Published  06/12/2010

Clear Sailing: 29th S

Clear Sailing: 29th São Paulo Biennial

The Biennial Pavilion, Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo
25 September–12 December 2010


The São Paulo Biennial, the most traditional on the American Continent and the second oldest international show of its kind, has been under threat after more than half a century of history, and of making history. Administrative and financial problems jeopardised the continuation of the exhibition, which has been primarily supported by the private sector. The 2008 edition was called the Biennial of “the void”, where an entire floor of the 30,000 square-metre Oscar Niemeyer pavilion was left empty to promote the debate about the relevance of the institution. This attempt resulted in a fiasco. Two years later the 2008 Biennial is for the main part remembered because it was attacked by a gang of graffiti vandals who tried to fill the bare floor and walls. In the light of these frightening circumstances, the curators of the 2010 Edition of the Biennial, Brazilians Moacir do Anjos and Agnaldo Farias,1 had as their mission not only to stage an extensive exhibition but also to prove that the institution could survive the crisis and that its significance to the art world remains in tact.

Under the title There is always a cup of sea to sail in2 the 29th São Paulo Biennial has Politics as the main direction of its navigation planning. Presenting the impressive number of 159 artists from all continents, the curatorial viewpoint poses politics from a broader horizon. This notion is interpreted in the sense that every art form can be political as it can modify the perception of reality. In the curators’ words art and politics are inseparable and this characteristic “assures the unique place of art in the symbolic organization of life and its capacity to clarify and rework the forms by which the world is structured”3. Based on such a premise, the exhibition surprises those who expect to see artworks that are plainly political, which point out conflicting social situations as their subject and material. Primarily what can be seen are artworks that are more subtle and whose political issues appear in different layers.4

Circle of animals, made especially for the São Paulo show by Ai Weiwei (b1957 in China) and placed near the entrance of the Biennial pavilion, consists of 12 giant sculptures, which illustrate this bond between art and politics that has been emphasized by the curatorial team. Each sculptural animal head represents one figure of the Chinese zodiac. Weiwei, who is outspoken about his homeland human rights concerns, welcomes the audience of the Biennial with a reproduction of the statues that used to adorn the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing. The artist has rebuilt what once symbolised the power of the Chinese Empire and was subsequently destroyed in a war. Weiwei chose to salute the public of an art event with these folklore figures in an extremely disproportionate size proposing a mix of fear and admiration. With the set of bronze animals that are in fact fake and part of the imaginary archetypes of his heritage, he addresses incongruous aspects of 21st-century Chinese culture.

Zarina Bhimji (b1963 in Uganda, lives in London) also focuses on contemporary social issues. The artist presents Waiting (2007), a 7 minute 48 second, 35mm colour film, in which she poetically immerses her camera in the interior of a sisal processing factory. The resultant footage is inhabited by machinery, tools, instruments, dust, pieces of fabric, threads, manufacturing noises, and indistinct voices but no faces or bodies. The human beings are either partially visible or just blurry shadows inside the building, which is old, weathered and almost without colour. The industrial scene is paradoxically primitive. These two elements encounter and contradict each other, at the same time it is perfectly believable that they cohabit the same terrain: a land where imported progress meets traditional civilization. 

The installation, which perhaps has a greater degree of directive approach towards politics, is Arroz e feijão (Rice and beans, 1979/2007) by Anna Maria Maiolino (born in Italy 1942, has been living in Brazil since childhood). It is constituted by a long black table, elaborately laid for a meal, created during the Brazilian dictatorship. On the set of plates instead of having food there is earth, where seeds of beans and rice, the main components of the Brazilian cuisine, are growing. The artist tackles the nationalism promoted by the military government demonstrating icons of the national identity rising from the earth to nourish the people. Maiolino also invites the viewers to reflect about present social worldwide issues such as hunger and distribution of food.

Raising a subject that also continues to be provocative nowadays is the photographic series Faenza by Miguel Angel Rojas (b1946 in Colombia). Like the work of Maiolino, Faenza was made in 1979. The series is composed of images that expose the regular customers of an old cinema used for clandestine homosexual meetings. The artist, with a hidden camera, photographed the men there. The result is black and white images in which the architecture of the building has more presence than the figures captured by the hidden camera. The men are obscured and indistinct. The composition achieved allows the viewer to see and feel the lack of freedom that relates to such sexual behaviour.

Like Arroz e feijão and Faenza, many pieces of the Biennial exhibition are re-installations of artworks made two or three decades ago. Documents from performances or about group actions at a specific historical moment are on display. Two such examples are: CADA, the abbreviation for Art Actions Collective, a Chilean artistic group formed after the 1973 military coup in their country, who promoted a series of subversive interventions contesting the dictatorship; and Avant-garde Artist Group (Grupo de Artistas de Vanguarda) from Argentina, famous for making the Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is burning) art manifestation against the privatization of plantations in Tucumán village. The documentary material of both groups was presented on old paper like a faded examination of the past. Both active during the 1960s and 1970s and there is no doubt about their relevance to the history of art. Nevertheless, according to the very profound concept of what a Biennial proposes to be, the selection of artwork exhibited gave the impression that there is very good art on display but of an antique framework. Antique as far as we can extend this adjective to contemporary art.

Even artworks that refer to contemporary political subjects are not innovative in terms of approach. For instance Catastrophy (2010) by Artur Zmijewski (b1966, in Poland) a documentary about the air crash that killed the President and members of the Polish government earlier this year, seems to use an outdated discourse.  The video artist filmed the reaction of the Polish people on the streets of Warsaw just after the tragedy. Although the video has as its background one of the most unforeseen episodes of the decade, the method that the artist preferred to tell this story is more informative than investigative. He does not take advantage of the new aesthetics now commonplace in recent video art. In addition to the feeling that we are looking into the past, many artworks among the 159 selected by the curatorial team, coincidentally or metaphorically, deal with the notion of archival research: Photographic archives, film collections and storage of old objects.

There is a propensity throughout the works in the exhibition to find the source for the artistic creations in residual images from the past. The work of Simon Fujiwara (b1982 England, lives and works in Germany and Mexico) serves as an illustration of this tendency. The artist transported the entire family archive of the German Professor Theo Grumberg to São Paulo. The Personal Effects of Theo Grunberg (2010) is composed of books, vinyl records, postcards, newspapers, files and documents from the professor and his descendants. The office-like installation tries to recreate, in a fictitious way, the life of the characters presented there by the repository of their personal belongings. In a similar manner Rosangela Rennó (b1962 in Brazil) also brought to the Biennial old cameras, projectors and photos that she has been collecting from antiquaries and second hand shops. In O que é bom para o lixo é bom para a poesia from the series Matéria Poesia (What is good for garbage is good for poetry from the series Matter of poetry) (2010) she exhibits these objects giving her singular interpretation to someone else's stories. At the end of the exhibition she will promote an auction of her installation’s items giving each object another purpose in the hands of other people.

In order to “save the Biennial” the curators of this year's edition, decided not to take risks and provide the public with a conventional exhibition. We can use the adjective “conventional” taking into account that instead of promoting brand new artistic languages, the curatorial selection opted for what has already been established in the art scene. The exhibition does not present the newer trends in the contemporary world. There are few works where interdisciplinary research can be witnessed, and/or real life interaction with the visitor takes place, that have multiple authors or that utilise updated technologies.

In this realm, the works of Cao Fei (b1978 in China) and Livio Tragtenberg (b1971 in Brazil) could be cited. Fei creates a utopian Chinese city, RBM City – A Second Life City Planning, in the Second life Virtual community and Tragtenberg playing the role of the character Dr Strange requests the public to make noises in the microphones or bring sounds to his “laboratory” (a cage) built in the pavilion, for him to compose music with this mosaic of tunes in the O Gabinete do Dr.Estranho (Dr.Strange’s Cabinet) (2010).

The curators Moacir dos Anjos and Agnaldo Farias have deliberately attempted to deliver a Biennial that can be comprehended more as a historical review than an exhibition that could make history by introducing new and alternative art practices to a great audience. If we analyse the case of the Brazilian art on display in particular, we can easily understand precisely what the curatorial strategy is. There are around 50 artists from Brazil and from this total most of the artworks on show are dated from 1930 to 1985, including artworks made by the internationally acclaimed Brazilian artists such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape.5 Clearly, this specific selection made by the curators has the intention of providing a critical re-reading of several artistic trajectories in the country, which is home to the international show. To reinforce the attested plan of the curatorial team we could also take into consideration the preference for mainstream names from other parts of the world such as the Americans Allan Sekula, Joseph Kosuth and Nan Goldin, the retrospective of videos made by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, the Belgian Francis Alÿs, the German Gustav Metzger and masters of cinema and video, Jean Luc Godard and Samuel Becket.

In summary, the Biennial is an amazing opportunity to witness all these successful artists side by side and in fact the dialogue created among the artworks by the curatorial project corroborates the importance of these art practices. However, it has to be said that this 2010 edition of the São Paulo Biennial under the title There is always a cup of sea to sail has decided to follow routes already navigated rather than to sail on open seas, to discover new waters to explore.


1. They have been working with the support of the following guest curators: Fernando Alvim, Rina Carvajal, Yuko Hasegawa, Sarat Maharaj, and Chus Martinez

2. A fragment taken from the poem“The invention of Orpheus”, 1952 written by the Brazilian Jorge de Lima

3. Extract from the curatorial essay in the 29th São Paulo Biennial Catalogue.

4. We could say that the 29th Biennial also opened a space for a kind of pamphleteering approach in art practice, but this does not apply to all cases. On the private opening day, the Biennial production was puzzled when the artist Roberto Jacoby used his exhibition space to build what he called the “Argentinean Brigade for Dilma”, the labour party candidate in the Brazilian presidential election that would occur a few weeks after the opening. The artist and collaborators were not campaigning in a figurative manner. They really were making and distributing pamphlets about the candidate. However, electoral law in Brazil prohibits any kind of political campaigning in a public building, which is the case of the Biennial pavilion. Consequently, Roberto Jacoby’s installation was banned when the exhibition opened to the public.

5. The other countries in Latin America are also very well represented and with the total of Brazilian art they correspond together to more than the half of the art on display in the Biennial.

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