Who Needs Prizes? Pair of Unknowns to Represent US at Biennale

With no Olympics in 2011, patriots wishing to cheer on America will have to be content with the thrilling international competition of the 54th Venice Biennale. Whereas the State Department has traditionally sent blue chip art-stars to bear our standard—a strategy which saw Bruce Naumann bring the golden lion home to the American Pavilion in 2009—for June of next year they have chosen to present the mixed media stylings of a pair of relative unknowns: Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. So who the heck are they, and how did they snag the free Italian vacation?

According to Maxwell Anderson, whose Indianapolis Museum of Art put forward the winning application to run the U.S. Pavilion next year, the process is “cloaked in secrecy.” The nearly 100-page proposal was considered by a National Endowment for the Arts panel and then reviewed by the State Department to make sure it will not damage our national image. (Reportedly, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art applied to show James Franco.) That the government went instead for a proposal which promises, in Mr. Anderson’s words, an “adroit and specific critique how Americans are seen in the world” was a surprise. Obama’s first Biennale will be “self-critical,” he said, in a way that they have never been in the past. (Previous entrants have been Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Bourgeois).

Born in Philadelphia and Havana respectively, Allora & Caldazilla have worked together since 1995. The plans for the installation are still in the works, but if it looks at all like previous projects, it will probably be noisy. In the last decade, they have trapped people inside of pianos at the Gladstone Gallery, built a musical army bunker, and stuffed a white room with opera singers. They are currently shortlisted for a spot on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, where they intend to attach a working organ to an ATM machine. (Which, admittedly, sounds kind of cool.) It might work out okay, of course: Gladstone also reps superstars Matthew Barney and Anish Kapoor, so she’s no slacker.

No matter how much noise they make, two lower-profile artists are much less likely to successfully defend the American golden lion. The Biennale is about much more than prizes, of course, but still, we like prizes. Mr. Anderson, who not so long ago ran our own Whitney Museum of Ameican Art, thinks his champions have as good a shot as anyone we could have sent. “Who knows about that?” he asked. “Those things are as political as any art prizes, aren’t they?” He said it was doubtful that the United States could possibly be given two in a row—a quitter’s attitude that explains why he is working for the Indianapolis Museum of Art and not the Indianapolis Colts. “It’s even more unlikely since the last artist was from Indiana, Bruce Naumann being a hoosier.”

Anderson promises one thing: good manners when representing the U.S. internationally. While the Biennale installation is expected to be seen and heard from outside of the building, the aim is to avoid angering the adjacent pavillions.”We want to be neighborly,” he said.

Who Needs Prizes? Pair of Unknowns to Represent US at Biennale