Shotgun Review

The 29th São Paulo Biennial

By Shotgun Reviews December 2, 2010

Walking up the ramps of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed pavilion, I was captivated by a moving image of man in a plaid shirt shaking, convulsing…dancing? Displayed among a slew of sights (and sounds) that compete for visitor’s attention in the 29th São Paulo Biennial, Joachim Koester’s film, Tarantism (2007), caught—and held—my gaze. Its rapid and spastic movements are inspired by the Italian tarantella dance, which is performed as a way to excise the poison from a wolf spider bite. Positioned in the Biennial, Tarantism became my metaphor for my experience of the exhibition; it, too, seemed like something that I needed to shake off or dispel.

The Biennial is organized under the title There’s Always a Cup of Sea to Sail In, and the broad umbrella of the political nature of contemporary art. Though based around that premise, the curators were quick to state that this is not an exhibition of political work. Rather, it is a rumination on the ability of art to change our perception of the world. By altering the way we see things, art is political by its very definition. Used as a curatorial premise, this also seems to mean that almost anything could be included in the Biennial—and was.

That is not to say that there was nothing worth seeing (or hearing, or interacting with). With 160 international artists represented in the exhibition’s three floors and countless rooms, there were certainly some that were a joy to experience. Adrian Piper’s disembodied Bach Whistled (1970), for example, supplied enjoyable confusion as it mixed with a host of other sounds on the escalator.

Joachim Koester. Tarantism, 2007; film still. Courtesy of the 29th São Paulo Biennial.

Gustav Metzger’s large-scale photographic works To Walk Into (1996) and To Crawl Into (1996) activated the experience of viewing by requiring visitors to do as the titles state—to walk behind or crawl underneath large sheaths of fabric in order to see the images.

Yet, for all of its moments of clarity, I left the Biennial feeling overwhelmed and overloaded. From the catchall curatorial statement that transformed the exhibition into a blaring cacophony of thoughts, to the lack of soundproofing in a media-centric show that turned the entire pavilion into a dissonant chamber of sounds, the Biennial seemed to work against itself, and against its viewers. Yet for those who may be interested in digging through the din to find some points of interest and connection, I recommend the approach of the tarantella dance: shake it off, clear your head, and dive on in.


Liz Glass is a master's candidate in the Curatorial Practice program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and co-director of PLAySPACE Gallery there.

Comments ShowHide