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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's often called the Olympics of the art world. For more than a hundred years, artists from around the globe have gone to Italy to represent their countries at the Venice Biennale. Like athletes, artists prepare rigorously and eventually compete for the gold - in this case, the Golden Lion.

The sports analogy usually stops there, but Christopher Livesay reports that this year's American artists have come up with an exhibition of truly Olympic proportions.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Artists are scrambling to put the finishing touches on their exhibitions at the Venice Biennale. There's a lot of dust in the air outside the pavilions. And with all of the cardboard and debris lying around, it kind of feels like a war zone. So when you get to the American Pavilion and see a 60-ton British tank turned upside down, it almost looks normal.

Ms. JENNIFER ALLORA (Artist): The market for tanks is limited, and the American tank, which was our first choice - the Abrams - are not available right now for nonmilitary consumption.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIVESAY: That's artist Jennifer Allora. She and her partner, Guillermo Calzadilla, are representing the U.S. with five installations. For this one, called "Track and Field," they've fixed an exercise treadmill on top of the tank's right track where a real U.S. Olympic athlete jogs in 30-minute stretches. He's one of eight U.S. Olympians performing through November when the Biennale closes.

Another installation is called "Algorithm." It invites the viewer to become the performer, specifically on a 20-foot-tall wooden pipe organ. Only, there are no keys, knobs or pedals. In their place is a functioning ATM. You activate the music with your bank card.

Allora demonstrates.

Ms. ALLORA: And each time a person does it, you have a completely different musical...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALLORA: ...(unintelligible).

LIVESAY: Her partner, Calzadilla, enters his PIN, withdraws 60 euros and collects his receipt.

(Soundbite of music)

LIVESAY: The experience is majestically profane and destined for controversy, just as works from such past Biennale artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were in their day. The project by Allora and Calzadilla is called "Gloria," which translates to glory, as in Olympic glory or the glory of art or the glory of war. But an overturned tank can easily be interpreted as a symbol of America's faded glory.

Lisa Freiman curated the American Pavilion.

Ms. LISA FREIMAN (Commissioner, U.S. Pavilion, Venice Biennale): A lot of people asked us: Did the U.S. Government know what they were getting when they chose Allora and Calzadilla? And I said, yes...

Ms. ALLORA: Yeah. Down to the details.

Ms. FREIMAN: ...they knew everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FREIMAN: Every dirty detail.

Ms. ALLORA: Yeah.

Ms. FREIMAN: So it's been an interesting experiment in transparency, and it seems to have worked.

LIVESAY: The State Department ultimately chooses who will represent the United States. David Mees is the U.S. cultural attache in Rome. He believes that "Gloria" offers more than just shock value. It's actually an example of an underrated tool of foreign policy, he says, something the administration refers to as soft diplomacy.

Mr. DAVID MEES (Cultural Attache, American Embassy, Rome): So often, we go to our international partners and say: Hey, we want this from you on trade policy, or we want you to stand with us in Afghanistan. And we often are not very popular when it comes to our regular policies - foreign policies. So it's very important also to cultivate that softer image and, you know, what the Obama administration has called smart power.

LIVESAY: Smart power won the U.S. a Golden Lion at the last Biennale, thanks to Bruce Nauman's wax heads and soft neons. This year, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla hope the judges will grasp the complexity of their work.

Mr. GUILLERMO CALZADILLA (Artist): You can see the relationship between militarism, obviously, and you can think about the war. But also, you can think about sculpture. You can think about gravity, weight, assemblage, you know, performance. So it has all these sort of...

Ms. ALLORA: Sound part.

Mr. CALZADILLA: Sound. Have all these sort of multiple registers that make it exceed one single, useful, practical, functional end.

LIVESAY: Whether or not the judges get it, the artists are at least guaranteed to take home plenty of ATM receipts.

(Soundbite of music)

LIVESAY: For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Venice.

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