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Allora and Calzadilla: Tate Modern gets political in activating "Balance of Power" by Puer

Acquired by the Tate in 2009, Balance of Power (2007) has been recently ‘activated’ at Tate Modern in London. The performance piece consists of three yoga instructors dressed in military gear from head to toe, carrying out ‘warrior’ poses in a loop. With a wide interdisciplinary artistic career, ranging from video to sound, to sculptures and interventions, the works of artists Jennifer Allora (U.S., 1974) and Guillermo Calzadilla (Cuba, 1971) are known to ignite, at least, a conversation. The duo lives and works in Puerto Rico, a space highly influential in their practice, from which they draw inspiration for the observations, criticisms and thoughts their pieces raise. The duo’s approach to current issues affecting the global sphere are analytical and poignant. Questioning the order of things, Allora & Calzadilla, critically engage with cultural, political, geo-political, and historical complexities that remain elusive in the general art historical sphere when speaking about the ‘non-west’ nations.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. (Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

Tate Modern and assistant curator Dina Akhmadeeva separated the performance in two different locations. Firstly, in the ‘Tanks Lobby’, where the performers activated the piece in conversation with one another and the bareness of the museum. Secondly, the performance was activated in the ‘Artist and Society Display’, a space designated for politically and historically engaging artworks. Therefore, explicitly placed to challenge the social and cultural issues affecting us globally: war, violence, immigration, censorship, and identity. A pick ‘n’ mix in which the melange of works crave their rightful attention. As part of the installation, the first performer was put in dialogue with a room exploring abstract artists from Sao Paulo, Latin America and Europe in the 1950s. The second performer, placed in dialogue with Joseph Beuys’s The end of the Twentieth Century (1983-5) and Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-85). The third, with Dila al-Azzawi’s Sabra and Shatila Massacre (1982–3). Undeniably, the curator brought Balance of Power to life in dialogue with heavily influential and politically charged pieces in the collection. In doing this, the pieces on display and the performance are enrichened in a stimulating, critical and ongoing discourse that doesn’t fall on deaf ears. Admittedly, the combination is overstimulating. The partition of conversations between performers and pieces in different rooms should be minutely analysed as single events in Balance of Power, instead of trying to focus on the piece as a whole, to avoid falling prey to a generalisation and a superficial examination. The curatorial decision to place the performance in these two highly different spaces is, for lack of a better word, balanced. Attending the performance in only one space would destabilise the experience of the piece within the museum.

In order to grasp the pillars of the issues addressed by Allora & Calzadilla in Balance of Power, it is imperative that you first see it in the Tanks, undisturbed, in conversation with the bare walls of the museum. Through a provocative assessment of militarism and violence, the aesthetic of the piece is conflicting. The viewer is confronted with a preponderant military figure. This intimidating figure is, however, repeating yoga poses: a mental, physical, and philosophical practice that is widely known as a health-benefiting, non-threatening activity for all ages. Balance of Power has a humorous and ironical approach to the criticisms it intends to raise. The piece blatantly alludes to the continuous political conflict in Puerto Rico, US military presence, colonialism and war. It discreetly alludes to the meditative and the disciplined collective body: yoga and the military have more in common than the bare eye can grasp. A metaphorical approach to the bodies of power that govern our nations. The piece engages with the bio-politics of everyday life, it challenges the status of meaning and representation and it raises questions that are open-ended. It is through the tool of metaphor that the artists reach the public at large in Balance of Power. The beauty of this piece’s atemporality, is the mere fact that global viewers get a similar perspective while having the chance to add their own narrative discourse. This is perhaps the motive behind the recent ‘activation’ of Balance of Power.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Balance of Power (2007) Tate Modern (Photo: Margarita F. A. Chiclana)

Having experienced the performance in the Tanks, the same piece, in conversation with the ‘Artist and Society Display’ seemed different. It became a hunting approach on a busy Sunday afternoon. The performers were now separated into three different discussions that seemed out of context. The performers, visibly tired from performing in a busy space, had lost the potency of organisation. The powerful façade that the performers held in the Tanks as a group was now dissolved and spread. In a superficial criticism, the piece had become an imbalanced performance. The individual conversations held between performer and artwork were rich and deserve their rightful attention. Alas, as mentioned before, the condensed exchanges would have to be picked apart more thoroughly in order to be able to understand Dina Akmadeeva’s curatorial choice for this piece. In placing the piece in these rooms, the artwork’s dimension changes, new meanings and new conversations are layered atop one another, leaving the viewer longing to pick it apart.

The curatorial decision to place Balance of Power in two radically different spaces allows the performance to transcend its own limits. Although it can be easily argued that the artwork’s metaphorical power is lost when divided; it can also be argued that the piece regains a new status, commencing a new narrative that is incredibly tempting, allowing the viewer to be intimate with the artwork and to further understand it in a broader art historical context. The artwork addresses issues from a humorous approach, knowing its own limitations. The recently activated piece could not be of more relevance today, as Balance of Power silently and effectively pinpoints underlying issues in our globalised society. Military involvement between nations, the governing of the body by the state, organised bodies of power and lack of individuality are some of the imbalances of power embodied in Allora & Calzadilla’s revelatory piece that comes to life at Tate Modern.

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