This year’s Sao Paulo Biennial took place in the midst of a presidential election that left for the world to see the deep rooted social wounds that cut this society in two halves since the times of slavery. I am writing this from the Northeaestern state of Bahia where I spend two months each year and it doesn’t take long for the visitor to perceive that democracy here has been hijacked. The school next to the house I am renting is a good example because the parents of the students and teachers have decided, immediately after the election of far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro and for no particular reason that military police should be not only allowed but also invited inside the premises, to the point to be inside the classrooms while the children are in class. This will mark a generation of Brazilian kids whose formative years will give them a microcosmic taste of what awaits from the outside. What is shocking is that the idea came from the parents. Although slavery has been abolished, the ways the white majority has used mass media to inject fear in the mind of the poor has ended in transforming the military forces into the most prestigious institution managing to discredit left wing parties as corrupt. As a result, the judge that condemned former left wing president Lula da Silva to ten years in prison without enough evidence has just been offered the position of Minister of Justice by the newly elected president. It must be born in mind that the president in-waiting in an interview with Stephen Fry expressed a couple of years ago his support to those that want to prevent gay people to get married even if they have to do so with violence. Happening in this sociopolitical context, it is sensible to ask ourselves what the 33rd Biennial had to say about this.
Choosing Gabriel Perez Barreiro as curator was a political statement in itself. Having dedicated the main part of his professional career to serving Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, the wealthy champion of Latin American modernism and her collection, mainly dedicated to abstract (concrete and kinetic) art produced during the years of the Venezuelan (oil) military dictatorship. Perez Barreiro’s professional career has been directed involved in the weaponisation of a sort of art that ignores the social context under the pretext of avoiding regional left wing populisms. His is an art that excludes the poor and transforms politics into something inappropriate and inconvenient. From a strictly political point of view, his is an art that reassures its wealthy patrons of the intellectual sophistication of their places of origin (since most of them live in NYC) while non challantly leaving aside the causes of the social inequality that fuelled their fortunes. The surprising thing is that being who he is, Perez Barreiro decided to accept the job only to pass his responsibilities to a group of seven artists that ended up doing the job for him. By waving his curatorial responsibilities, he decided not to have an opinion allowing the invited artists to fill the void. Their curations colaesced around privileging subjectivity over social concerns.
The first artist invited to curate on the chief curator’s behalf was Walter Caldas who I believe was the closest to the chief curator’s heart by selecting a group of concrete and abstract artists that aimed at reinforcing Latin America’s modernist credentials. Mamma Anderson was the second artist chosen as curator and her selection was based on ‘those connections that have been crucial for her during her own creating process’. In other words, her concern is nothing but the construction of her own subjectivity devoid of any social link. Her view is nostalgic, neo expressionist and so self absorbed that her curation ends up being a monument to the construction of her own taste.
Not far from there, there are a few areas dedicated to individual artist such as Denise Milan’s and Vânia Mignone. The former seems out of place in a Biennial that consecrates subjectivity for its own sake. Hers could be understood as a take on the post humanist debate according to which humans should stop considering themselves the centre of the universe and start being functional to Mother Nature’s Creation. In Milan’s own words: ‘If you sit in front of a stone, it will tell you its history. And the more you sit and listen, it’s extraordinary, because it talks about the creation of the Earth, but it also talks about its connection with the Universe’. Visually, her installation is a zen-like garden with energetic stones (?) that fast tracks any association between subjectivity and ‘the Universe’ as reminiscent of those meditative practice such as Mindfulness that think that the world’s problems can be solved by folding onto our own subjective. A counter part of neo-liberal ideas of the spill economy according to which the wealth of the rich will naturally spill down onto the needing classes, the Mindful approach believes that becoming better through meditation will entail a better world. According to this, the only social change possible can happen away from the social, in isolation and… silence. Mignone’s drawings and paintings try to achieve this through the less mystical ways of Brazilian popular music but are an analogous diversionary exercise.
The area curated by artist Alejandro Cesarco is by far the most interesting including artists Andrea Büttner, Cameron Rowland, Henrik Olesen, Jennifer Packer, John Miller, Louise Lawler, Matt Mullican, Oliver Laric, Peter Dreher and Sturtevant. Cesarco’s aim was to curate a show that ‘calls attention to the structures that allow for certain narratives while silencing others’. In others words, these works are a post-modernist take on modernist obsessions (as displayed in Phelps de Cisneros’ collection and in the area curated by Walter Caldas) through ‘repeating and resignifying, representing, reframing and restating’. The Biennial’s homage to the late Lucia Nogueira and her feminine take on Neo-Duchampianism makes sense in a country unfamiliar with her work since she lived most of her professional life in London. In the context of my discussion here, however, these are further steps towards the reaffirmation of the modernist credentials of art as something autonomous and not interested in the social environment. Wura Natasha Ogunji does the same thing but with an African ‘look’. Everything that happens in that room is derivative from feminist art from the 70s and the same could be said of Nelson Felix’s ‘architectural interventions’.
The late Anibal Lopez’s ‘The Loan’ and Feliciano Centurion’s HIV inspired blankets are probably the only two truly political works in a surprisingly apolitical Biennial. The former was a pioneer of politically inspired performance art. Deeply committed to ethics and a desire to unmask hypocrisy of all types, The Loan (‘El prestamo’) narrates how the artist mugged a middle aged man at gun point in downtown Guatemala City in order to finance the production of his exhibition at a commercial gallery as well as the opening cocktail. In the tradition of Latinamerican ‘sadistic’ art (influence by Argentine Oscar Masotta and Oscar Bony), Lopez made evident the pointlessness of art as shown in the rest of the show by Gabriel Perez Barreiro and friends.
In different points of the Biennial there were mini-lounges that included signage with instrusction for the viewer to best ‘appreciate’ the art shownb. One couldn’t help feeling that the curator wanted to transform the enjoyment of art into a Mindful guided experience reminiscent, once again, of meditative practices. The problem with this is the problem with a show that willingly decided to ignore the fact that art is embedded in a social matrix. What is unforgivable is that they decided to do this just before Brazil chose a far-right candidate who praised torture, despises minorities and made it clear that all political opponents will have to leave the country. Maybe the patrons of the Biennial had a plan and, once again, they succeeded at it. J A T