Recently, a friend told me that it’s not for an artist to say whether their work is ‘political’ or not. ‘That’s for us, the public, to decide,’ she said. Fifty thousand members of the public turned out on the streets the day before the opening of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo to protest the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff and her replacement by the conservative Michel Temer. During the press preview of the show, in an act of collective protest organized by the group Opavivará, a number of participating artists wore black and white T-shirts demanding that Temer stand down and elections be held. The atmosphere in São Paulo felt charged with political urgency, seemingly making every work exhibited in the biennial into a political statement, whether it was or not. We, the public, had decided this was a political exhibition.
The title given to this edition of the biennial by curator (and frieze contributing editor) Jochen Volz and his co-curators Lars Bang Larsen, Gabi Ngcobo, Sofia Olascoaga and Júlia Rebouças is ‘Incerteza Viva (Live Uncertainty)’. ‘While stability is understood as a remedy against anxiety,’ they write in their mission statement, ‘uncertainty is generally avoided or denied.’ Their big idea: ‘In order to confront the big questions of our time objectively, such as global warming and its impact on our habitats, the extinction of species and the loss of biological and cultural diversity, rising economic and political instability, injustice in the distribution of the earth’s natural resources, global migration and the frightening spread of xenophobia, it is necessary to detach uncertainty from fear.’ Because it so often involves ambiguity, improvization, chance and hypothesis – not to mention the kaleidoscopic nuttiness of the imagination – art is ideal for unhooking uncertainty from the insecurity it can generate.
‘Live Uncertainty’ is a vague title; however this assembly of 84 artists and artist groups, drawn largely from Latin America, yields a number of stark, indelible images of social upheaval and ecological brinksmanship. The show is spacious and, for the most part, given pace by contrasting varieties of work, including video, painting, installation and a few obligatory ‘research-based practices’. It has its langours, of course: a zoned-out passage of mysticism and abstraction that included Jordan Belson, Lourdes Castro and Gilvan Samico, and a few other works, such as Rikke Luther’s Overspill: Universal Map (2016) – a sculpture of a prototaxites fossil and a set of wall-size, tiled diagrams detailing the ‘Global Commons’ (the High Seas, the Atmosphere, Outer Space, the North and South Poles)
– which are illuminating but better suited to a natural history museum. Yet for the most part, this show is a forward-planning meeting to explore what we might do when the lights go out, the server farms crash and finally, instead of gawping at our phones, we start looking at each other. Indeed, watching the reactions of people following William Pope.L’s unsettling 96-hour dance performance Baille (Ball, 2016), as it moved slowly through downtown São Paulo, was a reminder that art’s power to beguile or disquiet can often be unexpected.
At the top of our list of priorities might be to listen to the natural world we’ve so abused and ignored. Eduardo Navarro’s Sound Mirror (2016) is a giant’s ear trumpet that reaches through the glass walls of Oscar Niemeyer’s biennial pavilion and out into the park, where it cups the leaves of a palm tree. The piece is whimsical, but it also constitutes a simple message about listening and the impossibilities of translation (do you speak ‘tree’?), as well as the complexities of planetary stewardship. Similarly, Dineo Seshee Bopape’s: indeed it may very well be the ________ itself (2016) provides an affecting meditation on the occupation of land and displacement from it, and the precarious relationship we have to the ground beneath our feet. A set of soil blocks, compressed into low, rectilinear plinths, is arranged in loose groupings. Embedded in shallow depressions on top of the blocks – echoing African Morabaraba and Diketo games – are gold leaves, flower petals, herbs and ceramic casts made with a fist. The blocks resemble altars holding votive objects or – if you half-close your eyes – scale models of vast, as-yet-unrealized earthworks, and the gold, flowers and ceramics giant sculptures on sparse plains.
Like many projects in the biennial, Ruth Ewan’s Back to the Fields (2015–16) looks to nature for models of survival and organization. (What could be more anthropocentric than plundering the natural world for concepts as well as physical resources?) Ewan has taken the French Republican Calendar, imposed during the revolutionary years in France from 1793 to 1805, and used it to map out a year-long agricultural cycle, divided into four quarters, on wooden platforms. Each month – from Vendémiaire, at the autumn equinox (what we call September), through to Fructidor (mid-to-late August) – is divided into three, ten-day weeks, and each day is assigned a plant or object, catalogued and arranged by Ewan on the platforms. (The 5th of Thermidore, for instance, is a fearsome-looking ram’s skull.) The implication of Back to the Fields is that nothing is fixed – our systems for marking time, our relationship to the land – and in that fact there is hope, even when faced with crumbling political structures. But as the French Revolution also taught us, that possibility of ground-up change can also bring with it terror, violence and horrific ideological zeal.
Pierre Huyghe’s De-Extinction (2016) is a video ode to deep-time, a micro-exploration of an insect trapped in amber, next to which visitors can enter an abject wedge of a room in which real flies are hatching (not a work for faint-hearted entomophobes). It is a moody middle finger to the Anthropocene. Much of the other video content in the biennial is documentary; standouts are Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca’s Estás vendo coisas (You Are Seeing Things, 2016) and Jonathas de Andrade’s O peixe (The Fish, 2016). Wagner and De Burca’s video was shot in Recife, in the northeast of Brazil, and depicts the making of videos for the city’s brega music scene. The filmmakers have captured a complex subculture characterized by wild fashions, escapist dreams and chauvinist attitudes. The film morphs between fantasy and documentary, along the way suggesting how brega provides an identity for the performers, a respite from life’s daily drudge. O peixe involves similar directorial sleights of hand that mesh fact with fiction. On the surface, De Andrade’s film appears to be an ethnographic study of indigenous fishermen in Algoas, again in Brazil’s northeast. We see them using traditional nets and rods, then caressing their catches in their arms, holding the fish to their naked torsos as they twitch and asphyxiate. These are disturbing visions of death, made more so by the film’s deadpan, quasi-anthropological style, which leads the viewer initially to think they are watching a traditional ritual, a primitivist fantasy of fishermen honouring the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. It is uncomfortable to watch, yet all is not as it seems: De Andrade builds tension between scenes that are pure documentary, and those in which the fishermen act a role under De Andrade’s direction, eroticized by the gaze of his camera.
The ethics of enthographic cinema have been contested for decades, and any artist taking it on today has to know what thorny debates about representation they’re getting themselves into. O peixe uses what the curators would call ‘uncertainty’ to make visible the issues of class and race that give Brazilian society some of its deep complexity. It does not make claims to be a political film; rather, the discomfit it produces in its viewers, its public, allows us to more clearly see the politics of representation, futurology and ecology that this biennial so thoughtfully explores.
Dan Fox is the US Editor at Large of frieze magazine and is based in New York. The author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016), his latest book, Limbo (2018), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
First published in Issue 183