The 27th São Paulo Biennial took the globalized bed we’ve made and tried fitfully to find ways to sleep in it. In a fundamental departure from previous biennials, Chief Curator Lisette Lagnado and a team of co-curators (Cristina Freire, Rosa Martínez, José Roca, Adriano Pedrosa and guest curator Jochen Volz) dispensed with the hitherto unquestioned model of national representations, inherited from the Biennial’s older sister institution in Venice (against which it has self-consciously modelled itself since its own creation in 1951). This eliminated what the curators perceived as an outmoded form of nationalistic preening under the banner of Olympiad artistic internationalism and gave the exhibition, as Lagnado wrote in her catalogue essay, a ‘freedom from the great geopolitical machine ruling the decisions of a cultural bureaucracy’, while levelling the playing field for the works on display. Under the old format rich nations got all the sponsorship they needed from back home while the poorer ones just scraped by, and the disparity was often a microcosm of the inequities of the real world outside Oscar Niemeyer’s Utopian biennial pavilion in Ibirapuera Park. Gone too was the obligatory albatross of the ‘historical’ section: instead, works by Gordon Matta-Clark, Ana Mendieta, Jack Smith, Dan Graham and Marcel Broodthaers were interspersed with newer works by contemporary artists, including Damián Ortega, Roman Ondák, Rivane Neuenschwander, Lucia Koch, Marepe and Tomas Saraceno.
If the 2004 Biennial was a tired exercise in universalist platitudes about a cosmopolitan vernacular and the emergence of a international common culture in which there was suddenly, magically, ‘no longer any periphery’ (as the curator Alfons Hug then claimed), then this year’s exhibition represented a realpolitik corrective: the periphery seemed to be everywhere. Taking its theme and title, ‘How to Live Together’, from a series of lectures given by Roland Barthes in 1976–7, the exhibition offered no ready-made salves, suggesting that ‘living together’ may not mean communal harmony. Rather than glossing over civilization’s discontents and emergent tribalisms, it openly courted them. Witness a massive new installation on the subject of improvised torture techniques by Thomas Hirschhorn at one extreme, or South African artist Pieter Hugo’s photographic portraits of the so-called Hyena Men of Nigeria at another, showing bottom-rung urban dandies sporting wild variations of Rococo street gear and promenading the slums of Lagos with muzzled pet hyenas; or take Ahlam Shibli’s photographs of trans-gender Arabs who, in an act of paradoxical border crossing, must enter into the ‘enemy’ territory of a more sexually tolerant Israel in order to express their closeted identities openly. While many of the photographs were prosaic, the convoluted ironies of how one aligns oneself in such contradictory contexts made their point. Similarly, Roman Ondák’s project displaying wildly differing drawings by friends and family of the ideal ‘perfect city’ suggested that hell may be other people’s Utopia.
The revered figure of Hélio Oiticica (1937–80) was the Biennial’s persistent ghost in the machine. Lagnado saw Oiticica’s experiments with the public and environmental conditions of art as forming the conceptual foundations for the show’s own preoccupation with art’s constructive potential vis-à-vis the world’s everyday social and ethical paradoxes: how art can be both seemingly without purpose and still suggest a model for flexible resistance. An enduring and deeply felt influence on a younger generation of emerging Brazilian artists, Oiticica was represented not by static artefacts but via the remarkable films of Ivan Cardoso and Marcos Bonisson, which documented his transgressive (and mythologized) performative acts during the 1960s and 1970s – the creative engagement with favela kids, the trippily hypnotic Carioca sambas inside his Parangole sacks, the innumerable languorous happenings (including the sole extant celluloid moment showing Oiticica and Lygia Clark together, dancing in a shallow pool of water at a snug 1960s’ gallery opening) – and demonstrated how, in the words of Anna Dezeuze, a ‘Parangole cape on a hanger is not a Parangole’. With a nod to the baggy plastic attire and ragtag costumes with which Oiticica transformed himself and those around him, the Rio-based Laura Lima fabricated a line of flamboyant transparent garments for museum visitors that, one busy Sunday afternoon, art folk and park strollers alike were donning for a ramble around the show.
The eminent 20th-century Brazilian art critic, labour organizer and political activist Mario Pedrosa once lamented that ‘Brazil is a country condemned to the Modern’. (In a city like São Paulo, a megalopolis straddling the first and third worlds, with an exploding population of 19 million, the Piranesian purgatory of the modern is a palpable, ever-present reality.) Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui was commissioned to quantify just what exactly went into committing this concept of a hyper-city to the real world. Her results, stencilled across one wall, matter-of-factly itemized the tonnage of everything comprising the man-made environment of São Paulo (concrete, bricks, stone, wood, steel, asphalt, glass, plastic) and read like a shopping list for the end of the natural world. (It turns out that the city weighs about 1,224,497,942 tons – a figure as abstract and hard to visualize as the mass of the sun.) Marcelo Cidade’s unobtrusively installed cardboard surveillance cameras referenced the current security-obsessed siege mentality of some wealthier Paulistanos, while elsewhere, in the off-site district of Barra Funda, Renata Lucas worked with municipal authorities to create a duplicated, although slightly skewed, segment of pavement embedded next to itself, as if the street, with its redundant lampposts, landlocked kerbstones and new, woebegone tree plantings, had become a confused double-exposure of a city unsure of where private property stops and public space begins.
Yet Brazil also seems to be a country graced with the ability to marvel at its contradictions, its position between a faded and battered postwar progressive ideal and the deeply rooted traditions of its complex past. Part of this reservoir of continuing unease and cultural slippage is contained in the local nomenclature. (‘Ibirapuera’, the park surrounding the biennial and its iconic cultural campus site, is a Portuguese bastardization of the original indigenous Tupi-guarani name, a conflation of topographical features including ‘flood’, ‘lake’, ‘wet wood’ and ‘rotten’.) What more fitting place to build a Modernist Utopian complex for a shiny future that never happened than in an ancient flooded swamp full of rotting wood? It is the kind of beautiful, mournful paradox that even Niemeyer would smile at. (His pavilion may be a luminous, rectilinear box, but at its core is a snaking organic series of flanged ramps twined around a brachiating column with the girth of a giant mangrove.) It’s a condition recognized by many of the artists in the show. For the Japanese architectural group Atelier Bow-Wow the clarity promised by Niemeyer’s Euclidean geometries and the view of the lush park outside provided a springboard for a rickety wooden ‘monkey walk’ constructed of rough-hewn tree beams, which extended like a gangway from the pavilion’s glazed third storey and meandered through the leafy canopies of nearby trees before returning to the safety of the museum. Likewise, Mexican artist Damián Ortega constructed in the park what at ground level looked like a series of ramshackle shanty dwellings, cobbled together out of cast-off wood scraps and old doors, which from the a higher vantage-point could be deciphered as inhabitable letters spelling out the word ‘s-p-i-r-i-t’. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s project was discreet to the point of near invisibility. Her tall white exterior columns, identical to those supporting Niemeyer’s curvaceous canopy snaking from one building to another, came to cluster together tightly in a little grove nearby, as if huddling in an attempt to reconstitute the old flooded woods that once stood there. Again Modernism seemed to rest lightly on the land.
The Biennial itself came under scrutiny in Mabe Bethonico’s museumuseu (2006), a project of Möbius strip museology that Broodthaers would have appreciated, in which the artist catalogued the exhibition’s internal historical archives according to her own criteria, in one case chronologically shelving the exhibition catalogues of the Venice Biennale alongside those of São Paulo. (It turns out that successive changes in size, thickness and format in the former were echoed by a corresponding adjustment in the latter in a transparent game of comparative intuitional catch-up).
The curators were unapologetic in their focus on lesser-known or overlooked artists and their relationship to art practices throughout Latin America, and, in turn, the liaisons those practices have with others from Cape Town, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Ljubljana, Kobe, Seoul, Cairo, Haifa, Cyprus, Beijing, Kabul, Kiev, Ankara, Auckland, Warsaw and elsewhere. While at times this led to puzzling and frustrating choices and omissions (with only a scant few US artists on hand, a crucial dialogue with the elephant to the north was a missed opportunity), it also came as a welcome respite from the ‘usual suspects’ pattern formulated by too many biennials everywhere, where works by the same artists do the rounds of the international art world circuit. (Fernando Ortega’s short films crystallizing random perfect moments – a hummingbird falling asleep, a man serenely peddling his wife home on a tricycle – and Peruvian Armando Andrade Tudela’s luminous overlapping slide shows were just two such happy, unexpected surprises.) To ensure this freshness, a key stipulation was that each of the invited artists should create at least one new work. For artists from abroad this was an added incentive to confront what Lagnado (citing Oiticica) calls their individual ‘image-Brazil’, the psychological/cultural overlap between preconceptions and experienced reality. Far from being a provincial conceit, the curators took Brazil as a given, a test case, a starting-point.
For ten non-Brazilian artists in particular – Marjetica Potrc, Florian Pumhosl, Susan Turcot and Meschac Gaba among them – this invitation expressed itself as a geographically dispersed artist residency programme in the six months leading up to the Biennial’s opening. In São Paulo and Recife and the remote Amazonian state of Acre, artists were encouraged to respond to local cultures and conditions. Acre, home to some of the last remaining tribal societies in South America, has become a bitterly contested region of vying natural resource interests, politicians, indigenous rights advocates, traditional rubber-tappers and environmentalists. There, Potrc constructed a remote transportable rural schoolhouse with solar-powered satellite dishes to connect the classroom to the rest of the wide world, while the Bogota-based Bolivian artist Alberto Baraya made full-sized casts of the region’s vanishing rubber trees using the natural latex extracted from each tree as his only material.
There was no denying the activist, collective, grassroots, inquisitively investigative slant to this edition of the Biennial – perhaps in keeping with the Bolivarian mood sweeping Latin America and the worldwide disenchantment with what globalism has taken away as well as doled out, and a growing interest among artists everywhere in using the tools and technologies admittedly afforded by globalism to foster a new sense of local empowerment and cultural relevance. These circumstances give weight to projects such as that of Eloisa Cartonera, a Buenos Aires-based collective founded by artists Javier Barilaro and Washington Cucurto, who work with impoverished local street cardboard collectors, paying fair market wages for their gleaned materials to fabricate and sell handmade books of previously unpublished fiction and poetry (in a region where literature is still fairly expensive). Likewise The Long March Project, brainchild of Beijing-based curator Lu Jie, has engaged over 60 volunteers to survey and document the ancient folk art of paper-cutting, now quickly vanishing as China rushes to develop and urbanize, jettisoning anything that stands in the way of that ideal.
One of the most brash grassroots projects was that of Superflex, the Danish collective (Rasmus Nielsen, Jakob Fenger and Bjorrnstjerne Christiansen), who since 2003 have been collaborating with a local farmers’ co-operative in Brazil’s Amazonas state to produce an independent version of a popular soda made from the guarana berry, a beverage whose production and distribution are now nearly monopolized by the domestic soft drink giant Antarctica (its affiliated multinationals own most of the guarana crops, colluding to fix prices and shut independent producers out of the market). In the run-up to the show the directors of the Fundação forbade the curators from displaying the actual renegade soft drink and censored any reference to the product. Rumour had it that ties between members of the Fundação and the conglomerate made the matter ‘embarrassing’, proof that ‘institutional freedom’ is still up for grabs and that something as innocuous as an Agit-prop soda could, even in this jaded era, resemble a Molotov cocktail to somebody, somewhere. In response, cans and bottles of ‘Guarana Power’ turned up in art galleries everywhere in São Paulo and Rio, and consuming the drink became a tasty act of defiance.
While the ‘Guarana Power’ episode was designed to test the present limits of the Biennial’s new-found ‘autonomy and independence’, just as valuable were the programmes designed to expand the scope of what this particular institution can do, at least in theory. In addition to educational outreach initiatives conceived to stir awareness of contemporary culture and the issues raised by the Biennial in underprivileged schools and neighbourhoods in the city’s outlying districts, there was a seminar programme held from January to November, extending the presence of the show beyond its two-month run. In November, for the last weekend of discussions, the subject was the disputed, last-chance region of Acre. Its territorial reality and its fluid symbolic significance were used as a platform for discussions about whether conflicts caused by the ceaseless movements of capital, disease, cultural disruption or economic and environmental dispossession can be solved or reconciled, even with the best of intentions. Characteristic of the polyglot nature of the series, the weekend paired the firebrand boots-on-the-ground scientist and indigenous rights activist José Carlos Meirelles (who advocates setting aside large tracts as ‘reserves’ for the last autonomous tribes) with David Harvey, an anthropology professor at New York’s CUNY Graduate Center (a feisty gadfly for neo-liberalists everywhere) on the first day, and French historian and art theoretician Thierry de Duve with Brazil’s Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva, on the second. At first glance these couplings may appear odd. But unlike similar panel discussions in New York or London, noted for their polite quasi-scripted exchanges and short attention spans, these day-long events were remarkable for their substantive interdisciplinary dialogue and impassioned, heated debate among participants and audience members alike.
Speaking to the ambitious social aspirations of this Biennial, de Duve questioned the wisdom of instrumentalizing art – like some future edenic Acre – as a ‘beautiful autonomous’ zone. Art is too inefficient to solve social ills, and it is not about living together in harmony. Instead, he argued, the kind of autonomy that art enjoys is the simple ability to testify to our shared capacity to empathize with others. This may be the only universal we should ever expect or struggle to achieve.
First published in Issue 104