A Banana and a Black Cloud
the 28th Bienal de São Paulo: “in living contact”
The Bienal de São Paulo was founded in 1951, and located in Oscar Niemeyer’s 1954 industrial exhibition pavilion in Ibirapuera Park, between central Sao Paulo and the suburbs. Both -the institution and the park + building - were the most emblematic of the modernization ideology of the “the country of the future” when they were established, marking a turning point in the history of São Paulo. In their curatorial statement for the 28th Bienal de São Paulo, Chief curator Ivo Mesquita and Adjunct-curator Ana Paula Cohen aim at “offering a platform for observation and reflection upon the culture and system of biennials, taking its own experience as a case study”. Their stated focus is on the Bienal as a model of exhibition and as an institution, asking questions about the role of the Bienal in regards to its own history, to the city itself and to the international context of ca. 200 Biennales around the planet. It “proposes a range of exhibition and dissemination apparatuses to mediate contact between the audience and the production of knowledge in a collective event of such scope”, structured in the form of: Square, Open Plan, Plan of Readings (exhibition, library, conferences), and Publications.
The entrance to this edition of the Bienal is through a marquise from the park into the ground floor of the pavilion, intended as a public Square hosting music, dance presentations, performance and cinema over the six weeks of the Bienal, starting with a musical performance by New Yorkers Fischerspooner.
On the first floor, after negotiating airport-level security at the entrance to what one has to assume must be the exhibition proper, Erick Beltrán’s El mundo explicado (The World Explained) is an encyclopedia of non-specialized knowledge set up as an off-set printing process, the material produced on the press is presented in the third floor. The artist states in the exhibition guide that: “This time I would like to know how we may trick the discourse, how we can bend beliefs at our convenience and how different cosmologies fuse into another”. Ironically or not, one wonders if this is a key to (explain) this Bienal’s ethos.
Still on the first floor, a Video Lounge presents films and videos by Glauber Rocha, Jean-Luc Godard, Guenther Brus among others, in thematic programs. One can watch seminal works not always easily accessible to the public in Brazil, but it seems anachronistic to distinguish these artists’ works from the others invited (Rocha, Godard, Brus and others are not listed as artists in the exhibition literature). Another inexplicable museological decision, on the part of the curators relates to the ignorance of the historical format (4:3 and 1:1,3) of much of the video and film material, which has been stretched to 16:9 format to fill the new flatscreen monitors on which they are presented (the monitors have a 4:3 option in their menus).
From the first floor one ascends into a “void” on the second Open Floor, which according to Mesquita and Cohen is to draw attention to the ‘economy of art’ and allow a reflection on the architecture.
One of the most consistent curatorial statements was that this would be an exhibition without walls. However arriving on the third floor: the Plan of Readings, where most of the artists’ works are concentrated, together with a library with some but not all Bienal catalogues and an auditorium for the conferences, one is confronted with an exhibition packed full of wooden platforms, furniture, temporary wall structures and cupboards that the space looks a little bit like a Wood Fair. Artists like Mabe Bethonico and Gabriel Serra have been transplanted from Ana Paula Cohen’s recent project Casa del Encuentro in Medellin and redeployed to make exhibition structures in the Bienal without much thought for the pavilion’s existing architecture or the broader and more current artistic context in which the Sao Paulo Bienal usually operates. Whereas artists like Franz West, Heimo Zobernig, Jorge Pardo and others worked extensively with such structures over the last two decades, one wonders if Mesquita and Cohen have misunderstood the irony in aestheticizing exhibition and archive structures and have merely simulated the 1990s? Distinct works – by Sophie Calle, Fernando Bryce, Rivane Neuenschwander, Javier Peñafiel or Marina Abramovic – are forced onto structures that make them difficult to find, articulate and experience.
A few works survive the exhibition design. Peter Friedl’s ongoing project Playgrounds (1995 – 2008) is a slide presentation pf photographs taken by the artist of public playgrounds all over the world, which quotes “the genre of conceptual photography”. It was presented on one of the few white walls in the pavilion, at the insistence of the artist. Angela Ferreira’s third version of the long term project For Mozambique, is a stand-alone reinterpreted constructivist structure representing the country’s immediate post-independence period, including a clip from Bob Dylan’s Mozambique and a short film shot by Jean Rouch and Jacques d’Arthuys’s during Rouch, Godard and Guerra’s project for a new national television and film structure for Mozambique in the late 1970s. Amongst several controversies, there is absolutely no acknowledgement of the concepts developed by Thomas Mulcaire whilst he was curator of the project -including selecting Angela Ferreira, Sarnath Banerjee, Joe Sheehan, Glauber Rocha and Peter Friedl- before he left in June 2008 due to conceptual differences with Mesquita and Cohen in the development of the project.
On the front cover of the exhibition guide, the main Publication’ thus far, the 28th Bienal’s graphic identity is a partly transparent sticker overlaid on top of the 1st Bienal’s poster. Mesquita and Cohen claim that this edition of the Bienal will be a public “inclusive and social space” and a “laboratory” of its kind for the 21st century. However, is this new Bienal really able to “present a new format of exhibition” and capable of “promoting a new relationship with its audiences and the city”? On a macro-level, the lead-up to the exhibition was dogged by an ongoing local polemic surrounding the non-transparency of the Bienal through an ongoing financial and institutional crisis stemming from allegations of corruption and conflict of interest in the spending of public funds. On a micro-level there is also no clear labeling or indication of the position of works in the entire building. Less than half of the exhibited works are shown in the position where they were marked out on the printed floor plans, giving almost no chance to visitors from outside the inner circles of the art world to know what or who they are actually looking at. What then are the relationships between the audience and the work? Is this Bienal actually engaging with the city and its heterogeneous audience or with a very small art network?
A series of conferences, talks and panels propose a reflection about these main curatorial statements around four major themes, inviting more than 100 international and Brazilian curators, artists, critics (see www.28bienaldesaopaulo.org.br). Amongst the many panels in the last months, and the intensity of activities realized already in the first week, the most talked about event has been a non-scheduled one, reflecting in living contact (about) the curatorial statements:
As people gathered at the square for the opening performance by Fischerspooner, about 40 people started to tag the internal windows and white walls of the empty second floor, as their own pre-planned (according to the media and related blogs) critical intervention towards the 28th Bienal and the ‘economy of art’, within a broader context of violent social-territorial struggle of this metropolis. The taggers were violently evicted by the Bienal security guards, education guides, and apparently even Cohen herself, who was seen running after them. The Bienal referred to them as “criminals” on an official document the day after. Cohen has since labeled them “those people from the periphery” during the press conference. By doing so, she associates directly the “periphery” with a fixed identity of poverty and vandalism, in relation to a flexible/plural and rich “centre”. If the 28th Bienal claims to be a “public inclusive and social space” with a strong symbolic dimension, the institution should open itself to these other audiences “from the periphery”, instead of shutting them out. By stigmatizing and criminalizing “the periphery”, the Bienal perpetuates a viciously social excluding relationship/ideology. The curators’ desire for a “public inclusive and social space” obviously has limits
Also on the opening day, people stood in long lines for Carsten Holler’s Valerio Sisters which connected the three floors of the Bienal pavilion, both outside and inside. It was one of the few works that seemed to attract genuine interest from the audience, who took a liking to its vertiginous slides. Holler’s work is also on the cover of the first edition of 28b, inserted in an existing newspaper called Metro and distributed free around the city. The newspaper contains another highlight of this Bienal, a serialised graphic novel called Dispatches from the City of no U-turns by Delhi-based artist Sarnath Banerjee, which contains a healthy dose of humour as it relates idiosyncratic scenes drawn from everyday life in São Paulo.