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Hearing (and Feeling) the Contemporary Art of Allora & Calzadilla

Imagine standing in a bare room in which a small, 4-billion-year-old rock hangs from the ceiling by a thin wire as three vocalists whistle and breathe on it to make it swing. For some people, such a scenario might be the nightmare version of contemporary art run amok, so far “out there” that it’s never coming back. 

Imagine standing in a bare room in which a small, 4-billion-year-old rock hangs from the ceiling by a thin wire as three vocalists whistle and breathe on it to make it swing. For some people, such a scenario might be the nightmare version of contemporary art run amok, so far “out there” that it’s never coming back. However, standing there and watching the piece, titled Lifespan, part of the new exhibition Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals, I couldn’t help but find myself mentally urging the rock to move, as perhaps others in the crowd were, too. The art of collaborators Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla encourages this kind of chain-reaction collaboration by making you first hear the work and then feel it in your mind and body. For those who think contemporary art’s lost in space, Allora and Calzadilla bring it back to Earth.

Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals, parts of which run at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Fabric Workshop and Museum through April 5, 2015, presents the artists’ largest solo American exhibition yet, but also gathers together old and new works of film, sound, live performance, and sculpture to form a “collage” of multimedia, multisensory, multicultural, multitemporal, multidimensional art. Philadelphia-born Jennifer Allora and Havana-born Guillermo Calzadilla began collaborating in 1995. Using their shared love of meticulous, extensive research into history and culture, Allora and Calzadilla have built an oeuvre focusing on the fascinating intersections and juxtapositions that come from their investigations into the past as a means of analyzing the present and future.

Their biggest splash came at the 2011 Venice Biennale, when they not only represented the United States at that huge, international event, but also became, as residents of Puerto Rico, the first artists from outside the continental U.S. to earn that honor. Their upside down tank with a runner’s treadmill moving in unison with the tank’s tread, a piece fraught with political connotations and titled Track and Field, made a big impression on that biggest contemporary art stage. (Video of the tank and other works from that show can be seen here.)

Rumbling tanks aside, Allora and Calzadilla’s art’s often been about hearing as much as seeing. Inside the Venice pavilion past Track and Field, they placed Algorithm, a 20-foot-tall pipe organ whose keyboard had been replaced by an ATM machine—a mash-up of art and commerce anyone could step up and use. Earlier, in Clamor, the duo gave sculptural and sound form to the interrelation of sound, music, and war by reproducing a concrete bunker and placing musicians inside to “fire” martial music out from the openings. In this new exhibition, however, Allora and Calzadilla “weaponize” sound to demonstrate not conflict, but connection.

The main part of the show featured at the Philadelphia Museum of Art consists of three films by Allora and Calzadilla. In 2012’s Raptor’s Rapture, a flautist who specializes in prehistoric instruments plays the oldest musical ever found, a 35,000-year-old flute fashioned from the wing bone of a griffon vulture, as a live griffon vulture listens nearby (image shown above). In 2013’s 3, a cellist serenades the 26,000-year-old Venus of Lespugue with a piece composed by David Lang based on the ancient Greek Dorian musical scale as a sonic equivalent of the figurine’s physique. Finally, in 2013’s Apotomē, Tim Storms, owner of the Guinness World Record lowest recorded voice in the world, sings a subsonic version of the music played in 1798 for two elephants brought to Paris during the Napoleonic Wars. As Storms sings his impossibly low notes, Apotomē (which Allora and Calzadilla found to be an archaic Greek word translated as “what is cut off” as well as a musical interval discovered by the mathematician Pythagoras) follows him walking through the storerooms of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris towards the skeletal remains of those same elephants, which he then picks up and sings to.

Amplifying the film’s juxtaposition between then and now, alive and dead, Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals includes live performances of A Concert for Elephants (composed this year by Christopher Rountree) by Relache. Listening to the live musicians play along with Storms’ subsonic voice as well as witnessing their animated movements as they played, I felt the music almost more than I heard it. The feeling from my chest down to my toes was all about Storms’ base, but the lyric voice of the strings and woodwinds lightened my heart and head at the same time. Here was surround sound in the truest sense. Likewise, professional chamber choir The Crossing’ performance of In the Midst of Things, a reconstruction of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, filled the halls of the museum with soaring consonance and contrasting dissonance as the group filled the space with their choreography. Dressed in ordinary street clothes, the choir seemed to come out of nowhere to sneak up on the audience, mingling and collaborating with you in the shared space. (A full schedule of live events for the exhibition can be found here.)

Over at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, in addition to Lifespan’s suspended, swaying stone, are the new sculptures that give Intervals its title—a series of dinosaur bones set upon clear plastic podiums to the approximate height of where they would have been on the living, ancient creatures. Because the clear supports extend beyond the bones, which appear to float in midair despite their heft, there’s a hazard for viewers that makes you hyperaware not just of the art’s physical presence, but also your own. There’s no sound to surround you in Intervals, but you find yourself physically surrounded by the sculptures as you view them in the round and from above or below, “surrounding” them in turn.

On a more cosmic level, a new video installation, The Great Silence depicts the interesting juxtaposition in the artists’ home Puerto Rico of the world’s largest radio telescope seeking intelligent life “out there” beside a sanctuary of endangered Puerto Rican parrots who can speak but can’t be “heard” by the human civilization threatening their existence. “We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them,” science fiction author Ted Chiang imagines the parrots thinking in subtitles accompanying the film. “Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?”

But what are museums that stage contemporary art exhibitions looking for? Contemporary art, even work as critically praised as that of Allora and Calzadilla, is often a hard sell to the general public, who feel befuddled or intimidated by the braininess of the work. But The Atlantic’s Marion Maneker recently made an interesting analogy between the rise of fancy cuisine and a possible opportunity for contemporary art to reach a wider audience. Just as meat and potatoes Americans once scoffed at enjoying fancier dishes, today’s generation—thanks to whole networks devoted to cooking and the elevation of cooking itself to a competitive sport on reality shows—can now entertain the idea of experiencing more adventurous fare. More people know the term “molecular gastronomy” than ever before. I’m not a complete “foodie,” so I’ve never had a deconstructed grilled cheese sandwich (perhaps with some truffle foam), but I’d be willing to try one.

Maneker’s point is that contemporary art like that of Allora and Calzadilla could easily whet the appetite of the art equivalent of the “foodie.” There’s a definite “cool” element to ancient dinosaur bones, the oldest instrument ever found, the lowest voice ever recorded, and forgotten meanings of ancient words that can turn obsessive for today’s information age generation. Perhaps the most attractive element of Allora and Calzadilla’s art is its subtlety and nuance, which leaves interpretations and reactions up to the viewer as a collaborator on equal footing rather than as an unknowing audience preached down to. As in the world of food, your tastes are as legitimate as those of the most renowned gourmet or critic. As the artists remarked in an earlier interview, their goal is to provide the “poetic glue” that holds the artistic experience together just enough for the audience in fill in the blanks from their perspective. When you see how Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals brings together artists, writers, musicians, animals, and even dinosaurs, the welcoming, collaborative spirit sweeps you along. Just as the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition Dancing Around the Bride dispelled the misperception of Marcel Duchamp as an isolated genius declaiming from on high, Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals brings alive the interplay of contemporary art at its finest and invites you to grab a partner and dance along.

Of all the dinosaur bone sculptures of Intervals, the one that struck me the most featured two vertebrae from the same spine but set in their proper places, leaving a phantom backbone for us to complete out of thin air. Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals is an exhibition that runs along your spine, firing neurons and sparking connections that reward further examination and inspire deeper curiosity, the very mission of any museum. You’ll come away wanting to mix up some “poetic glue” yourself to piece your world together in newer, more interesting ways than you ever imagined you could see, hear, or feel.

[Image:Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla.Raptor’s Rapture, 2012, Single channel video projection with sound. 23:30 minutes. Image © Allora & Calzadilla.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Fabric Workshop and Museum for the image above from, other press materials from, and an invitation to the press preview for Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals, which runs through April 5, 2015.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]


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