The 2011 Venice Biennale, one of the premier art shows in the world, began welcoming visitors last weekend. Countries from around the world send specially-selected artists to the summer-long exhibition to represent their nation.
Lisa Freiman, curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is just back from Venice. She is the U.S. Commissioner this year, and in charge of our national pavilion.
Jeffrey Brown talked with her by phone from Indianapolis:
JEFFREY BROWN: First, maybe, for those who don’t understand this, explain what that means, being the Commissioner? And what is the U.S. Pavilion, and what do you do?
LISA FREIMAN: The Venice Biennale is one of the oldest international art exhibitions in the world. It goes back to the late 19th century. Inside a big garden in Venice that Napoleon established are 30 national pavilions, and every two years the art world sends the best and the brightest from each country to represent the individual countries in each of the national pavilions. All of the processes are different, but in the United States, it’s vetted through the U.S. Department of State and the National Endowment for the Arts, which puts together a committee of experts from around the country to decide who will represent the United States. Curators submit proposals. They chose artists and develop exhibit ideas for what they want to do inside the pavilion itself. And I put together a 95-page proposal, with the help of many people on my staff, proposing that we have, for the first time, two Puerto Rican-based artists, from a U.S. commonwealth as opposed to the mainland of the United States. And also, the first time that the United States has ever represented collaborative art practices or artistic duos who work together to make art.
JEFFREY BROWN: And in recent years, of course, I guess the trend, at least recently has been to have some major people who are already superstars. Now these two, this collaborative duo: Jennifer Allora, Guillermo Calzadilla. tell us about them because they are lesser known people.
LISA FREIMAN: I would say they are not at the end of the career, or the culmination of their career, as Bruce Nauman was the last time around, and many artists have been throughout the history of the Biennale. I made a distinct decision to choose younger artists. These are artists who are around 40 years old, who have an established career in terms of international museums and major exhibitions, but they’re not necessarily common household names. And the reason why I chose them, not only because of the quality of their work, was because I really wanted to do a pavilion that pushed the limits of what was expected in terms of representing the United States. I wanted to look at artists who were using innovative and avant-garde practices that were being developed now and would reflect well on, sort of, the ambition and intelligence and creativity of the American populous today.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, in terms of pushing the limits, and from what I’ve read and seen, you seem to have made something of a splash there. What they do, what I’ve seen, is one of them that got a lot of attention is an upside down tank that was turned into a treadmill.
LISA FREIMAN: Correct. Well, what they do, they use a very, very established strategy from the art world, which is “unexpected juxtaposition.” And they take things that are in the world that all of us recognize, but they take them outside of their context, and they recombine them in strange and unexpected ways, almost like what happens in dreams when we have images come together that we never would have imagined could be there. And in this case, they are taking a military tank from the 1960s, painting it that “Desert Storm” tan, overturning it and then superimposing a treadmill on top. And then, pushing it even further by collaborating with members from U.S. Track and Field, the official headquarters for track and field in the United States that organizes all of the Olympic competition for track and field. And we actually have Olympic runners, like Dan O’Brien, running on top of this overturned tank, which is situated in front of the U.S. Pavilion.
JEFFREY BROWN: I was thinking of when I visited you at the IMA a year or two ago, and the emphasis on Indianapolis as a competitive town, right? A sports town. So you picked up, apparently, some of that with these artists.
LISA FREIMAN: Well, you know, it was funny. I can’t say it was expected when I approached them. They came to it on their own. And I was somewhat naïve, being, you know, a person who is very connected to the art world and not the sports world. And one of my colleagues said, ‘well, don’t you know that U.S.A. Gymnastics and U.S.A. Track and Field is headquartered in Indianapolis?’ And I said, no, I didn’t know that, but that is amazing! And so, let’s try to get Olympic athletes to perform on our pieces! And so we pitched it to both of the organizations early on, you know, of course not knowing how they would respond. You showing them renderings of an overturned tank with an Olympic runner on top — they could have easily shown me the door very quickly. But they got it completely and were really excited about the possibility of collaborating with the IMA, and bringing the world of culture and sports together again in a way that really goes back to ancient Greece and Rome and the Olympics.
JEFFREY BROWN: Another piece was reproductions of actual business class seats on airlines, which I gather served as a sort of a balance beam for these athletes? So, I guess I should ask you how does that add up to an art pavilion?
LISA FREIMAN: It added up to an art pavilion really beautifully, I think, in terms of the connection to performance art and happenings that date back to the 1960s, and the body, which has been a crucial aspect of art, again, going back to ancient Greece and classical sculpture, in painted vases that were given to athletes as awards for winning their particular races or events. So all of the themes that were explored in the exhibitiopn, which is called ‘Gloria,’ is related to, sort of, the glory and splendor of art and of competition, both military and athletic. And it has all of these different nuances that echo and reverberate throughout the different six works in the exhibition. And it’s the artwork and the objects and the experience of all them that causes you to think about these things in relationship to one another, which ordinarily you just wouldn’t think about.
JEFFREY BROWN: What about for you personally? This is a very high profile, and, I’m sure, high pressure forum to be presenting America’s art in Venice. What was that like?
LISA FREIMAN: It was—truly, it’s been the most amazing experience of my life, from start to finish, both in terms of the challenge, the competition— you know, I competed with some of the most distinguished peers in my fields. And having a platform to move beyond Indianapolis, beyond a national stage and to an international realm. You know, I stuck to what I believed was the right thing to do in relation to what’s happened in history before, and also just what felt right for this moment in time, and I thought, you know, we’ll see what happens.
We’ll see what the critics say. We’ll what the populous says. And I have to say one of the most incredible experiences of this as a curator has been seeing the reactions. We had literally thousands and thousands of people standing in line every single day just to get in and to experience the performances and see the work. And then once they were inside, the rooms were packed and people were staying and surrounding the artists, the performers and the sculptors and staying for 18 minutes at a pop. And when you are looking at what normally happens in a museum — I think the average time a person spends in front of a work of art is, if you are lucky, 50 seconds. It was extraordinary to see people so engaged and ooohing and ahhing, and sort of putting their hands in front of their mouths, and shaking their heads, and just completely engaged and interested.
You don’t often have a firsthand opportunity to see the effect of an exhibition that you organized, and what was so extraordinary about Venice was the instantaneous response, which was overwhelmingly positive, both from scholars in art history, and in postcolonial studies, and in performance and film, but also just people who wanted to have an experience and see something new. So it was really overwhelming and beautiful, and, you know, one of these, I think, moments that if you get to have once in a lifetime as a professional you are incredibly lucky.