Performance art that makes political points

The United States exhibit for the Venice Biennale includes "Track and Field," consisting of an exercise treadmill on a military tank. Daniele Resini and Vincent G. Allora

About a dozen people were gathered around identical models of airline businessclass seats, impeccably fashioned in wood. Around one, a young professional dancer and gymnast bent her body in graceful movements. The routine lasted 17 minutes.

"There's tension about being on a plane, and this is meant to provoke that same kind of anxiety," whispered the performance and conceptual artist Jennifer Allora, who, with Guillermo Calzadilla, her partner in life and work, make up Allora & Calzadilla, an artist team in Puerto Rico.

The two were in New York putting the finishing touches on six new projects that will be incorporated into "Gloria," an exhibition that will occupy the American pavilion at this summer's Venice Biennale.

To perform the pieces they have gathered a cast that includes Dave Durante, a champion in all-around gymnastics; Dan O'Brien, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon; and the gymnast Chellsie Memmel, a silver medalist at the 2008 Beijing Games. There will be a 47-metric ton military tank turned upside down and topped with a treadmill and an Olympic runner; a classical-style bronze sculpture lying inside an open tanning bed; and a fully functioning cash machine incorporated into a custom-made pipe organ that will play with each bank withdrawal.

"It's all about making the impossible possible,"said Lisa Freiman, senior curator and chairwoman of the contemporary art department at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, who is this year's commissioner of the pavilion. "I never thought the State Department would choose my proposal. I assumed it would be too politically engaged."

Allora & Calzadilla's presence in Venice will represent a couple of firsts for America: the first artists working in Puerto Rico to show there and the first time performance artists have been chosen to represent the United States there.

The artists have assembled objects and expertise from all parts of the globe. The tank was shipped from Manchester, England, in two flatbed trucks that are arriving in Venice by boat; the organ is coming from Bonn, Germany. The bronze statue was made in a foundry in Berkeley, California; the tanning bed is being sent from Indianapolis; the cash machine is from Milan, but the computer program that runs it was conceived in Paris; the airline seats were made in Los Angeles.

The American exhibition is expensive, costing more than $1 million, with funds from the State Department and Hugo Boss, the German men's wear company, as well as collectors and philanthropists worldwide.

For the artists, the chance to show six new works meant taking stock of all the ideas they had been tossing around.

In New York this winter they received much attention when their 2008 work "Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on ��Ode to Joy' for a Prepared Piano" was performed for about a month in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. The artists had reconfigured an early 20th-century Bechstein by removing a section of the instrument's strings and cutting a hole through the center and setting it on casters. They then hired musicians to stand in the hole and play Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" upside down while walking slowly through the space. The tune, a favorite with Nazis, was the anthem of the European Union and of Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe.

An innocent performance laced with political themes is what audiences will experience in Venice. The tank, from 1945 and used in the Korean War, will sit outside the pavilion.

There, a USA Track & Field athlete in uniform will run for about 45 minutes on the treadmill above its right track. The associations are many: militarism, national identity, competition.

"Nothing will ever be repeated," Mr. Calzadilla said. "Sometimes the music will be atonal or cinematic, or like a horror movie or a gospel."

And when the Biennale is over, then what? "Hopefully," Ms. Allora said, "all these pieces will go on to have a life in other places."

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