Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, São Paulo, Brazil
9-12 April 2015
by GERMAN ALFONSO NUNEZ
To critically review an event such as SP-Arte is a daunting task. It could even be argued that it is also a pointless, meaningless exercise. Since art fairs are not famous for cohesive curatorial work, it is fair to question what there is to review. Articles depicting art fairs usually concentrate on routine aspects of the art world: the size and health of local markets; the influence of the global economy; established galleries and their prospects; random collectors discussing the importance of the event; the number of visitors and sales over the period, and so on. In this particular edition, for example, the presence of Cher seemed to be the overall marker of outstanding success. Apart from these obvious topics, we could single out artists and artworks that briefly caught this reviewer’s attention amid the glitter and opulence of the VIP opening. Given the size of the event, hosting more than 140 galleries from 17 countries, it is unsurprising that there were such moments.
First, though, let us focus on SP-Arte’s configuration. Held at the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, home to the São Paulo Biennale since 1957, and still boasting a grand Oscar Niemeyer design despite its apparent ageing, the fair itself was divided into two sections, one commercial and part-curatorial and the other purely commercial. The bigger main section, the commercial one, was dedicated to the usual art-fair format with galleries’ stands and their artists. Also among the non-curated main section were the showcase stands, located on the first floor and dedicated to galleries presenting “new” and upcoming artists. Within the curated projects, there were three subdivisions: the solo stands, showing a single artist by a single gallery; the open-plan floor, where galleries presented, in general, a single artist work, usually, although not always focused on large-scale installations; and, finally, the Performa space, showing performances by very young artists.
The first and second floors were primarily occupied by the main section, with the exception of the the “ground” section of the first floor (the first floor has a ground and an “elevated” area), which provided two small spaces for the solo and showcase stands. Of these two, the solo space was more interesting. That is not because the young artists shown in the showcase space were bad. Evidently, given the lack of any organisation or the number of new names promoted (some no longer that new), this section was bound to be inconsistent – as with any other art fair.
The solo exhibitions, on the other hand, despite the curator admitting not a single theme, offered an opportunity away from the trade-show aspect dominated by the main spaces both on the first and second floors. Following the same dreadful stand-like formation, this tiny subsection, with just 12 stands, nevertheless gave a better impression than the messy main stands. An Augusto de Campos stand, for example, put together by the Document Art Gallery (Buenos Aires), albeit humble in space, was perhaps my favourite four by four metres in the whole fair. The works of the concrete artist, central to the development of the Paulista abstract scene of the 1950s and 60s, oddly enough, managed to communicate well with its different peers in the solo section: Montez Magno, Wilfredo Prieto, Mário Cravo Júnior and Liliana Porter, among others.
The solo section was, nevertheless, a missed opportunity. In a fair dominated by rather small stands (which, in essence, kill Niemeyer’s open architecture), the concrete artworks were, unsurprisingly, mostly devoid of observers. Visitors at the opening at least were much more interested in mingling and drinking in the larger space provided by a private bank. Rodrigo Moura, curator of the solo section, says in the SP-Arte catalogue (available at http://bit.ly/1zGPYnb): “To put together artists from different generations, aesthetic affiliations and cultures seems to be vocation that a fair should do – but not always does.” The promising idea of galleries presenting single artists under a curatorship may present a way out of the chaotic assembly of art fairs. Naively perhaps, it may even allow curators to play a more significant role in its assembly. Without an intellectual work behind the fair – and a better design for the fair itself – we are left with its sad, trade-show aesthetics. Let’s hope Moura’s call continues and expands over the following years.
Notwithstanding the shortcomings of the art-fair format, additional meaningful curatorial sections were to be found within SP-Arte. Apart from the solo section as described above, and luckily for the sake of this review, it was the last floor that made the greatest impact. The open plan and Performa projects, held entirely on the building’s third floor, and without any of the horrendous microstands seen elsewhere, was a pleasant surprise.
At the open space, with its imposing artworks, yet again was a curator proclaiming that he does not wish to propose a closely defined idea for the exhibition. Jacopo Crivelli Visconti explains in the show’s catalogue that the “event sought to compile a set of works and artists that complemented one another, without the imposition, a priori, of thematic, geographic, or any other kind of criteria”. That is unconvincing. Visconti seems to work with something in mind when selecting these apparently unconnected artists. Julio le Park’s immense Sphère Bleue and Attila Csörgö’s unpretentious How to construct an orange? may not seem to have much in common. The same could be said of Fernando Ortega’s tables, fragile objects as they are, and Neïl Beloufa’s weird and brute Happiness Bleecher, Communities, Growing Up And Consumption. As Visconti proclaims in the catalogue, the open plan attempts to emphasise “the relationship of the works with the architecture and history of the building”.
These and other works shown, despite the shy statement of its curator, proposed a fantastic fit to the modernist architecture of the building itself. They all present different views of modernity, from the rational to the chaotic, from the communal utopias to the individualistic consumerism. Alongside Niemeyer’s architecture, these works point to an emphasis on a geometry and symmetry that, although coming from a 100-year-old tradition, is still very much opportune. This struggle, over the very definition of modern and contemporary art, left this observer wishing for more. Visconti, like Moura before him, seems very aware of the problematic disposition of art fairs. Unfortunately, and perhaps because of institutional and/or monetary constraints, they do not propose or achieve something more radical. Both curators and the event itself, since it allowed and financed these propositions, seem inclined to test a space that is part-commercial and part-curatorial. Pity the fair itself was not thought of as such a mixed event.
Finally, the visitor enters the Performa event. Proposed by a strange mixture of academia, gallery and art fair, this was indeed the most provocative space in the whole SP-Arte. A combined effort between the Centro Universitário Belas Artes de São Paulo (a private traditional art and design university), Galeria Vermelho (and its annual performance festival Verbo) and the SP-Arte itself, Performa was coordinated by Cauê Alves and curated by Juliana Martins (from Belas Artes) and Marcos Gallon (from Vermelho). Part self-promotion, part conscious curatorial work, the Performa event was, nonetheless, interesting for it spoke both about the status of art fairs and that of performance art. Given its commercial and institutional setting, it is fair to ask: Why would the SP-Arte propose a performance event with very young artists and not established names? Why grant space to an art form notoriously difficult for the art market? Why are more art fairs proposing the insertion of performances into their programmes?
The market, as expected, plays a major role in these questions. Alves told me: “The event is a way to question the market and its reluctance with regard to performance.” That is problematic. Collectors, after all, live in a culture dominated by the commodification of artistic objects. Performance, since its beginnings and by its very form, challenges this assumption. Juliana Moraes reminded me that, “In dance or theatre, that has never been a problem. Performers in those settings charge a fee and that is it. In the visual arts, that relationship between financiers and artists is much more problematic.” Both are also correct in pointing out that this insertion into the market is crucial for performance’s institutionalisation process; without the market, artists are dependent on institutional or governmental support. “Our intention, however, is not to promote the sale of photographs, videos or objects produced within performances,” said Alves. “Instead, we wish to propose a debate into how to place those artists in the market system.” Unfortunately for the young artists engaged in performance, given the culture of collections, I do not think this question will be easily answered. Still, its very presence in an art fair is appropriate. The relationship between the art market and performance, certainly a problematic one, has already been seen in events such as Freeze or Arco. What differentiated this event, however, was the presence of very young artists.
Moraes, following her colleagues at the solo and open-plan spaces, did not propose a restrictive curatorship. The selected artists, unlike those in the other sections of the fair, were Moraes’s ex-students from Belas Artes. In fact, according to both Alves and Moraes, their course was the first in Brazil to institutionalise performance within its subjects. That, of course, is not without its dangers. The insertion of performance art within institutions of market and academia could, by its very institutionalisation, signify a pyrrhic victory. Moraes seems very aware of this. “There is always the danger of creating conventions that would harm the dynamism of performance art,” she said. Ironically, some weeks prior to the SP-Arte, a huge Marina Abramović retrospective held in the city was heavily criticised for its institutionalisation and commercialisation. This problem, however, did not seem to affect the brave young things at the Performa.
All in all, the performances shown were quite varied and a world apart from the heavily choreographed and theatrical tendencies that sometimes plague performance artists. Perhaps an unconscious nod to the very ludic tradition of Brazilian performance, especially in the 60s and 70s, almost all the performances were potentially endless, game-like entities. Lacking a clear narrative, or a beginning, middle and end, these were works of endurance and repetition. One of Anna Leite’s performances, Diálogos Silenciosos, put the artist in a space that recalled a domestic setting, with pots, mugs and, more importantly, a series of clothes lines crossing the designated space. Inside some of these pots was a yellowish substance, a combination of honey, molasses and glucose. Completing the setting, were a couple of wicker baskets containing bunches and bunches of hair. Leite’s actions were simple, slow and constant. She would apply the viscous liquid to the hair in the baskets, soak it to the point of constant dripping, then hang it on the clothes lines. The apparently disgusting materials, however, over the course of the performance, while hanging on the clothes lines or slowly falling onto the floor, were fantastically delicate. In fact, the whole scene was. The artist, always maintaining a sombre and concentrated gaze, in contrast, seemed desolate in this never-ending task. Her actions seemed futile. For every bunch of hair hung on the lines, another two would fall. Over the course of four hours, the whole space had changed: her clothes, the floor, the pots, a table centred in the room … all were contaminated by the yellow of that weird liquid. Had the hair or the liquid not ended, this performance could have gone on for ever. I do not wish to comment on her intentions but, instead, draw a parallel between the form of this and other very strong performances.
Leonardo Akio’s performance, Parábola, for example, also had a repetitive and exhaustive quality to it. Here, the performer simply used an iron rod of between five and seven metres, one end placed on his chest and the other over a nook between the wall and the floor. By using the weight of his body, the artist then leaned over the rod, creating a simple yet elegant parabola. This simple act would carry on for at least an hour. Just by looking at it, the discomfort could be felt – not only must it have hurt, but it must have also been taxing. The artist had to constantly readjust his body position slightly in relation to the rod. At times, he gave the impression that he might fall, or that the rod might snap in his face. These repetitive small acts, simple as they were, constitute the very essence of those performances.
Sometimes the repetition would be done just in order to sit still, as in the case of Tatiana Schmidt’s sculptural performance, Psico-retrato. A break from the almost institutionalised idea that performances must stress body movements, Schmidt’s work consisted of being seated over a high shelf wearing a completely black outfit that covered her entirely, hiding both the contours of her body and her facial expression. At the end of her pelvis, four immensely long “legs”, simple foam tubes that blended with her outfit, stretched out and over the whole space, creating a figure that at times seemed like a chimerical human-arachnid statue. Movements were minimal – there were almost none. Anyone who has worked in circumstances where no movement is possible knows the pain involved in sitting or standing still over long periods. All the performances shown, 14 in total, were very much concerned with visual composition. That was no coincidence. Moraes reminded us that “these are primarily visual artists and not dancers or actors”. Kudos, then, for Moreas and her students, who managed to explore performance in an institutional setting (the academic one) without being panfletarian or restrictive.
Single and isolated moments presented at a few stands, together with the very promising work shown by the curators, joyful as they were, cannot sustain a quality event. To describe the fair as a success or failure would be a disservice to both artists and readers alike. Bar these few examples, the very heterogeneous constitution of art fairs does not invite thoughtful criticism for the thing as a whole. It is not that the fair itself, central as it is to the Brazilian art world, cannot be criticised. It can and should be but, unfortunately, not by any theoretical or historical frame. The problem is that art fairs, by their own all-encompassing nature, cannot render a single, totalising critique. Any attempt to do so is bound to be either incomplete or dishonest. Despite some arguments favouring the importance of art fairs for contemporary art as quasi-democratic spaces that nevertheless provide an overview of different practices, its raison d’être remains – commerce. Henceforth, since I cannot say that the fair was a commercial success, I am certainly unable to judge it from the point of view of its rationale. Because of this, the events narrated above can only leave me with a bittersweet impression of what SP-Arte could have been if its organisers had been bolder.