The Collaborator: Curator Lisa Freiman on Allora & Calzadilla's Provocative U.S. Pavilion for the Venice Biennale
The Collaborator: Curator Lisa Freiman on Allora & Calzadilla's Provocative U.S. Pavilion for the Venice Biennale
It's been a big year for Lisa Freiman, chair of the contemporary department at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Not only did the curator spearhead the development of the institution's new "100 Acres" sculpture park, which opened in July with eight newly commissioned outdoor artworks, but a mere two months later she secured the high-profile honor of organizing the United States pavilion in the 2011 Venice Biennale. With the U.S. State Department's rare unanimous blessing, Freiman will now oversee six on-site installations by Puerto Rico-based artists Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla that will open next summer — marking the first time an artist duo has been selected to represent the country.
A follower of Allora & Calzadilla's work for nearly a decade, Freiman had been searching for a venue to give their politically-engaged multimedia work exposure. Now, thanks to her provocative proposal — which will have the duo showing work that will address the ways in which the United States uses art to wield geopolitical influence, from the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom's Cold War-era promotion of Abstract Expressionism onward — the artists are sure to garner plenty of attention on contemporary art's most visible stage. (For her part, Freiman remains surprised, and impressed, that the State Department ratified the concept.)
With months left to go before the biennale opens its doors in August, ARTINFO spoke to the curator about the tricky logistics of the exhibition space in Venice's famed Giardini, Allora & Calzadilla's timely globally-minded stance, and — on separate yet related note — why the Midwest is, in her mind, culturally relevant after all.
I heard that you just returned from a big trip to Venice.
Yes, we went for our preliminary site visit to the U.S. pavilion. Our core team from the IMA was there: people from registration, installation, and buildings and shipping. Max Anderson, our director, also came along. He speaks fluent Italian, and I think things would have been a lot less productive without him. It went a long way.
What were the main objectives of this visit?
Well, the organizing institution in Venice is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, so we met a lot with their people. We met with the architect for the pavilion, who consults with the Guggenheim as well. We also met with structural engineers, because the scope of Allora & Calzadilla's work demands it. Basically, the big focus was to understand the pavilion — the structure of it, the limitations, what we can and cannot do to it since it's a historic landmark. Right now, the Architecture Biennale is up, so we could see the High Museum's iteration of the space. That helped in figuring out the mundane behind-the-scene details — which windows can be opened, what we'll need to paint, what we can block off — that are the least sexy aspect of an exhibition. Still, they're completely necessary for making a sexy exhibition.
Going over these logistics, do you foresee any particular challenges given the nature of Allora & Calzadilla's installations?
We're doing six brand new commissioned pieces that I'm not at liberty to discuss. But the one thing I can say is that they're quite ambitious. I think it's safe to say that the U.S. Pavilion has never featured work of this scale or ambition before in the history of the Venice Biennale. So it's exciting, but as you can imagine, this does pose some challenges as well. You always hear the rumor that Italian bureaucracies are particularly complicated, and it's quite true. Often we'd ask if something could be done, and our liaison at the Guggenheim would simply say, "Well, we can ask." There are no immediate answers for anything. We've decided that the best way to approach this project is with a good sense of humor.
The project will also have an educational student-exchange component. Can you tell me anything about this? How did it come about?
As part of the application, the State Department had asked everyone to develop an education program that would reach beyond the Biennale itself and would especially address under-served youth. We thought about it for a long time and decided that, instead of doing something more superficial, we really wanted to focus it and give life-changing experiences to a handful of kids. So we're initiating a dialogue between teenagers from Indianapolis, Puerto Rico, and Venice. We're also going to be putting together a documentary about their exchanges, in relation to what they come to understand about art history and the Biennale, for the IMA's "Art Babble" Web site, which, as you know, is very popular.
Did the State Department have any other specific requests?
Well, the call for proposals stressed quite explicitly that the concepts regard what's going on now in contemporary art, and I realized that the U.S. had never been represented by collaborative artists before. If you think about just how important collaborative works are at this moment, this is really kind of astonishing.
So it was crucial to you, from the beginning, that Allora & Calzadilla is a collaborating pair? Or was it more of a fortunate grace note that occurred to you after the fact?
No, it was important to me from the beginning. I've actually been working with a lot of collaborations lately. It's not something that I started doing deliberately, but now people call me "the collaboration curator" because I've worked with Type A, I'm working with Allora & Calzadilla, and also with Aziz + Cucher. I've worked with Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, too, so it's gone across different generations of artists. But I thought it would be especially interesting to present this different mode of artistic practice at the Biennale. You know, Britain presented Gilbert + George a couple years ago, but it was a different generation. Now there's this whole new generation where more and more people are working with collaborative practices, and it seemed like the moment to do it.
What else did you feel was needed to satisfy this particular moment, this cultural climate?
For one thing, there hasn't been a really self-critical pavilion in a long time. And while the Fred Wilson project [in 2003] was certainly critically engaged, it wasn't directed towards the question of nationalism. I thought that with the current administration that's in place, our best shot would be to do a self-deprecating, playful, and somewhat critical project. It's well-timed with Hilary Clinton in the State Department and Barack Obama in the White House. I was fierce about pushing it through from an institutional perspective, because I really believed that this was the only time I could propose this; it seemed so right. But in a million years, I didn't expect the State Department to approve it. I actually thought the State Department might censor it, because it's in opposition to so much of the way that the United States has represented itself over the last 15 years or so.
So you were surprised when you were selected?
It's funny — it was such a long shot. We were certainly the underdogs, and not just because I was going after artists who are not a household name. I mean, people who are into international contemporary art certainly know Allora & Calzadilla. They have a great track record, but they're not the blue-chip artists from history that everyone would expect. Also, it's difficult because there are two layers of bureaucracy. There's the art world bureaucracy — the whole committee of directors and curators, et cetera, from the art world — who make the top three recommendations that go on to the State Department. And then the State Department has their own in-house committee, where they vet for politics. I knew we'd have a really good shot for the final three, with the art committee, but I was worried about vetting it for politics, because it's such an intentionally political project. But one of the nice things I found out, from the Department of State, is that the decision to select Allora & Calzadilla was unanimous. Now I'm eager to see what the reception is like from the public.
Judging from Allora & Calzadilla's previous works, I assume these installations will be multidisciplinary in nature. Bruce Nauman's pavilion at the 2009 Biennale was multidisciplinary too, but in an entirely different way from what viewers expect from Allora & Calzadilla. Still, I'm curious if you see the 2011 pavilion as any kind of a refrain to Nauman, or a deliberate re-envisioning of his themes?
I don't, actually. I feel relatively strongly about that. There's no question that they're all conceptual artists, but just as in any other classification in art history, the diversity within such very broad categories is tremendous. Artists have very particular, specific practices that are unique to them. I think Allora & Calzadilla have very little to do with Bruce Nauman. I also think they have nothing to do with Abstract Expressionism, for those who have commented in that way.
If you had to categorize their work, how would you do so?
Mostly all of their works incorporate basic characteristics of surrealism, such as unexpected juxtaposition or de-familiarization. This surrealist strategy, which came out of André Breton’s study and the veneration of Freud, comes from a dream aesthetic. Some of the side effects of using this strategy of de-familiarization are absurdity, humor, wit, and a feeling that you couldn't possibly be seeing what you’re seeing. It's the same thing that Oldenberg did when he made a giant hamburger in 1962. It was completely absurd, but he was using scale as de-familiarization. Allora & Calzadilla are not as interested in scale, but they juxtapose different aspects of cultures — whether they're social, or political, or formal, or musical. In fact, their "Ode to Joy" piece is a perfect example; a person is literally inside a piano and playing it. So they're surrealists, in my view. And many of the surrealists were politically engaged as well.
To shift gears a bit, let's talk some more about the IMA. The biennale news has, of course, triggered a ton of positive publicity for the museum. Do you foresee any specific ramifications that the Allora & Calzadilla project might have on the future of the institution?
Whatever I can say is speculation, but I'll answer yes for a number of different reasons. First of all, the "100 Acres" park was a game-changer for us. It was a huge risk, it was a huge project, it was unexpected for this institution. For people who have been following the IMA, and the contemporary program in particular, it wasn't a huge surprise. But for the people who were shrugging us off as some place in the middle of the country that couldn't possibly be very interesting or progressive, it was an eye-opener. So from an international perspective, the biennale, coupled with "100 Acres," really puts this program solidly on the map as one of the most rigorous contemporary programs in an encyclopedic museum. We're really serious about what we're doing, not only in terms of collecting canonical works of art and doing exhibitions, but also in terms of taking risks and working with emerging mid-career artists who other people aren’t paying as much attention to. We're very much in the present, which can be a bit of a contradiction for encyclopedic museums with contemporary departments, because encyclopedic museums are used to historicizing everything. But it's been great fun.
What is it about being at a Midwest museum that appeals to you?
I like being a bit contrary sometimes — it's probably why I like Allora & Calzadilla's work so much. I mean, I'm not from the Midwest originally. I'm from the East Coast, and can say that all the stereotypes about the Midwest are firmly in place on the nation's two coasts. For me, "100 Acres" and the U.S. pavilion are ways of debunking certain stereotypes. As the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis first demonstrated many years ago, you can be in the Midwest and still be progressive. In fact, there's a unique freedom here to play. I've had a huge opportunity to be playful here, and to do something that hadn't been done at this institution, or in the history of the biennale. I think the Art Institute of Chicago is the only other place in the Midwest that has hosted the U.S. pavilion and, aside from that, it's always, always a coastal institution. I feel glad that I could do something for Indianapolis.