"This is all part of a strategy to make people nationally and internationally - and even locally - more aware of the value of the IMA and the importance of art in everyday life."
Lisa Freiman, the senior curator and Chair of the Indianapolis Museum of Art's contemporary art department is sitting in an office packed to the rafters with books, planning documents and broad sheets covered with images and diagrams. At this moment, Freiman's office is an international command center. She serves as the United States commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion for the 54th Venice Biennale international art exhibition, the oldest continuous contemporary art exhibition in the world.
Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department selected a proposal developed by Freiman and IMA CEO Maxwell Anderson for the IMA to curate the U.S. Pavilion in Venice.
Put simply: This is a big deal.
Dating back to 1895, the Venice Biennale is to the art world what the Olympics is to the world of sports. As its name indicates, the Biennale, which awards gold and silver medals to the top entries, takes place every two years. A major component of this art orgy takes place in Venice's Castello Gardens, where 30 countries have erected permanent architectural structures - the pavilions - that serve as sites for their biannual entries.
The Biennale's history, says Freiman, runs parallel to the development of the modern Olympic movement. "They were part of a similar sensibility in the late 19th century to bring different people from around the world together in a peaceful way and to celebrate, in this case, the best art that was being created."
The State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs works in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts to select the American museum to curate the U.S. Pavilion. Museums from across the country apply for this opportunity; this year the IMA was in competition with such institutions as New York's Whitney Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum. The IMA is just the second Midwestern art museum (the other being the Art Institute of Chicago) to be selected to represent the United States in Venice.
Art as a catalyst
Freiman says the IMA's application focused on addressing American identity and nationalism at this time in history. "It seemed to me like this was a really important moment to talk about the diversity and complexity of American identity through art and to use art as a catalyst for raising some of those issues - not in a social realist way where it's a transparent representation of ideology, but to use art to complicate matters and disrupt the expected."
Freiman brought the same approach to the Biennale application that she's used to such great effect on projects like the IMA's 100 Acres art and nature park. "My curatorial practice has been to work with young artists, commissioning new projects, to give them opportunities to create new work that they wouldn't ordinarily have and, also, to help build our reputation and collection."
In this case, Freiman turned to a pair of collaborative artists, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, based in Puerto Rico. "I had wanted to work with them at some point," she says, "but was sort of sitting on it because I wanted to wait for the right moment, the right context."
Allora and Calzadilla have been a team since 1995. Their work has been featured in exhibitions throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Serpentine Gallery in London, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Palais de Tokyon in Paris. "They're extreme intellectuals and their work is always conceptually based," says Freiman. "The work is frequently socially and politically inflected. It's very much tied to the history of modern and contemporary art in terms of the language of the forms that they use. They are totally tied to the legacy of avant-garde practices but they are reinventing them afresh in relationship to issues that are important to us today, like sustainability, the environment, defining individual places, understanding power structures and the way that they affect our lives. They're interesting to me because they don't pass judgment. Their work is not didactic, it's not trying to choose sides. What it does is reveal the ideological underpinnings of things."
And so the first work visitors to the U.S. Pavilion will encounter is what Freiman calls a "performative sculpture" - a military tank turned upside down with a treadmill mounted at one end and an actual athlete using it for a seemingly endless workout.
"Because we were playing with ideas of international competition in relationship to the art world and the military and commerce and culture, [Allora and Calzadilla] started thinking about having real athletes involved," says Freiman.
The IMA reached out to the offices of USA Track & Field and USA Gymnastics, headquartered in Indianapolis, in order to involve world class athletes in the performance elements of the six installations, collectively titled Gloria, thatAllora and Calzadilla have created for the U.S. Pavilion. "I think they thought we were slightly insane," says Freiman, smiling, "but they got it."
Freiman acknowledges that Allora and Calzadilla's work opens a door to potential controversy. "We had long conversations behind the scenes as we were developing the proposal about how much we should say and we made a decision we were going to be completely true to ourselves and about what it was that we wanted to do and what we wanted to say. It was a totally idealistic endeavor and so, when we won, it was all the more sweet because we didn't censor ourselves. We were completely honest about what we wanted to do. There are always judgment calls. But when it comes to art, especially, I think, good art that is not doctrinaire but is complicated and provocative, that is part of the necessity of a free democracy. It's part of the Bill of Rights. It's freedom of speech. It never exhausts itself in terms of its being important and our needing to pay attention to it."
In any event, the IMA's selection to host the U.S. Pavilion represents a historic milestone for the museum and for Indianapolis. "It's great for the museum because it puts us in the company of the best museums in the country who have done this," says Freiman. "But it is also great for the city because it is another way that we can demonstrate very literally that we are ambitious and competitive and critically minded. We're engaged in what's going on nationally. This is not just saying that we've arrived, but that we've excelled our peers in many ways."
Gloria, the U.S. Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, commissioned and curated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is on view from June 4 through Nov. 27, 2011.
Can't make it to Venice? The IMA has developed a microsite with background information on the Venice Biennale, U.S. Commissioner Lisa Freiman, the U.S. Pavilion, Allora and Calzadilla, and each work of art included in Gloria. Multimedia components will include video interviews, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the installation and a feed to blog posts facilitating online conversations about the exhibition and its themes. Go to http://imamuseum.org/venice.
Teens from Indianapolis and Puerto Rico participating in a global exchange program will travel to Venice to meet counterparts there and create an international student-run blog, "Our Voices/La Nostra Voces/NuestraVoz".
You can also find extensive information about Allora and Calzadilla at Artbabble, the collaborative video platform developed by the IMA.