It began with a fire. While technicians were still installing the temporary walls of the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo in its curvaceous, white pavilion in Ibirapuera Park, a blaze consumed Brazil’s National Museum, the most important historical and anthropological collection in Latin America, housed in the former Portuguese royal palace in Rio de Janeiro. Millennia of history were suddenly incinerated, the last records of entire languages forever lost. The museum’s smouldering shell soon became a symbol for the country’s political crisis, which (on the eve of the last biennial) saw the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff by her right-wing Vice President, Michel Temer. The frontrunner in the upcoming election, former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has recently been jailed on fraud charges; left-wing activists have been murdered. The arts, too, have been under constant attack by right-wing politicians and evangelicals, who have successfully shuttered exhibitions and threatened public institutions with funding cuts.
All this put Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, the biennial’s chief curator, in a uniquely vulnerable yet empowered position: push back against right-wing revanchism and face a mob of religious fanatics; yet send a message directly to the President. It’s safe to say that Pérez-Barreiro has passed on that opportunity, instead inviting seven artist curators – Mamma Andersson, Antonio Ballester Moreno, Sofia Borges, Waltércio Caldas, Alejandro Cesarco, Claudia Fontes and Wura-Natasha Ogunji – to each mount their own distinct exhibition within the whole. The overall result, ‘Affective Affinities’, is a biennial whose sum is no greater than its parts, and whose parts vary greatly in quality. Affinities between the seven shows are hard to glean, even if most of them overindulge in formalist similitude.
This biennial’s most consistent feature is open space, and there’s plenty of it on the ground floor, where it begins with Antonio Ballester Moreno’s ‘common/sense’. Large acrylic paintings on jute and a floor mandala of small clay mushrooms from Ballester Moreno’s own series ‘Vivan los campos libres’ (Long live the free fields, 2018) occupy one half of this floor. The mostly abstract geometric paintings of yellow suns and leafy trees are fairly anodyne, though the fungi – hand-sculpted by public school children from São Paulo – seem almost phosphorescent in the sunlight that flows through the ample windows of Oscar Niemeyer’s design. The installation is a fitting accompaniment to a nearby presentation of children’s toys and mathematical games by the early 19th century pedagogical theorist Friedrich Fröbel, who first conceived of ‘kindergarten’ and argued that children have unique cognitive capabilities. Some of the more geometric games resemble neo-concrete compositions by Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, offering a tantalizing link between the utopian aspirations of Brazilian modernism and the promise of an enlightened ‘children’s garden’.
‘Every colour is political,’ artist and co-curator Sofia Borges intoned at the biennial’s press conference, invoking the legacy of those same modernists. This shaky precept does no favours to Borges’s own exhibition, ‘The Infinite History of Things or the End of the Tragedy of One’, whose title reads like an index of stories by the magical realist author who shares her surname. Indeed, Jorge Luis Borges is invoked by the exhibition’s format, a dim labyrinth of polished concrete and heavy velvet curtains in which collisions between visitors seem likely. This maze even has its minotaurs: larger-than-life sized portraits of masquerading Selk’nam dancers from Tierra del Fuego – the archipelago at South America’s southernmost tip – taken by the ethnologist Martin Gusinde in 1923. Their placement lends a spooky spiritualism to the space that says little about the photographs’ cultural context, one that exoticizes their subjects. Throughout the following passageways, Sofia Borges’s own works are most prominent: enlarged detail photographs of works by other artists, from the death mask of Agamemnon (c.1500 BCE) to abstract canvases from the 1970s by Brazilian painter Jose Alberto de Almeida. Again, without context, it’s hard to understand the motivation behind their selection, or the intentions behind the artistic gestures Borges enlarges. Printed matte on board, they look cheap, overwhelmed by the luscious velvet on which they hang. The show does, however, feature an ingenious pairing of sculptures by Sarah Lucas and the late Brazilian artist Tunga; Lucas’s many-breasted Silver Hippie (2016) (2017) dances with Tunga’s The Bather (2014) – which resembles an enormous, suspended fingertip crushing a coconut shell – casting an elegant sheen to the former artist’s work, and a bawdy humour to the latter’s.
On one of the pavilion’s airy upper floors, ‘The Slow Bird’, Claudia Fontes’s thoughtful exhibition, opens with its most memorable work, Fontes’s own Nota al pie (Footnote, 2018), whose origin hints at her show’s title. Fontes, who lives near an ecological preserve outside of Brighton, UK, placed small porcelain figurines on the roof of her home, where a flock of nesting seagulls pushed them off the ledge. The artist and a team of 40 women collected the fragments and upholstered them with white muslin, giving them the ghostly sheen of ancient marbles. With the shards of Brazil’s cultural heritage still smouldering in Rio, the work’s avian comedy was heart-wrenching, as if testifying to the slow and painful breakdown in communication between living things.
Many works by the late sculptor Lucia Nogueira, on view in an independent mini-retrospective organized by Pérez-Barreiro, share in this understated violence. Installed on a corridor of temporary walls atop a low platform, the presentation includes the foreboding Step (1995), an intricate carpet covered in shards of blue glass; and Black and White (1993), a floor pockmarked by exploded firecrackers, with a glass end table crouched in the corner, as if fleeing their wrath. The red yarn of … (1992), which flows from a steel volume to a bucket and a flour sack, resembles a trail of blood.
A selection of works by the late Guatemalan artist Aníbal López is more direct: a group of small clay figurines graphically depict scenes of bloodshed from the artist’s home country, while one painting portrays a body hung from a meat hook. Photographic documentation capture López’s many radical actions: in 2007, he paid smugglers to sneak empty crates into Brazil (Sculpture Composed of 500 Boxes of Contraband Transported from Paraguay to Brazil), and for the 2001 Venice Biennale, he dumped tons of coal on a main avenue in Guatemala City moments before a military parade (June 30). On multiple occasions, he hired security guards to bar visitors from entering his exhibitions, or vet them by appearance (resulting in his own rejection) – a brutal critique of art-world vapidity.
Insiders from that world are likely to recognize much in ‘To our parents’, the exhibition by New York-based Uruguayan conceptual artist Alejandro Cesarco, featuring works by a starry line-up of artists, including Louise Lawler, Matt Mullican and Sturtevant. That many of these works are being shown for the first time in South America should be celebrated, though they do not much relate to one another, and seem freshly plucked from blue-chip New York exhibition programmes (in three cases, from exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art over the past two years). ‘To our parents’ is a love letter to Cesarco’s artistic idols, and the peers he feels deserve to be placed in their storied company. At least two of the kids come off looking better than their elders. Sarah Cwynar’s latest film, Red (2018), combines the bold palette and stage sets of product photography with snippets of texts on the status of commodities. Cameron Rowland explores that status to even more biting effect with Assessment (2018), a collection of 19th century US tax receipts that appraise the value of households according to the number of slaves they own, along with other inane objects like crockery and grandfather clocks, one of which stands hauntingly present.
The most delightful show here, Swedish painter Mamma Andersson’s ‘Stargazer II’, is a surprising (though perhaps not for this artist) presentation of mostly deceased Swedish painters. These include striking, undated canvases by Ernst Josephson that recall the later works of James Ensor, and untitled fin de siècle ink drawings by Carl Fredrik Hill, their subjects delicately squashed. More recent paintings by Dick Bengtsson, Bruno Knutman and Åke Hodell are all intriguing, especially alongside a group of medieval Russian icons and watercolour collages by the visionary Henry Darger, which they closely resemble. Most astonishing, perhaps, is La Revanche du Ciné-opérateur (The Cameraman’s Revenge), a 1912 stop-motion film by Ladislas Starevitch that casts dead insects as jilted lovers – a revoltingly comic cinematic caprice that predates the birth of Hollywood.
With the exception of Andersson herself, all the artists in her exhibition are men. The adjacent show, ‘The Appearances’ by Waltércio Caldas, repeats the error: of its 20 artists, only Gego, the late Venezuelan master of abstract sculpture, is female. Though the exhibition includes alluring works by Sergio Camargo, Anthony Caro and the recently-passed Antonio Dias – as well as an elusive inkblot by Victor Hugo – it is stifled by its presentation: cheap brown office carpet and off-kilter walls that would better fit a 1980s auction house.
It ended with a stabbing. On the day of the biennial’s public opening, Jair Bolsonaro – the right-wing frontrunner in Brazil’s impending presidential election – was knifed in the chest during a street rally in Juiz de Fora, a small city northwest of Rio. Bolsonaro has praised the military dictatorship (1964–85) and is still awaiting trial by the Supreme Court for inciting hate crimes and rape. The incident raised the swift spectre of violence in a country ever perched on a razor’s edge.
While the biennial’s chief curator could never have foreseen such an incident, Brazil was already neck-deep in its most severe crisis since the dictatorship when he was appointed in 2017. Pérez-Barreiro had ample opportunity to respond to the political situation, and chose not to. On the one hand, his decision to hand authorship of the biennial over to a diverse group of artists is an encouragingly democratic gesture; on the other, it conveniently deflects and disperses blame. It favours formalist affinities over political ones, insulating the biennial from public controversy. Finally, rather than give visitors more agency to assemble meaning for themselves, it’s a strategy that offers little clarity or guidance. Now is not a good time to feel lost.
The 33rd Bienal de São Paulo runs until 9 December, 2018.
Main image: Roderick Hietbrink, The Living Room, 2011. Courtesy: the artist