Published  25/01/2008

The Art of Nothing: Ivo Mesquita and the Bienal Internacional de Arte de São Paulo

The Art of Nothing: Ivo Mesquita and the Bienal Internacional de Arte de São Paulo

The 'Bienal Internacional de Arte de São Paulo' is now one of the major international displays of contemporary art, along with two other grand showcases of modern and contemporary art; the estimable 'Venice Biennale', first held in 1895; and 'Documenta' in Kassel, Germany, which takes place every five years.

Created in 1951 (due mainly to the efforts of its Italian-Brazilian patron Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho), the 'Bienal Internacional de Arte de São Paulo' follows the ‘Venice Biennal’, its inspiration, in the history of such events.

Since the 1960s, it has continued to grow, gain international recognition and draw ever-increasing numbers of visitors. Since 1957, the Bienal has been located in a remarkable building, the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, in Ibirapuera, the largest urban park in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city.1

Designed by a team led by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the three-storey modernist structure offers a 36,000-square metre exhibition area and has served as an open display space for a wide range of works by more than one hundred artists.2

For the 28th Bienal (19 October–30 December 2008), the organisers revealed a controversial proposal called ‘The Void’. Ivo Mesquita, chief curator of the 2008 Bienal, is responsible for the change. Mesquita is also curator of the São Paulo State Pinacotheque and a visiting professor at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. For decades, he has been one of the most active critics and controversial analysts of the Brazilian contemporary art scene.

Born in the same year as the birth of the Bienal – 1951 – in São Paulo, Mesquita graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1972 and gained a degree in arts at the same university in 1975. He has maintained a long association with the Bienal since his student days. (For example, in 1980, for his USP Master's degree thesis, he conducted a study of the news coverage of the exhibit.) So it was not surprising that in August 2007, he was invited to propose a project for 2008 and was confirmed as chief curator in December 2007.3

In Mesquita's conception for 2008, 'Em Vivo Contato' ('In Living Contact'), the first floor of the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion will have a large open space called 'The Square' for performances and debates; the third floor will host a library and an archive detailing the Bienal's history; and the second floor will not include any works of art (nor anything else) and be called 'The Void'. In this interview, Mesquita discusses why he believes that large exhibitions, particularly São Paulo's, require what he calls 'housekeeping'; how curators and organisers must create space for discussion about the larger issues surrounding art and their roles as administrators and institutions; and what he considers to be a regrettable excess of theoretical conceptualism surrounding the making and showing of contemporary art.

Alexandre Werneck (AW): Why did you feel that the traditional model of the 'Bienal Internacional de Arte de São Paulo' needed fundamental changes?

IM: When the organisers asked me if I would like to take part in a competition to choose the model for the next Bienal, I already imagined a model based on a forum and an empty building. One of the reasons is that, as I have argued in some of my writings, not only the biennials but the great exhibitions in general started to reproduce each other, each one following the same model as the others, without any discussion about the productions they display or their role as institutions.

They have lost the space for discussion about their roles and we have lost the space for discussion about art as well. All those big exhibitions have lost their critical dimension. The objective of showing the scenario of the current art world is not enough. This panorama is already evident at art fairs. The last Bienal had more than a hundred artists. A great exhibition such as the 'Bienal de São Paulo' should have a conceptual axis connecting the works, and it is very difficult to sustain a single conceptual principle for more than 30 artists.

AW: Is it also a matter of time or money?

IM: I never had any problems imagining a budget because money was not a real issue. I was very concerned about the time. To conceive a Bienal in less than two years would be a major risk, although some curators have done it in six months.

AW: So the problem would be the time to find new artists and for those artists to create their works?

IM: Yes, of course. That is why the great exhibitions look so alike. Within a short period of time, the curators look at one exhibition, take the works and repeat what has been done at their exhibitions, creating a circuit of repetition. Meanwhile, contemporary culture has introduced a super production of representations and symbols, and we should ask to where will all these images lead us? I am also concerned about how all this production comes to us already surrounded by a big theory, connecting it to tradition and to art history, with a lot of theoretical concepts; some 'comes-from-the-70s' here and some 'connected-to-Duchamp' there. I argue that we should let the production exist by itself first, alone. What I propose is somewhat psychoanalytical ... stop talking about it and just look at it. Furthermore, there is the crisis of the very paradigm of the Bienal. Although I am talking about the universal idea of a large exhibition, there is a local question: in Brazil, we already have a system, composed of the 'Bienal Internacional de Arte de São Paulo' and the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM-SP) both created together but separated since 1962; Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP); and Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM-RJ). These four institutions were created in the late 1940s and since then have suffered budget and structural problems.

Now, there are some events that compromise the supremacy of these large centres; for example, the ‘Bienal do Mercosul in Porto Alegre’.4 It was a huge success, very well organised and professional, conceptually smart, showing very interesting productions. Well, they only exhibited 67 artists. There are also other events outside the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo axis, in such places as Belo Horizonte or Recife, which have produced similar effects. But in the great centres we have lost the opportunity to answer to such appeals.

AW: Your criticism of the great exhibitions makes sense in the international context, but what if we think at a local level? We do not have that many large exhibitions, not enough to render the 'Bienal de São Paulo' redundant. What can we say to the general public, the people who go to the Bienal as their only opportunity to see a panorama of what is happening internationally?

IM: I wouldn't go that far. The objective of the ‘Bienal de São Paulo’, when it was created, was to put Brazilian artists in live contact with world art and to make São Paulo an international art centre. When the first Bienal was opened in 1951, São Paulo had 1.2 million inhabitants. The city had two modern art galleries, three museums and two schools of art. Today, São Paulo has 54 galleries, 18 museums - six of them extremely active – four great cultural centres and twelve schools of art.

It is true; my project for the Bienal is aiming at an institutional critique and dialogues with the institutions rather than with the public. I argue that what was done by the Bienal in the 1950s no longer needs to be done. Brazil doesn't need that anymore. Rio de Janeiro has many cultural centres. In fact, we have contemporary art exhibitions all of the time, here in Brazil, in Latin America and in other countries. The Bienal no longer holds a central role for attracting the public to art.

My question is: The last Bienal cost R$20 million (US$11 million; €7.6 million) and it lasted sixty-five days. How much is that per day? R$307,000 (US$167,000; €116,000)! So we could say that Brazil is a rich country and its art institutions are rich, too! That is just not true!

AW: But doesn't the Bienal still have an important educational role?

IM: Since the Bienal was created as a special programme of the MAM-SP, the large exhibition was the external form of a system composed of two elements. The first one, more encyclopaedic, was the form of the exhibition, which had an 'historical nucleon', a presentation of some chapter of art history in the show. In one edition, they exhibited Cubism; then Futurism; then the Bauhaus et cetera. The second element was the awards the Bienal used to give, by purchasing the works of new artists. The awards served to form the museum's collection. The model remained like that until 1962, when the Bienal separated from MAM-SP. Then these two axes changed. The Bienal became a fair showing the new artists from Brazil and from Latin America. This has also changed. Back then, the artist needed this help, as it was a matter of cultural power.

Nowadays, we no longer need this kind of representation. It is a business matter, not a cultural matter, and we need a different kind of representation. The Brazilian artist does not have any institutional back-up when he or she wants to be viewed outside his own country. Other countries have created special programmes to do just that. For instance, in France there is the Association Française D'Action Artistique (AFAA) that does this very well; the International Artists Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS) does the same in Scandinavia; and the Mondriaan Stichting [Mondrian Foundation] does the same in the Netherlands. Brazil does not have anything like that.5

AW: If your project does not repeat what the 'Bienal de São Paulo' has been repeating, what does it do? What does it mean for you to offer to artists and visitors an entire empty floor?

IM: It is, of course, what we call in curatorial practice using a 'heavy hand', an action in which the curator creates a concept and leads it to its last consequences. The empty building is a symbolic act to promote a break-up, a scission, and a stop to the current model in order to propose a moment of questioning. It is important to explain that it is not a Bienal without artworks. On the first of the three floors of the building, there will be two wings: the first one with a video lounge and an internet space showing some works. Since it is a connected space, everything that is produced in the workshops will be made available online and will be incorporated into a large production network. This system will be designed by artists. For the second wing of the first floor, we first imagined public performances, but now I am thinking of something more educational, such as open workshops with artists. I imagine something similar to Joseph Beuys' school, with an artist explaining his work. Someone such as [German visual artist] Peter Friedl or [Canadian photographer] Jeff Wall could come to talk about painting.

On the third floor, where we will place a library and an archive, there will also be works of art. These works will be by artists who tackle such issues as memory, narratives, history. This kind of artist will be invited and they will produce works especially for the Bienal. On top of that, artists who have a close or special relationship with the Bienal, like [American performer] Andrea Fraser, will be invited to return.

AW: Can you explain your criteria for selecting the artists for this Bienal?

IM: We want to invite artists whose works dialogue with such concepts as memory, history, narration, literature and writing. We would like to invite artists aimed at the spectacular, to performances that activate various senses at the same time, to the idea of the 'total art work', artists like [Serbian performer] Marina Abramovi?, [New York performance duo Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner] Fischerspooner and [collective led by New York-based Brazilian artist Eli Sudbrack] assume vivid astro focus. So, along with 'The Void', for the art works we will have two different concepts: 'The Square', a place closer to one's senses and feelings; and the third floor, a place closer to one's reason and to organised knowledge.

AW: Might some see your project as a criticism of the history of the Bienal history and, more specifically, of the last Bienal?

IM: If you look back at the Bienal's history, we have had actions like this since the beginning, because we have had problems like this since the beginning.

The first president of the Bienal Foundation, Ciccillo Matarazzo, was involved in problems concerning the construction of Ibirapuera Park. In the 1970s, the Fundação Bienal Foundation was close to the dictatorial military government, and the exhibition practically became an official institution to promote the image and the culture of Brazil around the world. The Bienal was always involved in conflicts of interest of the elite. But our elites are different to other elites involved in arts.

The Anglo-Saxon elite patrons just sign cheques. Our elites use government money to fund art. It is, then, a structural problem. Nonetheless, my point is neither to criticise the administration nor the recent curators. We need to stop and rethink the very idea of the 'Bienal de São Paulo'. The Bienal is still directed in a very unprofessional manner. For instance, I am also the chief curator of the São Paulo State Pinacotheque. There, as curators we do not talk about budget; we do not have the guiding hand over the curatorial or the artistic.

AW: By 'criticism' I meant a different curatorial perspective.

IM: Indeed, I consider this an important criticism to be made. We need to ask what kind of spectrum of art the 'Bienal de São Paulo' is showing and what kind of spectrum the large exhibitions in general are showing. I do not disagree with the choice of the works, because I believe the art walks par soi-même [by itself].

My question is the absence of reflection on this spectrum. The problem is that a simple work of art today already comes with a pre-prepared reflection, without any time for it to be lived, experienced. The artist presents a work and it already comes with some Merleau-Ponty here, some Foucault there, some Barthes, some Bataille, some situationism ... It's all too conceptual without the work of art living by itself. Of course, I am not against this reflection, but it should be a reflection, not a prior statement.

I believe the object of art can work by itself to earn its own recognition as part of art history. We are still far too engaged in the model in which a work is produced for the Bienal and this work is automatically recognised by the market without any time to let the work be considered, analysed. It is as if we could control the process of recognition of a work as a work of art, which is a process over which we have no control.

AW: Considering that major international exhibitions are large-scale public events, who is the main character of this reflection? It is not the same thing as putting five great painters in a room to discuss the future of painting. The average citizen rarely thinks about these issues. How can such an 'intellectual' exhibition as the one you propose do that? Will fewer people be drawn to the 2008 event?

IM: Yes, I believe the public will be smaller this year, but I'm not sure it will fall as much as people expect. The visiting public for the first Bienal, in 1951, was 120,000 people. At that time, São Paulo had 1.2 million inhabitants. The last Bienal, in 2006, received around one million visitors. São Paulo has 10 million inhabitants today. We have worked with this 10 per cent mark since the beginning.

This idea of the public disappearing is a myth. The public will always be there. I believe that fewer people may go to the Bienal but, at the same time, this Bienal can offer better information. I believe this is the biggest challenge we face. I have been discussing this point with education experts and we have concluded that one of the most important themes in the conferences we will promote is education in the large exhibition spaces, especially education in contemporary art.

The theme I have been discussing with those professionals is that a large exhibition is a good space to discuss some abstract issues, without the pressure of the real objects to direct the discussion. After all, art is pure abstraction. We can discuss such themes as memory, history, emptiness and rupture. Just like the other large exhibitions, the Bienal is very popular among young students, and we need to be prepared to discuss those themes with them. It is not only about discussing the object, but also the abstraction around it.

AW: In general, people find it easier to think in terms of examples, in terms of objects rather than in terms of abstract concepts. It is easier to explain what a painting is by showing a painting than articulating a formal definition. How can we base our debate on abstract concepts?

IM: That is exactly the challenge I have proposed to the educators. There will be some 'visual syntax' work, cognition, but there will be political concepts; we have to discuss what an art institution is; why art should be produced for consumption; how art can be perceived by everyday people. We will receive around five thousand people from outside. It is not as much as the 'Venice Biennale' or Kassel's 'Documenta'. What I believe is that the Bienal could promote something more durable and less for tourism.

AW: After this great break-up, how do you expect the next Bienal, in 2010, to be?

IM: From the local point of view, I expect we can produce a document that will permit the Fundação Bienal to think of new directions for the 'Bienal de São Paulo', especially in the sense of its organisation, to make the exhibition and the institution more professional.

AW: Is this project the start of a long-term policy? Would you accept an invitation to be the curator again?

IM: I don't believe I would accept to curate the Bienal again. I have been connected to biennials all my life, here and outside Brazil. In the last five years, I have started to work with museums and loved the work.

Nevertheless, I believe it is important to think about this project in the long term. I believe the next Bienal should have longer activities and some permanent activities. I think the exhibition could be smaller in number of artists, but of greater duration. We have a practical problem: the 'Bienal de São Paulo' is practically condemned to use its building. It is a wonderful building, but it has an area of 36,000 square meters. We must ask why we need to fill all that.

I do not believe the Bienal will change so much. The system is far greater than this action. But it was important to stop for housekeeping. It is important to create this critical landmark, to show that one day we stopped and started to discuss it all.

AW: Do you believe the 'Bienal de São Paulo' could serve as an example to other great international exhibitions? Have you seen or heard any sign from other directors regarding your proposal?

IM: Not directly from the large exhibitions, but rather from government agencies like the AFAA and the Goethe-Institute. They wanted to take part in our debates. They certainly have a great deal to say about these issues. The idea is to bring people from other exhibitions and from those institutions to form some round tables.

Today, there is no map of typologies of biennials. There are biennials connected to cities, there are biennials connected to concepts, there are even the parasitical biennials; for instance, the artist David Medalla created a ‘Biennale of London’ in 1967. In Colombia there is a 'Venice Biennale' in Bogotá, because there is a neighbourhood in the city called Venice. Also, there is no institution to co-ordinate the organisation of great exhibitions. There are so many exhibitions, with such different profiles, that people have let things carry on without talking each other.

AW: Do you feel that the empty floor is also an installation, a work of art of yours?

IM: I have never believed the curator is an artist. I believe people are afraid of this empty floor because they are afraid of the emptiness that was already there. That is why the empty floor is a political gesture rather than an artistic gesture. And after all, I have never seen a curator who has created a good work of art.

Alexandre Werneck

1. Designed in 1951 on the 400th anniversary of São Paulo in 1954, Armando Arruda Pereira Pavilion, later named Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, is the main element of Conjunto Ibirapuera, a complex composed of various buildings in a large urban park. 'Ciccillo Matarazzo' was the nickname of Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho (1898-1977). The Bienal's creator was one of the most powerful Brazilian industrialists of his time, and his family was one of the wealthiest capitalist clans in Brazilian history. Before creating the 'Bienal Internacional de Arte de São Paulo', in 1946 Ciccillo Matarazzo had founded São Paulo's Museum of Modern Art. The two institutions worked in tandem until 1962.
2. The pavilion is one of Oscar Niemeyer's most important works, in which one can already detect a groundbreaking Niemeyer trademark, the vast free span with only peripheral columns, creating huge opened floors without interruptions. Conjunto Ibirapuera, planned by a group led by Niemeyer and the architect Hélio Uchôa, was one of the first public spaces designed by Niemeyer, who later designed Brasília, Brazil's new capital, in 1958.
3. Ana Paula Cohen and Thomas Mulcaire serve as curators of the 2008 event.
4. The 2007 Bienal do Mercosul in Porto Alegre ran from 1 September to 18 November 2007.
5. The AFAA is the Association Française d'Action Artistique, or the French Association for Artistic Action; IASPIS is the International Artists Studio Program in Sweden; and the Mondriaan Stichting is the Mondrian Foundation in the Netherlands.

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