Centuries of slavery and the violence of persistent colonial legacies, which generate enormous concentration of wealth and power contrasted with one of the highest levels of inequality on the planet. This is a quick and crude definition of what Brazilian society is, both in its colonial past as well as the contemporary one today. In this sense, the current edition of the São Paulo biennial, “choreographies of the impossible,” is very welcome: it follows the current flow of affirmative initiatives that in some way attempt to partially repair and highlight the centuries-old damage and violence generated by the regimes of slavery and exclusion originated in a colonial past and normalized until recently. The quartet of curators (seventy-five percent of whom are Black persons) brought together 121 artists, cultural workers, activists and marginalized/racialized subjects, to create an affirmative biennial about the great powers of life coming from other non-white European sociocultural matrices—African, Amerindians, Caboclas, Cafuzas—which have always been left aside or devalued by the mainstream art circuit in Brazil (and also in the world). Thus, “choreographies of the impossible” manages to insert and give visibility to other Brazils, and other ways of being, living and narrating the contemporary world.
This edition privileges a strong visual and sensorial connotation—as many of the works articulate a rich array of different materials, colors, smells, shapes, sounds and movements, such as works by Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne, Ibrahim Mahama, Denilson Baniwa, Daniel Lie, Carlos Bunga (the list of course is much larger). These are combined with more conceptual or archival projects, with strong political and/or historical revisionist content, such as Archivo de La Memoria Trans, Zumvi Arquivo Afro Fotográfico, Quilombo Cafundó, Anna Boghiguian, Frente 3 de Fevereiro, Cabello/Carceller (again the list is vast). However, few express a more procedural and functional dimension within the biennial pavilion, with the exception of the Ocupação 9 de Julho Kitchen, which operates in the biennial restaurant and café, and the Lesbian Sauna program (strangely relegated to an almost external area, the basement of the building, even though there is a vast free and unoccupied area on the ground floor of the building or even in the upper floor). Articulated in this way, the biennial responds to what is expected of one of the largest, canonical and oldest institutions of its kind in the world: to hold a large-scale exhibition that can, in some way, reverberate the urgent issues of the present.
And perhaps this is the starting point to reflect on why everything here is not roses. Because, despite the spectacular works presented, we have the impression of a certain disconnection between the axes of fruition of the biennial—a fact that perhaps becomes clearer when we are informed by the curatorial text that the articulation between the four members occurred through “dissensus.” I wonder what this could mean, while the “temporary curatorial collective” (gathered to propose and develop this project) presented “horizontality” as a form of operation and action (in an initial announcement made by the institution itself). In any case, the feeling of curatorial fragmentation emerges in many moments, creating the sensation of one exhibition within another, or one crossing and overlapping the other. This wouldn’t be all that bad, perhaps, if such intersections generated shocks, encounters, irruptions, ecstasies and disenchantment, which would mean it would be assumed as a kind of healthy game and dispute (a term that is quite often heard in the circles of antiracist counter-hegemonic debates). Dynamics that seem only outlined there, since the battle seems won, such as the market trend (that came before), are also in syntony with the biennial’s main drives. The expography, sometimes quite labyrinthine, also complicates and contributes in a way to fragment the experience of the exhibition.
And this fragmentation perhaps contributes to a certain exhaustion that can affect us when going through this edition due to the prevalence of many installations, large sculptural works or immersive video rooms with dense audiovisual works of long duration. It is also challenging to enter so many universes, language systems, visual vocabularies and even cosmological universes in such a short time and space. (I remember conceptual artist Stanley Brouwn’s mini-retrospective in contrast to Kidlat Tahimik’s quasi-oneiric scenographic installation for example.) There are also questions of scale: at times we have huge spaces for a single project, and at other times we see projects that could have been greatly benefited from some more space (for example the strong installation of Frente 3 de Fevereiro). The presentation methods also contribute to this, which seems to generate individual niches (sometimes with a retrospective tone) for each artist or collective to the detriment of more complex dialogues between works, generating more evident axes, subjects and problems that certainly cross the realities evoked in the show. In any case, among the 121 artists, there are great works and projects, diverse voices and for all tastes.
A specific element of the expography—which was carried out by the architects of the Vão group—generated an interesting metaphor that may go unnoticed: by closing the balconies on the middle floor of the building, the architects generated a large white volume, reinforcing the perception of the ceiling height and evidencing a form that previously seemed to be invisible. In a metaphorical way, the intervention could be read as a material commentary on the “white weight” of modern Brazilian architecture (and not only the Brazilian one). It is symptomatic that, indirectly, this “white elephant” is floating in the middle of the room.
Even though the biennial’s program is broad and diverse and also aimed at school visits (the biennial’s largest audience), the events remain isolated within the city’s large park, which has one of the worst public access systems—not to mention that it is located in an upscale urban area, miles and long hours away by public transport from popular neighborhoods. There have already been editions that outlined and embraced networks outside of Ibirapuera Park (for example, the tenth São Paulo Architecture Biennial or even the thirty-fourth Art Biennial, or even Arte/Cidade editions held in the nineties and 2000s in diverse zones of the city). For the majority of the population, accessing the biennial is still a task that requires performing an almost impossible choreography.
And we just need to look a little more closely at the institutional intricacies of the biennial to see that, structurally, nothing has changed. Its councils and governing body continue to be mostly made up of white, local elites who have little to do with the cultural scene. Most of the time, the most direct connection is with large companies, financial conglomerates, investment funds or agribusiness. We need to have sponsors, sure, but what is more important is to have a true representative sense of the culture that is articulated there.
So if, on the one hand, we have an edition that is progressive and affirmative—even with its challenges, problems, successes and a lot of struggle—on the other hand, we have the institutional structure itself that is light-years away from being so. A finding that leads me to reflect on whether a biennial with these characteristics does not run the risk of being used as a new form of tokenism (the use of identities articulated at another level, for institutional purposes, unrelated to the primary aims). Nevertheless, this biennial will remain a historical landmark, one that I hope will open cultural doors so that we can always see new and old artists, from all possible origins, exercising all the cultural freedoms that, it seems to us, are still difficult for them to exercise, having Black, white or Indigenous peoples as curators or not. And most importantly, that new ghettos may not be created, but rather large, structural and lasting alliances, among those who fight for an anti-racist, egalitarian, non-competitive and fair society.
35th Bienal de São Paulo: choreographies of the impossible
Through December 10, 2023
Fundação Bienal de São Paulo
Parque Ibirapuera, Avenidas Pedro Álvares Cabral, São Paulo