Allora and Calzadilla: Intervals

Through April 5, 2015

Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Fabric Workshop and Museum

By Tom Csaszar

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla have developed an idiosyncratic mix of installation and performance art, in most cases in collaboration with other musicians, writers and performers. Their current exhibition (at two venues, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fabric Workshop and Museum) engages musical collaboration through live performance and recorded material, and the artists have developed these in sync with their own reimagined modes of creating installation, sculpture, film, and performance.

While the inclusion of performance in recent installation and conceptual work has become common, Allora and Calzadilla have developed over the last dozen years a more elaborate multi-sensorial machinery of installation and performance, in which live performers interact with performers in video, sculptural elements or altered instruments, and architectural spaces. If anything, they have taken this work to another level beyond the average installation of one or two types of integrated elements – sound and sculpture, or performance and installation. Where works in the ten or so separate sections of this exhibition rely upon two or three elements – such as the bones and plexiglass supports of Intervals (8th floor, FWM) – the elements are connected by concept, but remain in their own parallel universes: improvised support and biological relic.  Often in the video and live performances, such as Apotomē (PMA) and In the Midst of Things (PMA), elaborate music and intricate concepts produce works that are at times indecipherable and sometimes enormously rich with allusion and poignancy.

To gain a better understanding of the visual and narrative impact of hybrid forms like these – as well as some of their limitations – you should spend some time with “Allora and Calzadilla: Intervals” and catch one or two of its performances. These pieces make it clear that the freedom of their means produces a rich commentary for the experience of our interactions with the man-made and pre-man-made worlds.

The Great Silence, a video work shown on three screens and running 17 minutes, tells the story of the extinction of parrots in Puerto Rico due to a large radio telescope, and addresses the viewer from the point of view of the parrots. One screen carries text, while the other two have images of the jungle, the birds, and the telescope. The words speak, poignantly and tragically, of misplaced priorities, while the images and text on three screens place the viewer among the shifting backdrops of tropical rivers and trees, metal, concrete, computer readouts, and the parrots themselves. Presented with this material, one could try to tease apart the truth from the fiction, the emotional pull from the intellectual problems posed. But in large part this would be contrary to the effect of the piece, which is to demonstrate and provide the experience of how these aspects of our responses all are truly blended into a richer actuality, one that their separation would desiccate.

Many of Allora and Calzadilla’s works are collaborations with musicians, singers, and in this case a science fiction writer, Ted Chiang, who wrote the projected text. Works like The Great Silence, or Alfredo Jaar’s The Sounds of Silence (1995 – 2006), rely heavily on words to relay their story and narrative impact, but use images and their dramatic effects to deepen the understanding and emotions of the viewer.

The sculptural installation Intervals (8th floor, FWM) bears the name of the combined exhibitions at the two venues. The entire space is filled with about twelve reconfigured modular clear plastic lecterns each holding one dinosaur bone, putatively at the height it would be found within the animal from which it came. The effect of the pieces here, as in the rest of the exhibition, is animated by the tenuous relationships established, denied and refused by the elements of the work; relationships between language and physicality, music and ambient sounds, communication and muteness. The space between these events all rely on the titular intervals – on felt and measured distances of time and space –to be read, felt, perceived, and understood. This idea, abstract and deeply conceptual, is not always supported by the works and their transparent internal rhythms. 

This element is the nature of works like these – presented in multiple formats and engaging concepts through multiple senses – but can also function as a limitation. They rely on contradictions and subtle distinctions in our readings of visual, musical, and verbal languages. These works do not try to unite their disparate elements so much as they present and explore the spaces between them: consistent with their title, “Intervals.” In particular, Allora and Caldzadilla address the ability of human beings to communicate and interact with other creatures and the world around us. These works examine our abilities to bridge experience between people, but also between different species. This larger territory, which repeats itself dramatically in each of the nine works in the exhibition, seems to be the end point of exploration for Allora, Calzadilla, and their collaborators. We either hear the parrots – i.e. their value in our world – or we don’t. We succeed in communicating with elephant bones in Apotomē (PMA), or the vulture in Raptor’s Rapture (PMA) through our music, or we don’t. And the ectopic locations of dinosaur bones on clear acrylic lecterns of apparently extinct lecturers are in the end not designed to be lectured from, but designed to return the bones to some no longer readable place inside an invisible body – a body not present to give an actual context and reading to the bones. Ultimately, these bones-on-clear-plastic are at one moment evocative of a score to a piece that we can’t hear, and then in the next moment are literally illegible, unable to carry us across their broken intervals to that which they would speak of.

The various pieces composing “Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals” originate from a certain particular spectrum in the art world of conceptual art, of how to visually present ideas. The most successful, such as The Great Silence (FWM) and Intervals (FWM) explore and examine the way that science and folklore, or myth and formal beauty, form overlapping models of thought. Its goal is not narrowly polemic or argumentative. The works here do not rival or dispute other knowledge of the world, but examine the way different reactions to and experiences of it can be assembled to enrich each other.

Note: If you plan to see the segment of this exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) Perelman Building, plan ahead and visit when one of the monthly Saturday performances of A Concert for Elephants or In the Midst of Things are being given. Lifespan, a third performance piece, at The Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) is given daily, two or three times each afternoon of the exhibition.

Tom Csaszar is an artist, writer, and educator based in Philadelphia. He has written over the last twenty-one years for The Journal of Art, American Craft, The New Art Examiner, and Sculpture. He teaches in the graduate program of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.