26th Bienal de Sao Paulo

Described in at least one travel guide as ‘an intimidating city’ São Paulo is the kind of destination travel agents will attempt to talk you out of visiting. It is the third largest city in the world, Brazil’s economic powerhouse and home of the São Paulo Bienal, which is rivalled in reputation only by The Venice Biennale. While the city itself might be trying at times, the Bienal’s venue, Oscar Neimeyer’s Pavilhao Ciccillo Matarazzo, situated in the Parque do Ibirapuera, is an oasis of culture appropriately removed from the relentless roar of traffic (and pollution). This thirty thousand square metre modernist pavilion is itself impressive and both artists and audience benefit from Neimeyer’s visionary design. The work moderismo negro (2004) for example, included ambitious ‘fictional’ alterations made to the first level by Britain’s Mike Nelson. Well known for work that exists between the actual and the imaginary, it is as if the building begged Nelson’s intervention, which referenced its history and architectural curvature.

As Brazil’s dynamic Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil notes in his foreword to the catalogue, ‘The Bienal is in the heart of the city. And in the heart of its citizens’. As it turned out, 2004 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Pavillion and thus the Bienal had free admission, a ‘gift to the people of Brazil’. With substantial art education programs, thousands of often very young Paulistanos poured into one of the world’s great spectacles of contemporary art, an event of which they could rightfully be proud. A heartening sight, in the third week it appeared that a target audience of one million would be easily achieved, if not surpassed.

As is so often the case with these events, the appointment of curator Alfons Hug for the second time was met with controversy. His curatorial thematic based on the idea of Image Smugglers imagines a power-free zone where borders are temporarily dissolved and the exchange of ‘images’ between artists of diverse nations and cultures can take place in an environment of, at the very least, illusory freedom. Hugs argued that, ‘Artists are the border guards of a realm that lies beyond the administered world, where the power of interpretation is no longer a sovereign right of politicians or economic gurus’. His idealism was reflected in an urbane and urban exhibition that, even in the light of global disenchantment, appeared to emanate an air of freshness and positivism.

This is no easy task when you have eighty invited artists (including nineteen from Brazil) plus fifty-five national representations. Oddly, there was not a great gap apparent between the invited component of the exhibition and the national representations, indicating perhaps that globalisation has the arts more firmly in its grip than one might have imagined. It was rare in this Bienal to find work that was not energetic in its ability to bring together concept, media and technique in a way that provided a rich source of engagement between artist and audience. From the huge wall of glass that is the entrance, the visitor was greeted with attention grabbing works. First contact was with Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping’s Le 11 Juin 2002 Cauchemar de George V which consisted of a tiger attached to a howdah on the back of an elephant. This remarkable piece, referring to an incident in which the British monarch was attacked while hunting, evokes an era of colonial ascendancy in which natural and political histories were inextricably intertwined.

To the immediate right, a wall of quivering branches containing dried seed pods by Brazilian group Chelpa Ferro, created a soundscape from which there was no escape. Nadabrahma (2003) addresses the plasticity of sound as we hear the ‘music’ of an artificially constructed ‘natural’ world. And to the left, a more modest but scarcely less fascinating work by another Brazilian artist Rosana Palazyan, O Realejo (2003-2004) explored ‘social malleability’ and the way in which art works might actually engage their audience. An organ grinder represented the street people of São Paulo and his live parrot stepped from its open cage to deliver messages of fortune to the delighted and thoroughly engaged audience.

A ramp from the ground floor to the mezzanine led to the cafeteria, which was also the venue for Mexico vs Brazil (2004) by Mexican artist Miguel Calderon. With no language skills it took me a series of farcical lunches to realise that the flat screen monitors relaying soccer matches were actually part of an exhibit that attempts to reveal the tragi-comical cultural stereotypes of the Mexican football fan. Bridging culture and sport Calderon re-edited a number of matches to suggest that Mexico had won. This, I was told, never happens. Also in close proximity to the cafeteria and darkly festive in nature was Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s Shots (2003). This ‘sound’ piece, manifest in a wall of giant black speakers, emitted noise recorded during New Year celebrations at Culiacan in Mexico 2002/2003. A paradoxically aggressive work that employed the sound of shots fired in celebration, Sierra’s speakers had the look of a suprematist painting that, like Donald Judd’s ‘specific objects’, occupied an area between painting and sculpture.

In a vast building with large areas of natural light, the exhibition design must have been to some extent influenced by its architecture. Having moved from the cavernous hall of three-dimensional works at the entrance there is an area at the top of the ramp that contained a mix of sculptural installations and photo media works. It was here that some of the Bienal’s best work was to be found, although, that said, it is difficult to pinpoint any particular zone of excellence. In this area the Brazilian artists again made their presence known. Much used in promotional material was Ieda Oliveira’s Peca-Dor (2004) consisting of a beautiful wood confessional that sat on a bed of corn. From the confessional that referenced Oliveira’s childhood in the state of Bahia, was heard a register of sins sung by popular singing priest, Zezinho.

If Oliveira’s work was about a punishment where sinners were forced to kneel on corn, the nearby work of Fabiano Marques in which we saw documentation of the artist making a raft-like object in an aquatic Amazonian environment, suggested a punishing routine. Mar pequeno (2003) throws the idea of a completed and resolved work into doubt as the artist struggled to produce a work that could not succeed. This was a curiously fascinating piece in which the ‘failed’ work was also on display and Marques documentary video ended without conclusion. Also in this transitional zone was one of the most popular works in the exhibition—an installation by Milton Marques who built a table upon which tiny figures and screens were arranged. This ‘hacker-cum-chess player’ used trash technology—a mechanically focusing and zooming lens that was not apparently attached to a camera—to relay moving images of his static Lilliputian scene to a nearby monitor.

It was not only the Brazilians who impressed on the mezzanine. Netherlands artist Aernout Mik, well known for his peculiar video work, offered a video installation in which we saw a group of people destroying the contents of a supermarket. Initially, Pulverous (2003) made no particular sense although it was replete with possible interpretations that touch on globalisation and consumerism. Based on a Native American tradition where a host destroys valuable items as a display of wealth, this work made riveting viewing and was an amusing yet disturbing encounter with anarchy. Also here, was the second of many great works from China. There are no prizes for guessing what China’s Cai Guo Qiang’s Uneasy Bird (2004), a crashing plane with confiscated objects such as scissors and knives embedded in its fuselage, is about. In fact one could be forgiven for thinking that Chinese artists were somewhat obsessed with September 11, as Xu Bing’s negative text in ash collected from the collapsed World Trade Centre suggested in Where Does the Dust Collect Itself? (2004).

With two floors left to explore I was relieved at this point to have allocated three full days to the Bienal. On the second and third levels there were darker spaces more suitable for photography and video, while the perimeters were dominated by installations and painting. Although there was too much great work in this area to mention individually, the stressed and ‘decorative’ paintings of Brazil’s Beatriz Milhazes stood out: they seemed to vibrate in their evocation of a symphonic ‘utopian aura’ that reflects the diversity of Brazilian culture, both vibrant and worn. Also noteworthy among the noteworthy was China’s Chen Shaofeng’s portrait project. This work, Dialogue with the Peasants of Tiangongsi Villages (1998-2002), consisted of a wall of small painted portraits of ‘voiceless’ people. What was most interesting about this sociological and anthropological series is that the sitters also painted portraits of the artist, generating a captivating dialogue between artist and subject.

Mixed with the painting were a number of knockout photographic works containing imagery that could only be described as indelible. The United State’s Catherine Opie’s photographs of surfers waiting for a wave on a flat grey Malibu sea were imbued with the dramatic sense of Waiting for Godot. A non-event as frustrating as it was dramatic. From Chile, Patrick Hamilton produced a poignant political critique in which media photographs were re-presented as ironic objets. In Guantánamo (2003), a photograph in the shape of a power saw, prisoners of the United States, bound, blind-folded and kneeling before marine guards, are tormented. Most devastating of all, however, was a series of small photographs in cheap ornate frames that were installed on a poster mural of a kitsch garden scene. Viktor Marushchenko’s photographs revealed the dreams of poverty stricken ‘heroes of labour’ who work in dangerous and abandoned Ukrainian coal mines. It is their attempts at diversionary pursuits that produced the pathos that exudes from this extraordinarily sad work.

In keeping with the current international trends, the Bienal presented a significant number of screen-based works. The darker areas and separate rooms on the second and third floors provided ideal spaces for some of the most innovative and ambitious works I have seen in recent times. French artist Melik Ohanian’s Seven Minutes Before (2004) is one such work. In a long rectangular room with seven horizontal screens we saw ‘events’ leading up to a literally explosive collision between a motorcycle and a speeding truck. Ohanian’s camera concentrates on elements of the mountainous landscape and a series of mysterious events that take place within it, while leaving his impotent audience to decide whether any of these are related to the climactic conclusion. Another multi-screen spectacular, albeit not in a linear arrangement, was Se Fosse Tudo Sempre Assim (2003) in which Brazilian filmmaker Karim Ainouz along with Marcelo Gomes explored the smaller Carnivals of Recife and Olinda in northern Brazil. Speaking of the annual event as a ‘Dictatorship of Euphoria’, Ainouz revealed the sadder side of Carnival where individual effort replaces mass spectacle. In a blue painted room with a sorry string of party lights and glitter-covered floor, images of tired and drunken revellers in modest costume represented a side of Carnival that is seldom considered.

For sensational value there were at least two works in the Bienal that were unsurpassed. From multi-ethnic Bulgaria, Rassim showed his solidarity with the (Jewish) ‘other’ by producing a detailed video of his recent circumcision in Corrections 2 (2003). Representing the blood spilled in religious conflict, this difficult work was a test for audiences and I have to confess that I did not last the distance. Masters in the presentation of minor events as major, the USA’s Neistat Brothers have beheaded chickens, electrocuted gold fish and forced the homeless to read poetry. For the pleasure of whom is the question. Science Experiments–the film series (2003), as distasteful as it may have been, succeeded admirably in its disclosure of teenage science experiment and joyful destruction. Also sensational, but in a very different way, was the theatrical Swiss work, Unexpected Rules (2003) by Frédérick Moser and Phillippe Schwinger. In an installation surrounded by rows of flashing coloured lights the artists pulled out all stops for the detailed exposition of a quotidian media scandal of sex, power and money in uncomfortable close up.

I was suspicious of my initial positive response to this exhibition. A great deal is expected of these international expositions and in many respects they are constructed with a certain level of in-built failure. To produce a high profile exhibition that is all things to all people of course is impossible and as a result, a considerable amount of vituperative debate surrounds all such events. São Paulo was no different. While Hugs has been praised for the overall accessibility of the Bienal, as many critics have shown contempt for its legibility. If it were possible to stand somewhere in the middle one would see many works that were far from unchallenging that also maintained high levels of interest. In an age of non-object and relational art Hugs has not overlooked traditional media, selecting a wealth of work that demonstrates how relevant painting, sculpture and photography continue to be. At the same time he has managed to provide a thorough survey of current international activity that appears to cover most bases. For critics therefore, this must have been a frustrating exhibition and spurious critiques that hint at an absence of ‘modern masters’ or art stars fail to consider the audience’s desire to see new work and new artists. Further, Bienals have broad audiences and are not just for the international arts establishment. I believe Hugs was wise to include a substantial contribution from the nations of South America. If this Bienal is indicative, Brazil and its neighbours, currently emerging from long periods of political and economic turmoil, are on a cultural roll that will be difficult to ignore, even for Europeans. 

notes: 

The 26ª Bienal de São Paulo was shown at the Pavilhao Ciccillo Matarazzo, São Paulo, Brazil from 25 September to 19 December, 2004. David Broker is a writer, curator, broadcaster and deputy Director of the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.