The notion that the best art can only come from a single artist working alone is something of a myth. Take the six people in the double portraits here. They actually add up to just three artists, each with two surnames: Allora & Calzadilla, Fischli and Weiss, and Elmgreen and Dragset. If that makes them sound like classic comedy teams in the Burns-Allen, Martin-Lewis, Abbott-Costello mold, it is probably no coincidence. Humor and performance play prominent roles in their art. It’s just that they’re not so visible in it.
Comedic twosomes’ punch-and-parry routines depend on their individual differences; the right hand needs a left to shake. Likewise, these artist duos work solely as teams, and project a sensibility the partners share so deeply that they can articulate it only by combining forces. Though they identify themselves as individuals, none have separate solo careers or, in the case of Allora and Calzadilla, who are a couple, separate lives. In their sculpture, photography, books, films, and live-performance pieces, they work and speak as one.
In fact, it is common today for artists to team up with others—because the studio can be a lonely place and, well, because two heads can be better than one. But when solo artists collaborate on specific projects, like the paintings Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat did in the Eighties, it’s easy to tell who did what. Not so with this bunch. The seams in their art never show, and seldom is it clear that we are seeing the world through four eyes instead of two.
There are hints, as in the double-exposed flower and mushroom photographs by the Swiss duo of Peter Fischli and David Weiss. They met in Zurich in 1977 and soon started making photographs featuring a pair of sausages. The artists worked so well together that two years later they began a series of deadpan videos in which they appeared—masked and in costume—as a rat and a panda. One video, “The Right Way” (1983), led to 2002’s comically imponderable Questions (“Will happiness find me?” “Why are there bad people?” “Who’s going to pay for my beer?”), which was both a slide show installation and a book. Occasionally, during the 13 years it took to make “Visible World”—a compendium of 3,000 color snapshots from nearly every point on the globe—the pair traveled separately. But that was after they spent several years in a studio making their suspense-filled, surprise-hit 1987 video, “The Way Things Go,” in which worthless objects colliding in an epic chain reaction ultimately acquire unexpected value—as art.
The recent selection of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla as the artists representing the U.S. at the 2011 Venice Biennale surprised many in the art world. They are not big names yet, nor have collaborating Americans ever won that plum commission. But the duo has established an enigmatic and increasingly profound body of work that fuses personal concerns with pressing social issues like oil consumption or war, and often involves loud music. The couple met as students in Italy in 1995, and have been together ever since. “We were discovering what we liked about art together, often being interested, surprised, or curious about the same things,” they recall. “It just seemed logical to us to share.”