26th Bienal de Sao Paulo
Various locations, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Alfons Hug’s rather conservative approach to this Bienal de São Paulo, his second in a row, earnestly seized on the idea of a global aesthetic vernacular capable of transcending every conceivable border to bring the world together. One might warily regard such a possibility as a threat to the local and specific, in the same way as one would cringe at the thought of a McDonald’s in the Amazon. Hug, however, laments that ‘art has become overloaded with day-to-day politics’ and lauds what he plainly calls the ‘global language’ of contemporary art and its ability to advocate unity and understanding. The strikingly limited arguments in his catalogue essay suggest that he is either unaware of the complex debate into which he is stepping or wilfully ignorant of its ethics.
A stunning array of banal platitudes and generic overstatements decorates Hug’s curatorial text. Few serious curators of international shows at this level would be comfortable stating that ‘there is no longer a periphery in the classical sense of the word; new talent no longer remains hidden’ or remarking in wonder at the ‘universal reservoir of signs and archetypes, which, through exchange, mobilize the collective memory of mankind’. The show’s organization was no more specific, with work grouped by medium into what Hug termed the ‘sculpture park’, the ‘salon of painting’ and the ‘planetarium of videos’, as if each housed an exotic species. For a show that claimed to be interested in a universal artistic language, it was odd to discover this compartmentalized structure and stranger still to find few (if any) Internet or Web-based pieces, given the relative ease with which that medium lends itself to talk of globalization and what Hug calls ‘no man’s land’.
A bigger problem was that the show and its didactics were designed in a way that made it difficult to distinguish Hug’s curated selections from the artists selected by the 55 invited countries. The unexceptional nature of many of these national representatives dispersed throughout the exhibition made the chosen artists look worse than they probably would have done as a distinct grouping. Albert Oehlen, for one, couldn’t have looked more awkward, alongside the sorry paintings of the Slovak and Finnish contingents.
But for those works with a specific relation to South America, especially Brazil and Oscar Niemeyer’s vaunted Bienal building, things worked out better. David Batchelor’s light-boxes stacked from floor to ceiling provided a burst of chromophilia amid the archly chromophobic architecture. Mike Nelson constructed a bulging wall at the end of the grand hall that looked perfectly Niemeyerian. Once inside Nelson’s hallway, however, curious visitors found steps up to a dark attic, placing them at once seemingly deep inside the celebrated building and psychologically in a different place altogether. Mark Dion restaged the Brazilian trip of an Austrian naturalist, inviting a group of Viennese students along to make art according to their specific roles in the expedition party; he displayed the results with loaned watercolours from the original trip. Luc Tuymans made a new group of paintings for the show, based around an exoticizing carnival in the Netherlands (Plant, Apotheek both 2003). For a snide video screened in the café Miguel Calderón spliced together disparate football clips to create a fictional match between Mexico and Brazil where Mexico triumphs 17–0. (Brazilians at the opening were not amused.) Martin Sestre’s pulpy post-apocalyptic battle against Matthew Barney and the stylishly childish Neistat Brothers’ Science Experiments films (2003) provided lighter and, judging from their popularity, welcome touches. Matthew Ritchie premiered a promising new body of figurative drawings, and Thomas Demand showed a new film of endlessly spinning plates on a kitchen table.