What makes an art exhibition political?
The 2010 São Paulo Bienal, There is always a cup of sea to sail in, uses Brazilian poet Jorge de Lima’s line as a metaphorical container to address the ambitious theme of art and politics. The head curators Agnaldo Farias and Moacir dos Anjos see the title as an expression of the essential aspiration of the exhibition, “to affirm that the utopian dimension to art is contained within art itself, not outside or beyond it; to affirm the value of poetic intuition in the face of ‘tamed thought‘ that emancipates nothing, though it permeates political parties and even formal educational institutions.” (29th Bienal Catalogue, 21) This is an infinitely large concept in the palm of ones hand.
Guest curator Chus Martinez sees the political as a resistance to the slogan, the summary, and the pamphlet. Through artistic research and practice, reorganizing information and reinventing research contributes to how we see the world. If art itself is a political act by way of it’s disruption of current logics and the opening-up of space to conceive and experience new possibilities, then what is at stake when mounting an exhibition that considers the world outside of the cup?
What is the resonance of an exhibition like this?
The scope of the biennial format has the potential for wide impact; organizers anticipate a million visitors and have implemented a large educational project. In training 40,000 teachers to educate students about contemporary art, the potential for art’s rethinking of conventions to seep beyond the contained art world is an exercise in politics. The biennial’s geographic and geopolitical location has impacted the curatorial choices reflected in an awareness of its southern position; a constellation of relationships between art produced in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are in a robust discourse here.
The resistance to articulate a cohesive comprehension of the politics of art is evident in the titles of the Terreiros or “yards” – architectural spaces produced by participating artist and architects as discursive areas for discussion, contemplation, and socializing inspired by the function of Brazilian public spaces like plazas, courtyards, and the street. The titles of these six spaces are dominated by dichotomies: O outro, o mesmo (The other one, the same one), Dito, não dito, interdito (Said, not said, indirect), Lembrança e esquecimento (Memories and oblivion), Longe daqui, aqui mesmo (Far from here, right here), Eu sou a rua (I am the street), and A pele do invisível (The skin of the invisible).
For all it’s ambitions, the biennial remains an act with skin, there is an outside and an inside. The edges of the exhibition are flexible, morphing and incorporating new elements, yet barriers remain. This is not necessarily a bad thing; if movement and change is to occur, then we must visualize an edge of difference.
The challenge of summing up an exhibition who’s purpose is to resist the summarization of experience is massive. So instead, in the spirit of the anti-slogan, the works presented here are simply and unapologetically a smattering of what one would find in the biennial.
Spain-based, Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga’s architectural installation of columns made from cardboard, tape, and white paint could, if for only a moment, be a part of the existing architecture. The facade of this is only momentary though and deception doesn’t seem to be the crux of the piece – instability, fragility, and eventual ruin does. As much as the work is an installation, it is an action: to build and destroy.
350 Points towards Infinity (pictured above) is a circular installation of hundreds of pendulums hanging in contrasting diagonal directions. Here, movement is interrupted and paused. Paris-based, Italian artist Tatiana Trouvé’s static installation gives the sense of time suspended just before imminent impact.
Exploding from the angular, severe architecture of the biennial building Henrique Oliveira‘s The origin of the third world’s round form swells into the exhibition space. The Brazilian artist constructed with thin, rough plywood an interior space for the visitor to explore. Suggesting a primordial space of knowledge and make-shift architecture common in Brazil.
Danish artist Joachim Koester’s black and white silent film loop of dancers performing convulsive movements (pictured above) is based on an obscure dance performed in Southern Italy until the 1950‘s. The dance’s function was to enact a therapeutic spasming in order to work out the poison of a tarantula bite. For Koester, it is the space of freedom that the dance offered in a world controlled by Catholicism. The video exhibits a choreography of possibility, and perhaps, through sympathetic magic, seeks to regain and harness some of that space of freedom.
Chim Pom’s (Inaoka, Mizuno, Okada, Hayashi, Ellie, Ushiro), Brazil Love, is a 3-channel video installation of the Japanese art group members cavorting in different locals in Brazil. The trickster group uses offensiveness as a tactic, at one point we see the words ‘Crack Land’ appear on screen as members interact with locals on a beach. A consistent prop that accompanies the group is a giant plywood effigy, which morphs as new maneuvers are acted upon it over the course of their ventures. Japanese pop enters a dark and ironic place through subversive shock and determined political-incorrectness.
The series Inimigos (Enemies) are drawings depicting the artist, Gil Vicente, with a knife or gun to various figureheads of institutional power, from the Pope to Brazilian President Lula da Silva. These symbolic assaults make visible the disillusion with political leadership. The suggested violence has resulted in the demand of their removal from the biennial and threatening of legal action by Brazilian Bar Association president Luiz Flávio Borges D’Urso.
After New York’s MoMA denied a loan of Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 series for the biennial, Sandra Gamarra Heshiki painted copies of the works in conceptual tone that doubles Richter’s original paintings.
In an attempt to incorporate other social groups and different forms of art, a group of graffiti artists who where persecuted for tagging within the last biennial where invited to participate this year. Extending the breadth of the question of political art is likely not the only motivation, inviting the artists to contribute video and photography of these urban acts also appeases some of the criticism that the institution received in how they handled the graffiti acts of the previous biennial.
In Tornado, the artist Francis Alÿs recorded himself over the period of 10 years chasing and thrusting himself into twisters in the dusty Mexican landscape. The ritual of Alÿs attempting to reach the eye of these storms is a way for the artist to grapple with notions of chaos, order, and change through natural phenomena.
Steve McQueen‘s Static is a looped video of images shot from a helicopter circling the hyper-iconic statue of liberty. At times it seems as if the truncated statue is floating silently through the landscape, while at other points, the silence is violently chopped by the audio of the helicopter, that familiar sound which tends to conjure up violence and war. The work’s strength is the lack of suggestion or proposition, rather it provides the audience with an open space to interpret the alternative view of an iconic image.
Simon Fujiwara morphs histories, fictions, and evidence in his installation, the culmination of a research project that follows the stories of three men named Theo Grünberg. The artist acquired the library collection of university professor Theo Grünberg, which led him to discover two other men of the same name, a Nazi prisoner and a botanist who’s research brought him to the Amazon. The physical materials and accounts of the three men become one story here, where reality and fiction weave a narrative of 20th century Germany. A fuzzy collective memory as seen through the material accumulation of specific characters.
Kiluanji Kia Henda’s, Icarus 13, photo and sculpture-based project looks at post-colonialism in Africa through a quasi-utopian narrative of man’s first journey to the sun. The title recalls the Greek myth of Icarus who, escaped Crete with wings his father crafted from wax and feathers, so capricious with the sensation of flying, he accidentally flew too close to the sun. The wax of his wings melted, and flapping only his bare arms, Icraus fell to his death. Blending a futuristic vision with an archeological tone, Henda re-imagines possible histories and futures.
French artist, Sophie Ristelhueber contributes wallpapered photographs of newly-formed, make-shift barriers and roadblocks in the West Bank. In these images geological time is ushered forward as a means to morph political territories. Throughout the biennial, these photographs of dirt and rock dividing roadways architecturally intervene at various points of the exhibition.
Conceptual Argentinean artist Oscar Bony in 1968 produced an installation performance of factory worker Luis Ricardo Rodríguez and his wife and son. The family mimicked daily activities while audio of domestic sounds played in the background. The result was a performance of oscillating identity, between portraying and being. In the biennial, the viewer experiences the work as a framed, large-format family portrait / performance documentation along with wall text describing the 1968 performance.
Recife, Brazil based artist Jonathas de Andrade’s project uses the aesthetics of an adult education method to disrupt fixed notions of every-day vocabularies and themes. Making adjustments to pre-existing posters owned by the artist’s mother, Andrade playfully questions the interpretive veracity of image and text while exposing ideological residues in education material.
The 29th São Paulo Bienal runs September 25th through December 12th in Oscar Niemeyer’s modernest pavilion in Ibirapuera park.