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Controversial Art: United States war mongering at the Venice Biennale

by Brian Sherwin on 6/12/2011 6:31:49 AM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images


The Venice Biennale is arguably the most significant international event within the world of art. Due to this the national exhibitions that take place adhere to a hardcore mentality in regards to competing for attention. It is an event fit for controversial art. The 'loudest' visual spectacle often wins the frenzy of press. The 2011 Venice Biennale is no different-- and this year the 'loudest' visual spectacle came in the form of a tank-- yes, a boom, boom tank-- at the American pavilion. Unfortunately, the work of art is rather mediocre considering that it plays into the war mongering stereotype of how the United States is so often viewed. It is the same tired direction of art that has been relatively common in the last decade. The bones of the dead horse have been reduced to dust-- yet the theme continues to be kicked.


The piece was created by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. It involves a tank that has been turned upside down-- which has been converted into a treadmill. Throughout the day a runner takes to the treadmill for 15 minute intervals-- which causes the tank's wheels to turn. The noise from the piece forces the attention of viewers. It demands attention for a theme that is tired, easily accepted, and thus mediocre. It offers no challenge to the viewpoints we already know. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that anyone who views this work as spectacular only does so because he or she is a slave to the concept of American guilt-- which is also getting rather dull. It is simply controversy for the sake of controversy.


The creative duo behind the installation have been quick to state that they are not being critical of the United States or US citizens. That could be viewed as damage control considering that the opportunity that they have enjoyed rests on US dollars. They have went on to suggest that they are being critical in the sense that they are asking, "What is a treadmill?" and "What is a tank?". Considering that they also have a piece at the pavilion involving a replica of the Statue of Freedom (the 'real' statue has crowned the dome of the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. since 1863.) resting inside a tanning bed I'd say there are intentions beyond the simplicities of conceptual-minded art speak.


My opinion is that the duo are indeed being highly critical of the United States-- if not blatantly prejudice considering the stereotypes of Americans that they are embracing visually with these works of art. When you consider that the artists don't live within the US one could easily say that their intentions are far more sinister-- and dare I say, exploitive-- than they have let on. I'm certain that others within the larger art community will disagree with me. That said, I will stand by my opinion-- especially due to the tongue in cheek responses the artists have released about their motives.


I've been told that some US citizens who have viewed the piece, including a curator of a prominent art museum located in the United States, feel that the installations are an embarrassment to Americans. That has not stopped influential art critics, including the likes of NY art critic Jerry Saltz, from praising the work. Though one could say that the installations deals with preconceived notions of how citizens from other countries view the United States one must also take into account that the artists behind the work have openly claimed that the installations are not about criticism of the United States. In their minds it is a positive depiction of the United States-- or so they let on from what I've been told.


One could ask why works of art that don't rely on the shock factor of the 'US as war monger' theme were not selected instead. The 'US are war mongers' theme is becoming rather boring-- it is easy, cynical, and comes off mediocre considering the number of pieces in the last decade that have explored the same topic visually. That is the main complaint that I tend to agree with over this selection. In addition to that-- the controversy over controversial art comes off as an easy PR route-- which is debatably the most successful accomplishment of Allora's and Calzadilla's contribution to the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale. That being, easy press. Hell, I'm writing about it.


There has been some criticism over why Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla's were chosen to represent the United States. Though born in Pennsylvania - Allora now lives in Puerto Rico with her partner Calzadilla. I should point out that Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. However, neither have done work within the mainland US for a number of years from what I've gathered from complaints. It has left many scratching their heads as to why focus was not placed on artists working exclusively within the United States and on work that has a more uplifting theme. Especially during a time when US citizens are trying to move past the years of war and the end result of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.


Though the opinions I've read and heard may not exactly be informed I can understand the concern than many have had. After all, the current administration under President Obama has long made direct and indirect promises about showing more support for US based artists. Obama was quick to embrace the US art community during his historic campaign trail-- more so than any candidate in the past. When you factor in the fact that the US pavilion involves a selection process decided by the Department of State it is easy to see why some within the larger art community feel let down by the choice.


It is doubtful that you will find any of the major art publications-- or art writers in general-- picking up on that side of this story. That is why I felt it was important to mention. The mainstream art publications within the US-- or should I say specific art critics?-- often appear to have a 'love, hate' relationship with the very country they should be thankful for. I can think of several influential art critics off hand who regularly spout anti-American rhetoric any chance that they get-- either between the lines of their published writing or in a more direct public form by utilizing social media. At some point one has to ask where responsibility comes into play. I suppose that is a topic for another day. Needless to say, I 'get' why some art critics are praising installations that they would most likely view as mediocre in any other setting.


This is the way I see it-- the whole 'United States as war monger' theme that has been so common in art as of late is getting rather tired. It has been done so much in such a relatively small frame of time that it just comes off 'easy'-- I'd almost go as far as to say that said works are created with little thought. Has the US government made mistakes in the last decade-- and throughout its history? Sure. That said, I would think a nation as rich in history and culture as the US would have something other to explore visually than just military action and poor choices of recent-- and past-- leaders.


We already know the stereotypes. We know that many outside of the US view Americans as misinformed and uncaring when it comes to war. Yet during every instance of US military action I see examples of US citizens standing in protests of those actions. I see US citizens voicing their opinions-- acknowledging their freedom of speech. Obviously we are not as unthinking as the stereotypes suggest. For that reason I can understand why so many view the installations at the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale to be offensive.


Do Americans like consumer culture-- yes... as does the majority of the world. That does not mean that we are unable to think for ourselves and take action-- even against the actions of our own government. Compared to most of the world we are lucky to be able to stand in opposition of the decisions of government. It happens all the time. I've seen US citizens protest in ways that would have them imprisoned or worse in other countries. Yet the US is the "evil of the world"? I'd say that is why so many view the installations at the Venice Biennale American pavilion as a mockery-- if not a direct insult to the citizens of the US.


I'll take this further-- we all know that the United States is an easy target within the global art scene. With that in mind there are other countries that are just as deserving of visual criticism-- specifically in the middle eastern region of the world and in regard to history of the 'Old World' in general-- if not more so, than the United States. However, we rarely if ever see that explored as much as the constant bombardment of visual aggression toward US policy and dare I say, US citizens. Visual criticism of the US is easy-- it is safe. There is no risk in it because people either agree or have seen it expressed so much in art that they just don't care anymore.


After reading the criticism that others have of the United States one would think that the US was the only country to have ever had slaves, killed off groups of people, launched invasions of other countries and so on. I just find it amusing that people don't know the history of other countries-- especially when it is their own country. In fact, I'd say that we see less aggression today overall compared to what occurred prior to the United States becoming a significant world power. Again, I'm thinking in regards to a historical context. How easy it is to place all the guilt on the United States instead of examining the past of other nations.


The United States is in no way perfect-- but we constantly strive to be a more perfect Union and in the relationships we have with other countries. Are there set-backs? Yes. Has the US done horrible things? Yes. The US will probably continue to make some of the same mistakes that other countries made centuries ago. We also do good-- a great deal of good-- though the world often takes that for granted until help is needed. That said, don't forget centuries of world history just because you want to place all of your negative focus on a nation that is still relatively new to the global scene. The present day 'old world' bolstering of being more peaceful and more noble than the United States-- that old world mentality of superiority-- is a joke to anyone who has picked up a few history books.


Again, I'm not saying the US is perfect-- but honestly... other countries need to pick up a mirror ever so often. The British, the Spanish, the Dutch-- just to name a few-- once had their fingers on everything at one point or the other. I think what shocks the old world so much is that such a young nation has grown so powerful so quickly. The US has the reach that many other nations fought for centuries to have. For their time-- some came very close. Cry foul all you want-- but I will say this, the US-- generally speaking-- handles the power that it has rather peacefully compared to what other nations would have done with the same amount of power in the past. The world today forgets that.


I'd say that there are better ways to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale-- ways that don't rely on the routine of conveying the US as a nation of war mongering materialists and other blatant stereotypes. The 'US as war monger' theme is nothing new-- it is not ground-breaking by any means... nor are the installations at the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I'm not suggesting that the US should be depicted as a pillar of the world instead of a destroyer necessarily-- the US does have flaws-- but something other than the same tired visual bombardment of negativity would be an interesting change.


In closing, as for world opinion-- and the praise of the 'Tank' at the Venice Biennale-- any student of history knows that every country has done-- I will be blunt-- crappy things. I'm not saying that what the US government chooses to do is right-- but people really need to place things in perspective. It is almost as if the actions of the US today gives every other country a 'get out of jail free card' for their past wrongs. I just find that amusing. Now that is something I'd like to see explored at an event like the Venice Biennale.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Topics: art appreciation | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews | Think Tank 

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Jo-Ann Sanborn
Right on, Brian. American artists have the freedom to create artwork with any message anywhere, anytime. How sad that these pieces, with their tired little story were chosen as our international message. Why not find and show pieces of Americans looking to the future with courage and hope and ability? Now that would surprise us!

You have made it clear that you are not fond of President Obama before. At first I was shocked that anyone writing about art would have an opinion against Obama. But then I think about what was said to us artists during the campaign and the promises that have yet to happen and I get frustrated as well. How does this choice support artists in the United States? It does not represent me or how I view myself as an American. This administration only supports US art when it needs US votes!!! I vote Democrat if you are wondering. Thanks for hitting on his!!!

Stephen Washburn
"The bones of the dead horse have been reduced to dust-- yet the theme continues to be kicked."

Thanks for that image of this phenomena! I suppose kicking a dead horse doesn't take much courage.

I agree with Stephen. More courage would be tackling the subject of Islamic extremism with art. That would be politically incorrect though. Ha,ha,ha!!!

The VB is about the most shocking art. It would have been more shocking if these two artists had made bowling pins out of world leaders the US government is not friends with and a bowling ball out of Osama bin Laden's head. Bowling is very American.

Brian Sherwin
Visual rhetoric against the US, if you will, is not 'wrong'. There is a place for it. I just think it has become easy-- boring. Show me something new already. Ha! I don't think these installations were appropriate at this time and at such a major art event. I don't think they fairly depict where the United States is at right now.

Glena -- you won't see visual social commentary like that because it would be considered "hateful" or "racist". There are two easy targets to speak out against within the mainstream contemporary art world. Those two targets are the US and Christ. 'Attack' any other country as much or any religious figure with the same intent and the cloud of political correctness can soon be seen over head.

The professional art world is spineless in that regard.

Brian Sherwin
We see the same thing with politicians and how they are depicted in art. A work of art involving Sarah Palin topless dancing around a poll would be considered acceptable by the professional mainstream contemporary art world. A work of art involving Michelle Obama in the same scenario would be labeled as racist or worse.

I can recall dozens of works that involved President Bush with a gun scope target over his head and few complained. If the is done with President Obama people get into an uproar. This all goes back to the bias that exists within the art world in general. I'm not saying that either direction is 'good'-- I just find it interesting that one image can be considered 'brilliant' while the other is considered 'horrible' just because of who or what is involved.

Brian Sherwin
Just to be clear-- I'm not a fan of Sarah Palin.


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