Whitechapel Laboratory - Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla

14 February - 25 March 2007

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Born in Philadelphia and Havana respectively, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla began working together in the second half of the 1990s. Since then they have created a wide-ranging body of work that includes detailed floor drawings which dissolve underfoot, a large, constructivist-inspired radio antenna made of wire coat hangers and environmental installations that connect different geographical locales through the medium of light. Like many artists of their generation, the final form their work takes is determined as a function of the ideas they set out to explore. These are connected to issues such as environmentalism, globalisation and consumerism, relations of power and acts of resistance. Often intervening with a simple gesture, they overlap social and aesthetic spheres to open up a space of poetry and play as well as of critique.

Most of Allora & Calzadilla’s practice engages in formulations of space. Chalks, 1998-2006, is a counter monument consisting of a five-foot high slab of chalk placed in various public squares. As the material dissolved and fragmented over time, people were invited to use the chalk to write, draw or simply doodle on the surface of the street; a process of material erosion that gave way to creative possibility, transforming the street into a blank canvas inscribed with a plurality of different voices. Staged in Lima, New York and Paris, the work evolved differently according to its context. In Lima, it coincided with a demonstration of disaffected civil servants; the army was called in to remove the chalk and the streets were quickly hosed clean.

Allora & Calzadilla’s process is often concerned with forms of translation and juxtaposition. In Ruin, 2006, the artists ‘recycled’ industrial waste material as a minimalist sculpture. The large, floor-based installation consisted of thin sheets of steel, from which geometric sections had been punched out and moulded into functional objects in manufacturing processes. Allora & Calzadilla’s assembly of the discarded left overs transformed work into play, investing steel with the fragility of paper cutouts. The sculpture also evoked successive transitions, from raw materials to funcional objects and industrial waste, co-existing like sedimented layers accumulated over time.

This exhibition brings together four recent film works that reflect many of the artists’ concerns, in particular their pragmatic and expedient sensibility. Amphibious, 2005 was shot on the Pearl River Delta in China, where large-scale investment in manufacturing has transformed the area into one of China’s leading economic engines. Against a backdrop of boats and container ships six turtles float quietly downstream on a single log. “They stare and stare, “ the artists have said “seemingly prehistoric witnesses to our postcolonial patterns of production and consumption.”

Returning a Sound, 2004 and Under Discussion, 2005 were both filmed on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico, as part of the artists’ ongoing involvement with the island’s history. Occupied between 1940 and 2003 by the US Navy, who expropriated land from the islanders forcing them to resettle, it was used throughout this period as a military base, a weapons testing site and for munitions storage. 200,000 square miles of its surrounding waters were appropriated for naval exercises and successfully hired out to foreign governments, as a ‘unique’ opportunity for live military exercises. Vietnam, Korea, the Bay of Pigs, the Balkan wars, Somalia, Haiti, the Gulf Wars as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have all been simulated in and around Vieques.

The islanders, meanwhile, had to contend with sound pollution from constant explosions, the destruction of land and sea habitats, fishing nets shredded by navy ships and soil contaminated with napalm and uranium. In the face of constant civil disobedience campaigns the US military eventually relinquished its bases in May 2003.

Returning a Sound documents a local activist celebrating the departure of the US Navy, by replacing the muffler on his scooter with a military trumpet. As he accelerates or slows down the exhaust fumes breathe into the instrument and fill the air with a mixture of abstract jazz sounds or melancholy single notes. The route he follows leads out of the island’s capital and across the areas previously delineated as off limits. “We were interested”, the artists have stated, “in composing an anthem as a commemorative structure, but we were not satisfied with the conservative connotations of the word. We preferred the more open set of associations that its Greek etymology offered: antiphonos, meaning sounding in answer, or in return.”

After the departure of the US Navy, ownership of the land passed into the hands of the US Department of the Interior, who declared the former military bases wildlife reserves and conservation zones. Under US law this designation exempts the government from decontaminating the land. Under Discussion follows the son of a fisherman active in the Fishermen’s Movement in the 1970s, as he attaches an outboard engine to an upturned conference table and sails it around the island. Combining the languages of diplomacy and direct action, he follows the fishing routes - contested by the Fishermen’s Movement and severely depleted after decades of military exercises - around coastal areas that are still littered with military waste. In the meantime, the rest of the island is being heavily marketed in the travel industry as an unspoilt idyllic landscape and sold to wealthy property developers, who have enacted a new form of land expropriation by pricing the islanders out of their own market. In January 2007 the travel section of The Guardian newspaper ran an article describing Vieques, its troubled history comfortably behind it, as an “amazingly unspoilt Caribbean island” that offers “eco-friendly luxury and access to miles of pristine beaches”.

Allora & Calzadilla’s interest in the impact of competing political, economic, social and environmental forces in an era of globalisation find different expression in Sweat Glands, Sweat Lands, 2006, a collaboration between the artists and the Puerto Rican reggeaton singer Residente Calle 13. Darker and more mysterious in setting, the video depicts a pig roasting on a spit that is attached to the back wheel of a car, and turns to the rhythm of a revving engine. Delivered with forceful intensity, the lyrics reflect on the impact of globalisation on society and the environment.

Andrea Tarsia, Head of Exhibitions & Special Projects