Venice Biennale Displays Upside-Down Tank, Ottoman Decay: Review

"I, Impostor" (2011) by Mike Nelson in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011. The work is a reconstruction of an installation that Nelson presented in Turkey in 2003. Photographer: Cristiano Corte/Brunswick Group via Bloomberg

Trust the U.S. to come up with some razzamatazz.

In most other national pavilions at the 54th Venice Biennale, installations of a distinctly low-key mood are widespread. Among them is a radical remodeling of the British Pavilion into a facsimile of a semi-derelict structure in Istanbul (more on that below).

The U.S. artists Allora & Calzadilla buck the trend (supported by Hugo Boss) with their piece “Gloria.” For a start, theirs is the noisiest exhibition not just this year but in recent Biennale memory. At intervals, the 60-ton tank placed upside down grinds into life creating a clattering, heavy-industrial sound.

Inside the pavilion, one piece consists of a combination between a giant pipe organ and a fully functional ATM machine. When you insert a card, thunderous music emerges, and also -- if you wish -- a Euro advance from your bank account.

There’s not only sound, there’s also action. Intermittently, gymnasts perform inside on reproductions of spacious, expensive airline seats.

Outside, a runner strides on a tread mill attached to one of the tracks. The machine and the person pound on pointlessly. The tank itself, upended, looks prehistoric, its gun barrel extending along the ground like a reptile’s tail.

The work of Allora & Calzadilla is fun. But does it mean anything? There’s some sort of metaphor here -- about mechanization, sport, nationalism and competition -- though it’s too much fun to be scathing or even very clear.

Rotting Labyrinth

The British Pavilion, by Mike Nelson, has the reverse of pizzazz. His work, titled, “I, Imposter” consists of an astonishingly precise reproduction of a warren of decaying, 17th-century buildings -- an Ottoman trading inn -- in what was then the empire's capital. As a feat of fabrication it’s startling since the British Pavilion is a neat piece of 19th-century classicism.

Inside, the pavilion has been recast into a labyrinth of rotting rooms, featuring low-quality concrete, eastern Mediterranean plumbing arrangements, moldering piles of junk, deserted work benches strewn with rusting tools, precipitous stairs, defunct electrical equipment, piles of rubbish, and an entire, ramshackle inner courtyard (sited where one of the finer galleries usually stands).

All this is a reconstruction of an installation that Nelson presented in Turkey in 2003, plus the building it was housed in. On first entering, you’re apt to conclude that this is a masterpiece of perversity: expensively converting a nice building into a horrible one. One visitor commented that it strongly reminded him of his parents’ basement.

Sinister Allure

The point of it all is far from clear. Still, it grows on you. There’s a feeling of having found your way into somewhere you’re not supposed to be, a seedy, slightly sinister place with a complicated history. It lingers in the memory, admittedly not in an altogether pleasant way.

The other main contender in the dispiriting-installation category is Christian Boltanski’s work for the French Pavilion. This makes a statement about the human condition, rather too obviously. A strip of photographs of newborn babies runs at high speed over a colossal scaffolding frame, stopping at random moments when a bell rings.

To the sides, illumined figures monitor people being born and dying right now. There’s a clear point, at last: We’re all random members of a vast population, constantly being replaced. If you find that depressing, perhaps the best thing is to go back to that cash point for some cheerful organ music.


(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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