American)“
Poster on the Pavilion of the United States. With “Gloria” Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla dedicate themselves to the abyss and absurdities of a not only national (i.e., American) body politics. All photos: Dimitrios Tsatsas, Stylepark
„Track and Field“ by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla
A miniature bronze replica of the “Statue of Freedom” lies awkwardly and stiff on a sunbed and has to tolerate tanning as it must its title as “Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed”.