Like so much of the art world, this year’s Venice Biennale is an example of the overblown spectacles, predictable politics and perverse performances that characterize cultural gatherings around the globe.
It seems artists no longer believe a canvas or a sculpture can make a sufficiently loud statement in a biennale. Instead they go for the grand gesture, creating massive theatrical environments whose scale and ambition cannot mask shallow content. New Yorker magazine critic Peter Schjeldahl dubs the phenomenon “festivalism.”
Here’s the scene in front of the U.S. pavilion: A sand-colored Army tank is flipped upside down with its turret on the ground. On top of its elevated undercarriage is a treadmill with an athlete dressed in red, white and blue and running in place, his action seeming to power the tank treads that roll with an ear-splitting clatter.
The contraption — conceived by the artist couple Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla — constitutes an unsubtle critique of American values.
The theme continues inside the Jeffersonian-style pavilion where a scale model of the “Freedom” sculpture from the Capitol dome lies in a sun-tanning bed, an ATM rigged with a pipe organ plays heavenly chords when visitors withdraw euros, and gymnasts perform muscular routines on painted-wooden replicas of business-class airline seats.
Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which commissioned the works, told me the exhibit is “an unabashed celebration of American commercial power around the world . . . richly dipped in irony.”
“Gloria,” as the conceptual installation is titled, may take issue with America’s devotion to militarism and mammon, but it also betokens our government’s respect for the First Amendment. How else to explain the State Department’s approval of an exhibit that satirizes ugly Americanism? (The selection was recommended by art professionals convened by the National Endowment for the Arts.) And if the overturned tank is “festivalism” writ large, it’s not alone at this year’s biennale.