Allora & Calzadilla and the Political Limbo Remote Control Curators Fear Threat

1. My take on Allora & Calzadilla and their inclusion (as US "representatives") in the next Venice Biennale. Click on the link to see the original post in Artnet News


Puerto Rico to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale? Could it be true? The announcement that the Puerto Rico-based artist-team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla would represent the United States at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 promises -- faintly, once again -- to bring questions of U.S. colonialism to the celebrated global art show

Born in Philadelphia and Cuba respectively, the second-generation conceptualist duo have been living and working in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico for a lifetime. Calzadilla has a BFA from Escuela de Artes Plásticas, San Juan (1996), and they have always had extraordinary support from the island’s collectors and cultural institutions.

Puerto Rico is, of course, a colony of the United States, and has been one for close to 100 years. That status puts Puerto Rican residents into a kind of political limbo. Puerto Rico can participate in the Miss Universe pageant, but it has no representatives in the U.S. Congress or at the United Nations, and cannot enter into treaties with other countries. And of course Puerto Rican residents can’t vote for president of the U.S.

In terms of the art world, the situation is equally outrageous. Puerto Ricans may be happy that they're taking over the U.S. Pavilion -- the colony is colonizing the colonizer -- but many think that Puerto Rico should have its own Pavilion, and it doesn’t because it is not really a free country. Much Puerto Rican art is lumped into a "Latino" category, and that makes a mess of museum purchases, auctions and, above all, identity politics.

Allora & Calzadilla can be expected to tackle exactly such questions at Venice, i.e., "examining contemporary geopolitics through the lens of spectacular nationalistic and competitive enterprises such as. . . the Biennale," in the words of Indianapolis Museum of Art contemporary art curator Lisa D. Freiman, who made the winning proposal to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The duo has appeared in the Biennale before, contributing a work to the general exhibition in the Arsenale in 2005 (under no flag, representing only themselves). This well-received effort was titled Hope Hippo, and consisted of a life-sized sculpture of a hippopotamus made of mud, upon which sat a volunteer reading a newspaper -- and blowing a whistle whenever he or she encountered a story of social injustice.

Allora & Calzadilla also know how to exploit the historical moment. One of their seminal video works is Under Discussion (2005), which features a kitchen table, flipped upside-down and outfitted with motor, navigated by Diego over blue seas. A metaphor for social and political uncertainty in Vieques after the U.S. Marines ceased military operations there, the video was widely understood in Puerto Rico as a denunciation of the island’s colonial status -- which is seen by many as both a source of oppression, and of economic opportunity.

Under Discussion had particular resonance on the island thanks to the cue it took from a popular late-‘90s late-night comedy show No Te Duermas, in which a poor family customized a mattress as a fishing boat. Of course, controversy is not foreign to Allora & Calzadilla either. In 2005, they were accused of plagiarizing Lara Favaretto’s E' uno spettacolo (2004) (you can read more about the controversy here).

Allora & Calzadilla
Seeing Otherwise

2. In my review of Interplay (2003) at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, I discuss "Seeing Otherwise" and its relationship to "Globalization" from the perspective of an islander.

Read it here Looking Good.

Allora & Calzadilla
Sweat Glands, Sweat Lands

3. In Kentucky Fried Allora & Calzadilla (review of the exhibition Estigma in 2008) I tackle Allora & Calzadilla's inclination to steal and borrow from artists and sources they never credit.

4. In La Mosca en el Unguento Artístico de la Diáspora Boricua (published in Chicago's Contratiempo, 2008) I try to analyze the advantages artists  based (not living) in Puerto Rico have over artists who actually live and work in the island.