2.6 / Review

29th São Paulo Biennial

By Leigh Markopoulos November 29, 2010

Somewhat enigmatically entitled Há sempre um copo de mar para um homem navegar [There is always a cup of sea to sail in], the 29th São Paulo Biennial installation more accurately evokes flotsam and jetsam adrift in an industrial sized cauldron. On view from Sept. 25 to Dec. 12, works by 159 artists representing several countries are jammed into all three floors of Oscar Niemayer’s immense, 270,000 square foot Biennial pavilion. Ostensibly laid out in constellations resembling small-scale road architecture, the overall visual impact of the arrangement—narrow pathways snaking past high cubicle walls and the occasional sculpture or installation—is haphazard and favors neither the works nor the setting. In direct contrast to Ivo Mesquita’s Biennial of 2008, in which the second floor of the building was left completely empty to underscore the significance of the site, this iteration obliterates its location. The undulating curves, vertiginous ramps, white colonnades, and views across the Ibirapuera Gardens remain, but are no longer a focus.

Outside the Biennial itself, the exhibition at the Museu de Arte Contemporanea da USP (MAC USP) manages a more succinct presentation. Um dia terá que ter terminado 1969/74 [One Day, It Will Have To Be Over 1969/74] is the second of a series of three shows exploring the formation of the MAC USP’s collection. Focusing on Brazilian art produced in the context of the military dictatorship (1964-85), the trilogy aims to reveal the struggles of the museum in maintaining a space of resistance and a refuge for research and experimentation. Directly accessible from the Biennial, this tightly curated show spans the years 1969-74, offering a concise picture of artistic concerns at the time. The restrained graphic work of such artists as Artur Barrio, Mira Schendel, and Regina Silveira delineate, among other things, the creation and development of mail art exchange—a tactic as much as an art form, with a capacity for disruption that is inversely proportional to its humble materials and forms. The exhibition also presents video works, emphasizing the Museum’s legacy in introducing the art form to Brazil in 1973-74.

Co-organized by a team of international curators and writers spearheaded by Brazil’s Moacir dos Anjos and Agnaldo Farias, the Biennial’s theme is, loosely, the inseparability of art and politics. These vague parameters open the floodgates to any work that claims a self- or sub-conscious political agenda. And yet, strangely, the overall impression is of homogeneity. Most of the works seem similar in their research-based approach, their media (there is an overwhelming amount of film and video), and even their subjects: poverty, migration, repression, the disadvantaged, and the underrepresented. However, few of the works succeed in commuting the litany of familiar misery into active proposals for social change. Many remain mired in literalness, such as Gil Vicente’s Inimigos (2005), a series of hammy self-portraits depicting the artist in the act of assassinating hapless world leaders from Queen Elizabeth II to Pope Benedict XVI.

This is not to say that there are no good works in the Biennial—quite the contrary. One stand-out piece was the documentation of Artur Barrio’s 1970 performance, Situação T/T1 [Situation T/T1]. The component photographs of bloody chunks of meat wrapped in sheets to resemble dissected body parts and scattered near a river bed outside Belo Horizonte evince potency and a chilling relevance to the fates of so many dissenters in various Latin American countries to this day. Miguel Angel Rojas’s Faenza series, also from that decade, comprises large-format, black-and-white photographs taken with a hidden camera in dingy turn-of-the-century cinemas in Bogota. A paean to difference, Rojas’s grainy snapshots of the trysts and hook-ups of gay men are more empathetic than voyeuristic. Tamar Guimarães’ 16mm film of Casa das Canoas, a house Oscar Niemeyer designed for himself in Rio de Janeiro may be Sem título (título provisório) [Untitled (working title)] (2010), but it is rife in allusion: depicting preparations for a cocktail party and the event itself, the high temple of modernist architecture set amidst lush jungle vegetation and tension between guests, hostess, and house staff presents a seething microcosm of social discord. And lastly, Joachim Koester’s 

Pedro Reyes. Simulador de Temblores, 2010; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Galeria Luisa Strina, Sao Paulo. Photo: David Kasprzak.

Tarantism (2007) is a mad frenetic shake to help slough off Biennial exhaustion. Although the looped film is completely silent, the convulsive movements of the dancers convey states of mania, trance, and rhythmic interpretation.

The politics continued in Paralela, the exhibition curated every year as a complement to the Biennial. By virtue of its inclusion of almost exclusively local artists not represented in the main event, Paralela // 2010 is more of a de facto response. Subtitled A Contemplação do Mundo [The Contemplation of the World], this is the show’s fifth edition, featuring eighty-two artists. As explained by curator Pedro Reis, the concept of contemplating the world through the lens of its artworks recognizes art’s “capacity to reflect on shared themes, problematizing them and, above all, creating a representation.” Although the theme may seem somewhat arbitrary, the mere opportunity to view the work of local artists is refreshing. Despite criticisms that local commercial galleries overly supported the exhibition, Paralela // 2010 offers a stimulating counterpoint to the Biennial.

The commercial galleries provide a welcome opportunity for increased familiarity with the local context. The spaces are often dazzlingly large and architecturally imposing, such as Galeria Vermelho’s honeycomb complex or the huge, airy converted warehouse belonging to Galeria Baró. In terms of the exhibitions themselves, Inhotim curator Rodrigo Moura’s First and Last, Notes on the Monument, a group show presented at both sites of the venerable Luisa Strina Gallery (Sao Paulo’s first commercial gallery, begun in 1974 and still going strong) is particularly notable. Addressing the nature of the monument—or rather debasing it—the show is enlivened by irreverently humorous works, such as Pedro Reyes’s Simulador de Temblores (2010). Visitors are invited to assemble the wooden building blocks scattered on a low wooden platform into random mock-monumental forms, then encouraged to touch a foot pedal, unleashing an electric earthquake. The delightful noise and havoc of the blocks crashing down onto the gallery’s floor quite compensates for the initial shock of destruction.

Although it’s a significant distance from São Paulo, Inhotim seems to feature on every art visitor’s itinerary. My ambition to complete the circuit in a day was somewhat thwarted by the lengthy, traffic-ridden drive from the airport (note to visitors: allow two hours) and by a power outage that temporarily inflicted many of the works, as well as the golf carts essential to expediting progress around the 450-acre estate. Of this land, ninety-seven acres have been landscaped into discrete topographies, some including artificial lakes (caringly dyed with a natural pigment called “Blue Lagoon”). Most housing pavilions are dedicated to individual artists and, quite often, individual works. Thus Doris Salcedo’s large-scale work Neither (2004) is encased in its own purpose-built pavilion, and three of Adriana Varejão’s works reside in an imposing temple cube. Designed by an in-house architectural team, the pavilions each have their own identity respective to the artwork they house, but any potential visual discord between them is dispelled by the ample distance. Despite accommodating up to 5,000 visitors a day, the area is large enough to move through unimpeded and without the lines that characterize, say, a Disneyland experience. Undeniably grand and inspiring, there is also a welcome hint of madness recalling Fitzcarraldo’s project to bring opera to a small city in Peru, and providing a fitting note on which to end.


The 29th São Paulo Biennial is on view in São Paulo, Brazil, through December 12.

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