Jerry Saltz on the Ugly American at the Venice Biennale

A man jogs on top of an overturned armoured tank in an installation by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla during the 54th International Art Exhibition in Venice on June 2, 2011. The Biennale entitled Illuminazioni that will open to the public from June 4th to November 27th 2011, in the Giardini and the Arsenale exhibition venues, as well as in various other locations around the city. AFP PHOTO / Filippo MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)/2011 AFP

“This makes me embarrassed to be an American,” the megacurator of an extremely well-known U.S. art museum groaned to me. We were standing in front of what was truly a spectacle of American proportions. Directly in front of the American Pavilion in the beautiful Giardini, main site of the Venice Biennale — which opens on Saturday — the artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla have placed a 60-ton Army tank. It’s a real one, shipped from England at who knows what expense, turned upside-fucking-down, turret and gun barrel on the ground, steel treads to the sky. Atop this warlord wedding cake, they’ve installed a treadmill where a world-class runner works out for fifteen minutes of every hour. It’s the health club from Hell, Afghanistan in Venice, and it makes a humongous racket that can be heard all around the Giardini. I looked back at the curator and said, “I think being embarrassed to be an American is partly what this is about.”

It was Tanks "R" Us: We Americans are making this incredible noise, flexing our might, playing police force to the world, entertaining ourselves and anyone who’ll watch, being grandiose and goony and needy, all the while trying to stay fit. (The pyramid structure has a runner on top, just where another culture might put a figure of winged victory or a gargoyle.) Yet this monumental Babel-like totem pole in this place at this time — while obnoxious, ostentatious, clamorous, and gross in its implications — is, like a lot of art, also an amazing strange fact.

Allora and Calzadilla have found a way to encapsulate, possibly exorcise, summon, and certainly give visual form to the freaked-out way the world sees the United States. It’s about what people think before they set foot in the American pavilion (just as they, and we, come into the pavilions of Germany, France, Korea, and other countries with entirely different preconceived notions). It’s ever-present but always invisible content, left over from centuries or piled up in only decades. As I walked away from this infernal piece I said to the curator, “Now, that’s America.”