29th Bienal de São Paulo

“29th Bienal de São Paulo,” C Magazine, no. 109 (Spring 2011), 38-39. (With Emelie Chhangur)

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29th Bienal de São Paulo
By Emelie Chhangur and Philip Monk

The São Paulo Biennial invents itself every two years in re-inventing its relation to both Brazilian art in particular and the international contemporary art world in general, from which it is perceived to be geographically isolated. The 29th Biennial was no exception. Following Lisette Lagnado’s 2006 version, which abolished national representation, and Ivo Mesquita’s puritanical 2008 version, which put the very idea of a biennial under suspension, leaving one whole floor of Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic 30,000 square metre pavilion theatrically empty, the present curators, Agnaldo Farias and Moacir dos Anjos, responded with a surfeit: it took us five days just to cover its 159 artists.

From the outside, there seemed a problem with the curators’ announcement of the theme of the “inseparability” of art and politics, which contradicted the Biennial’s poetic title There’s Always a Cup of Sea to Sail In. The continual recursion to poetics rather than an articulation of what the curators thus meant by politics was an ongoing ambiguity. (Instead of explicating the relationship, the curators simply referred readers through a footnote to Rancière’s “Politics of Aesthetics”!) In part, this stemmed from the curators’ belief that the “Utopian dimension of art is contained within art itself, not outside or beyond it.” That they believed it possible—and political—to rethink the world through the senses (art’s privileged domain) seemed at odds with their equal belief that here was an exercise of politics and not merely its contemplation.

Initially, one might be justified in thinking that this sense of the political merely aligned itself to the art world trends of relational aesthetics and current participatory art (i.e., European practices). The late Lygia Pape and Hélio Oticica, of course, appeared here to assert Brazilian priority. But the curators extended this generational legacy to recover other participatory practices of the 1960s in Sweden (Palle Nielsen), Venezuela (Jacobo Borges), Argentina (Marta Minujin), and Japan (High Red Center).

Following these leads, the “organizing principle” of the inseparability of art and politics extended into the overall installation itself. Six thematic paths were suggested, punctuated by artist/architect-designed resting points, labelled Terreiros: “spaces reminiscent of the squares, patios, terraces, temples, yards, and outdoor and indoor spaces in which people the length and breadth of Brazil congregate to dance, fight sing, muck about, touch, cry, chat, play games, or engage in the rituals of the nation’s hybrid religiosity.” There was not much mucking about the first week of the opening, though. Architecture, however, was one of the main elements of the Biennial, obliterating Niemeyer’s pavilion that Mesquita earlier had exposed. At first overwhelming, these eccentrically shaped rooms created oblique streets that one eventually navigated through using ones own sign points. Of course, the curators also confused metaphors by calling individual rooms “islands” of an “archipelago.” Indeed, Niemeyer’s pavilion itself became “a gigantic vessel anchored in Ibirapuera Park, a ship that, paradoxically, contains within itself a sea.” Hence also the icon or motif of a directionless compass symbolizing our passages through this Biennial.
    We chose our own routes and discovered our own themes, whether or not they had been placed there by the curators with the assistance of their international team (Chus Martinez, Fernando Alvim, Rina Carvajal, Sarat Maharaj, and Yuko Hasegawa). Here are only a few.

Every São Paulo Biennial grounds itself in different sets of historical precursors, both international and Brazilian, sometimes recovering obscured groups such as here São Paulo’s Grupo Rex—in the process highlighting not just individuals but collective vanguard practices. This also extended to the crucial ongoing recovery of conceptualizing practices under Latin America’s period of dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s: such as Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA) from Chile; Grupos de Artistas de Vanguardia from Buenos Aires; and individuals such as Antonio Manuel, Anna Maria Maiolino, and Hélio Oticica. In this respect, communal performances, such as Lygia Pape’s 1968 Divisor (remade for the Biennial) in their time could be seen to be political actions. The curatorial linkage of these artists to Germany of the period of the Red Army Faction was less persuasive.

Given the emphasis on participation, we expect new linkages between past and present and find them as well in the theme of artist-as-participant during the late 1970s of Miguel Rio Branco in Rio de Janeiro, Miguel Angel Rojas in Bogotá, and Nan Goldin in New York. In the present, the artist acts more as facilitator. Here the pedagogic was expressed in Jeremy Deller and Grizedale Arts’ updating of John Ruskin’s Mechanics Institute, but reversing its top down hierarchy: from originally educating workers to now giving urban youth an experience of nature. And seniors were given their own utopian space through Ana Gallardo’s dance school, where an elderly couple, who teach to others their age every week in a Mexico City market, charmingly brought their dance lessons to the Biennial. While the notion of exchange was enacted in Antonio Vega Macotela’s Time Divisa, where prisoners in Mexico City’s Santa Marca Acotila jail made fascinatingly diverse mappings of prison life in exchange for wishes of theirs carried out by the artist in the city.

Brazilian modernism has always had a privileged relation to anthropology, but an anthropology by artists usually is non-traditional in documenting some form of marginalized or overlooked urban life (such as Carlos Vergara’s documentation of aspects of Rio’s carnival) and by using its methods to create fictions. The artist, architect, and flamboyant provocateur, Flávio de Carvallo, from the 1930s on is the precursor here of anthropology as fictional performance, as well, thereby, as the substitution of Brazilian experience for European modernity. Jimmie Durham’s Bureau for Research into Brazilian Normality puts on ethnographic display a collection scavenged from the commercial detritus of the city, in the process adducing an underlying racism to São Paulo life. Maria Thereza Alves had a nineteenth century German-Krenak dictionary translated into Portuguese, which after its use in the Biennial would be given to Brazil’s indigenous Krenak people, reduced to a few hundred members, smaller than the print run.

Other themes could be derived from the names of the Terreiros: Far Away, Right Here; I am the Street; Remembrance and Oblivion; Said, Unsaid, Not to be Said; The Other, The Same; and The Skin of the Invisible.

So, in spite of itself, we can make this into a political exhibition in the weak sense if we chose. We recognize, however, that the political effects of this Biennial are registered in other ways that are mainly invisible to international visitors. A very large percentage of the budget (perhaps a demand for the restitution of the Biennial’s financial security after problems of corruption and budget cutbacks) was devoted to education in a country, with its legacy of Paulo Freire, where education is a political matter: a staggering 35,000 educators were trained to take the Biennial into the country as a whole; 400,000 students were expected to tour the building led by student interns trained as tour guides.

Finally, what lessons can we take as Canadians when there were no Canadian artists exhibited? The curators placed less emphasis on Europe and the United States (many of the artists resident in the USA were of South American origin), looking more to Latin America and Africa—in effect, making Brazil less geographically isolated by paying attention to its own context. Overlooked here by our too intimate association with the United States, Canadians hoping to create their own biennial in Toronto might want to follow the example of Brazil articulating its relation to the world by first paying attention to itself.