I have been attending the São Paulo biennials since I moved here in the early 1980s. The event is one of the pillars of my views as an art historian after going to college abroad and having always loved art since I can remember. Some works in the biennial remain vivid in my mind and the experience has become central to my views in the visual arts.
Thinking back, the most controversial of all biennials ever organized in the art world occurred in 2008 here in São Paulo. With hardly any funds, immersed in political struggles and strangled by red tape, Ivo Mesquita, curator of the 28th Bienal de São Paulo, took a bold step by opening the event with its second floor completely depleted of any art, nada, only the majestic void of Oscar Niemeyer’s colossal pavilion punctuated by its pristine columns. We couldn’t believe our eyes. At the time, like most my friends, I felt outraged. Now, fifteen years later and older, what if we didn’t have the Bienal at all? How much poorer we would all have been! What misery! What void…
In 1989, I witnessed the excrement installation under the biennial’s iconic ramp by Joseph Beuys while he observed it, felt hat and all, being swiftly removed by the event’s organization. Three decades later, another stir. “Bandeira Branca” [White Flag] by Brazilian artist Nuno Ramos, in 2010, displayed three urubus (black vultures) caged in a net in the void of Niemeyer’s ramp. (The birds were eventually reclaimed by the IBAMA society of animal protection.)
How can I forget: Anselm Kiefer’s monumental three paintings? Tony Cragg’s large panel (that I saw with my baby daughter in a carriage) dotted with fragments of plastic found in waste alerting us all of what was soon to come? Picasso’s surrealist sensual bullfight imagery of the 1930s, Tauromachy? Being face to face to Munch’s “The Scream” at the twenty-third biennial in 1996? The grand selection of photographers of the thirtieth biennial, from the anthropological portraits of German August Sander to the extensive investigation of Dutch-born Hans Eijkelboom on the influence of clothing on the individual and identity, to the collection of amazing African photographers?
Still clear in my mind, the influential 1985 or the eighteenth biennial, curated by Sheila Leirner, the first female curator-in-chief of the event founded thirty-four years earlier, with its three large, long corridors, dubbed a Grande Tela [Large Canvas], that caused another major biennial controversy. My young friends and I loved it! It hailed the return of canvas painting with neo-expressionist works—some with the paint still wet—side-by-side, hanging on both walls, by then-young artists Leda Catunda, Ciro Cozzolino, Sergio Romagnolo, Daniel Senise, Carlito Carvalhosa and Angelo Venosa—both deceased prematurely—and many more, most of them well-established in today’s art market.
Impossible not to remember the exhibition room with the grandiose canvas work of the late Jorginho Guinle. The playful and aesthetic vacuum cleaners and ping-pong balls installation by Guto Lacaz. The magenta MDF panels by Carlos Fajardo indicating other paths to the canvas. The humorous airborne Hindenburg sculpture by Artur Lescher. The then-pioneer performance couple, Marina Abramović and Ulay, staring into each other’s eyes motionless for seven hours straight. The video-wall installation of pioneer video-maker Korean-American artist Nam Jun Paik. The 19th Bienal de São Paulo (1987) and the work of art’s semi-god Marcel Duchamp. The spicy scent of Ernesto Neto’s aromatic installation in the thirtieth biennial. Denise Milan’s long installation “Brasilis Island” with purple rock formations and violet crystal at the thirty-third edition. Two groundbreaking moments, the 1989 installation “Nomes” [Names] by Jac Leirner, and later the Bosco “Chocolate series” by Vik Muniz. The installation by Louise Bourgeois. The paintings by Basquiat. The braids by Tunga. The unframed paintings and embroideries by dear Leonilson.
Then in 2010, my interview for Vogue Brazil magazine brought me face-to-face with the legendary Joseph Kosuth at the twenty-ninth biennial, where the pioneer artist exhibited his emblematic “One and Three Chairs” (1965), a pioneering work in the conceptual art movement. The monumental panel, “Boca do inferno” [Hell’s Mouth], with 160 monotypes by Carmela Gross. The black-and-white portrait photography of South African LGBTQIA+ activist and artist Zanele Muholi. The black-and-white 35mm film documentary on remarkable psychiatrist Nise da Silveira on how she used art classes, since the mid-1940s, in her innovative therapeutic experiences for schizophrenia. The installation with charred tree sculptures by the late visionary environmental activist Frans Krajcberg. The monumental portraits of Amazonian Éder Oliveira at the thirty-first biennial. Macuxi activist Jaider Esbell, the exponent of Brazil’s Indigenous art, in the 34th Bienal de São Paulo in 2021, and the news of his shocking suicide at the time of the event. So many different, conflicting sensations, so little time…
The current 35th Bienal de São Paulo with its 120 artists and over 1,000 works? Obviously, I haven’t seen it all in five visits and, I admit, my impatience for art videos and performances. My compliments to the female graphic designer, Nontsikelelo Mutiti of Zimbabwean origin, who created this edition’s visual identity with a typeface based on braided Black hair in a nod to African ancestry.
I will not mention the four curators. Too much has been said about them and less has been mentioned about the focus of their job: Art. A controversial aspect of the current biennial is the newly built dry walls. They were specifically designed for this edition by São Paulo-based Vão Arquitetura who signed the floor plan of the montage. They were put up expressly to block the view and perspective from the ramp we have to the three extensive floors of the pavilion. The beauty of Niemeyer’s original design is, in my opinion, unsurpassable. But for the subject being a biennial, a forum for new ideas and ideals in Art (and Life), why not create interferences in the old, established system? Isn’t it one of the issues deeply ingrained in contemporary art? The current biennial presents, as always, some flaws in its architectural plan; however, enclosing the ramp in fortress-like walls, in my view, is a conceptual statement I’m able to deal with (and those walls will be taken down as soon as the event is over in December).
A raison d’être of a biennial art show, few know, is to exhibit large artworks of sizes that do not comply to the standard space in most art galleries. At the entrance of the biennial pavilion, the monumentality of the tripartite installation by Ghana-born artist, Ibrahim Mahama, impresses: a line of railroad tracks of the Ghana Railway Company that transported slaves in colonial times, large oval clay pots typical of his native country dotting the floor, some broken, some cracked, and the “Parliament of Ghosts,” a red brick construction inviting people of different backgrounds, beliefs and ages to congregate, stressing the central message of this event: Inclusion. Not far, on the same floor, the installation by Kidlat Tahimik and his collective is, putting it bluntly, bad art. Very bad art. Better suited for “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” the horrendous piece in a major platform such as the Bienal de São Paulo is, to say the least, a waste of space. In 2010, Ai Weiwei displayed in the same place, “Circle of Heads/Zodiac Animals,” twelve bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac, possibly one of his worst works. (A ghost with very bad taste in art must haunt that area of the pavilion.)
Must-sees: Denilson Baniwa’s installation; the powerful sculptural work by Chicago-born female Afro-American artist Torkwase Dyson; Daniel Lie’s decomposing scenic forest; the experience of treading barefoot over “Habitar el color,” Carlos Bunga’s site-specific large pink rubber carpet; the white candomblé totem installation by the late Rubem Valentim; and the contorted hanging fabric sculptures by the event’s grand dame Sonia Gomes (presently on show at the Pinacoteca’s Octogono area in an infinitely superior montage). Another grand dame and, like Gomes, a woman of color, Rosana Paulino, has two exhibition rooms, one of them shared with the late Arthur Bispo do Rosário (Dr. Nise da Silveira’s most famous patient). Bispo’s extensive oeuvre was in an infinitely superior and comprehensive montage at the thirtieth biennial.
Must-sees: The thought-provoking video of duo Cabello/Carceller, “Una Voz para Erauso. Un Epílogo para un Tiempo Trans,” on the sixteenth/seventeenth-century nun, soldier and racist, Basque-born Antonio de Erauso, possibly the first known trans person depicted in Western portrait painting. Three non-binary trans individuals discuss in depth the violent historical character who actively participated in the Mapuche genocide in Chile’s colonization period. “Monumento Vivo” [Living Monument] by Marilyn Boror Bor, an artist and activist of Mayan-Caqchiquel origin (currently in the collective show, “Primavera Silenciosa/Silent Spring,” at Galeria Luciana Brito), makes a strong statement on the substitution of her people’s native culture for the imposing rules of foreign financial and ideological dominance. Nothing to do with politics, but particularly poetic (reminiscences of the sublime late German-Venezuelan artist Gego?) is the installation of young Igshaan Adams from Cape Town.
Must-sees: The historical area dedicated to the powerfully pop-political poster design to advance revolutionary social causes in Latin America. The selection includes contemporary Peruvian graphic designer Jesús Ruiz Durand, and the Taller NN founded in Lima; the strong, ironic graphics of the end of the nineteenth-century by Mexican José Guadalupe Posada; the Taller 4 Rojo from Colombia; and the Taller de Gráfica Popular, founded in Mexico in 1937. Not far from there, another historical highlight, the master of Cuban painting, Wifredo Lam (1902-1982).
Must-sees: “Sumidouro” by Brazilian duo Diego Araúja and Laís Machado at the far end of the second floor. The visually compelling installation enraptured me with its archaic feeling conveyed through ancestral chants based on Afro-Atlantic liturgy combined with the impactful theatricality of huge moving straw curtains coming from nowhere in a sparsely lit, suggestive environment, that seems to ask us: Where do we go from here? Particularly symbolic is the 2011 painting by the late Sidney Amaral, “O estrangeiro” [The Foreigner], his only work hanging in the event. Painted over a black background, the vertical canvas (240 x 138 cm; 94.5″ x 54.3″) shows the colossal architecture of the white ramp of the biennial pavilion in contrast with a small, hardly noticeable, figure at the left side of the canvas. It is Caronte, the boater of Greek mythology who transported the souls from life to death, a metaphor for the artist’s strenuous journey as an Afro-descendant Brazilian individual in the margins of society battling to be heard before the open discussion we now have on the African diaspora.
Must-goes: Lunch on the mezzanine in the communal kitchen, Cozinha Ocupação 9 de Julho—MSTC. “choreographies of the impossible,” theme-title of this inclusive edition, also embraces the popular, no-frills, basic Brazilian culinary arts for people of all walks of life. The final highlight: this edition is free admission. I plan further visits with a more open mind. I promise.
35th Bienal de São Paulo—coreografias do impossível
Through December 10, 2023
Fundação Bienal de São Paulo
Rio-born Cynthia Garcia is a respected art historian, art critic and journalist fluent in five languages stationed in São Paulo. Cynthia is a recipient of the 2023 APCA (Paulista Association of Art Critics) award as a contributing editor of Newcity Brazil since its founding in 2015. Her daughter America Cavaliere works in the contemporary art market and her son Pedro Cavaliere, based in LA, is in the international DJ scene.
Contact: [email protected], www.cynthiagarcia.biz