Allora & Calzadilla
Gladstone Gallery, New York, USA
In Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on ‘Ode to Joy’ for a Prepared Piano (2008), long-time collaborators Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla incorporate musical, sculptural and performative elements in what has now become a familiar process and consistent pattern for the Puerto Rico-based pair.
This time, the duo enlisted a rotating roster of six pianists to play the famous fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (1824). Using an early 20th-century C. Bechstein grand piano that has been customized and set on casters, given a reverse set of foot pedals, and bearing a hole cut clear through the centre of the cabinet, each performer is provided with just enough room to fit through the opening. This forces them to perform backwards and over the top of the keyboard while traipsing through an otherwise empty gallery with the piano firmly in tow.
Despite the players’ obvious interpretive skills, their best efforts are thwarted: the cut hole means that two full octaves are now inoperative, so long sections of the melody are lost. These are replaced by the tap, tap, tapping of the pianists’ fingertips, and with the notes sounding more like Morse code than symphonic splendor.
As with prior works, Stop, Repair, Prepare strikes a precarious balance between a sound and sculptural work, a found and modified object, and between stasis and live action. It also evinces Allora & Calzadilla’s ongoing fascination with music as an alternately unifying and de-stabilizing force. Over the last hundred years ‘Ode to Joy’ has been identified - variously - with the Nazi regime, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall, while it is currently the European Union’s official anthem. Given its historical lineage, the piece is an appropriate choice, even if, in channeling this politically charged work, Allora & Calzadilla do not honour so much as make visible and audible the destructive potential of its continued use.
Fittingly, Stop, Repair, Prepare was first exhibited in Munich last year at the Haus der Kunst. Erected in 1933 to promote the Nationalist Socialist agenda, this latest showing provides an added dimension to the attendant politics of both locations. Both constitute contentious sites, but what arouses a greater sense of struggle - that is, between presenting it in a venue intimately (Haus der Kunst) and obscurely (Gladstone) associated with its creation, is a conundrum perhaps best answered through its reception. The audience invariably follows where the pianist leads them, but whether this makes them cognisant of their role in the making - or unmaking - of their present situation, is less clear. What the ebbs and flows of the audience shifting alongside the piano’s movements do highlight are other moments that invoke mass conversion, inspire public solidarity, or incite civic disobedience.
Allora & Calzadilla clearly do not fit neatly within the confines of a media-based practice, opting instead to create tenuous circumstances that intermix form and function. The result? Works that possess a counter-intuitive sensibility, informed as much by post-minimalist forms and post-modern subjectivity as they are by real world politics. If creating works that invoke a conflicted state of being is precisely what Allora & Calzadilla do best, then what this show makes clear is the heightened degree of complexity and subtlety with which this has been achieved over time.
So, then what of the reparation to which the title alludes? Perhaps this proves unnecessary. Standing amidst the empty gallery in between hourly performances, the piano temporarily immobile, Allora & Calzadilla’s prescient sense of how absence constitutes its own form of presence, rings clear.
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