The ongoing fixation on the relationship between art and politics in large-scale international exhibitions continued with the 29th São Paulo Biennial, titled, rather awkwardly, ‘There is Always a Cup of Sea to Sail In’ – a line borrowed from the last great work by the Brazilian writer Jorge de Lima, Invenção de Orfeu (The Invention of Orpheus, 1952). Two curators, Moacir dos Anjos and Agnaldo Farias, organized the Biennial with the help of an international team of guest curators, including Fernando Alvim, Rina Carvajal, Yuko Hasegawa, Sarat Maharaj and Chus Martínez.
The curatorial statement in the exhibition catalogue made it immediately clear that we were dealing with politics and art as seen from the angle of a tired and narrow neo-Marxist perspective. This followed a well-intentioned but naive ‘art and politics are inseparable’ hypothesis that, rather than proposing any specific criteria for the works in the exhibition, made such vague and open arguments that almost any art work ever made could have been included. The discrepancy between the thoughts outlined in the catalogue essay and the exhibition realities has rarely been greater.
Yet there were several attractive ideas within the structure of the exhibition. The Biennial was divided into six ‘territories’, each with a specific theme and title. Cleverly using the wide-open floors of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Ciccillo Matarazzo pavilion, the exhibition design resembled a small village with streets, alleys and squares from which you could depart into white cube or black box spaces to view the art. This rather novel idea worked well in some scenarios; in others it was unfortunately killed when the placement of the art works on the outside walls of those structures looked like an afterthought. In addition to these territories the curators devised a number of paths that visitors could follow to see the exhibition, again each with a specific subject and its own (usually obscure) title: ‘The Skin of the Invisible’, for instance, or ‘Far Away Right Here’.
What saved the Biennial was a number of very strong art works. While 159 artists seems at first an unmanageable number, quality always rises to the surface. One of the most wonderful moments was a short film by Anri Sala, which tells the story of a venue in France where The Clash performed almost 30 years ago (Le Clash, 2010). The echo of the London band’s 1981 song ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ haunts the grounds, playing softly through a music box. It is a statement about memory – specifically the memory of once radical political positions.
Another highlight was Antonio Vega Macotela’s Time Divisa (Time Currency) (2006–10), for which the artist paid weekly visits to a Mexican prison for ‘exchanges’ with the criminals: the inmate would assign him a task to execute in the outside world, giving Macotela an art work as payment. Nástio Mosquito’s film My African Mind (2010) was perhaps the most powerful piece in the Biennial. An animation that uses archival footage from the history of Africa, it speaks, with frequent irreverent humour, about the continent’s disasters, conflicts and successes from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. The pace at which the images fly across the screen is exhilarating, even though the content is often disheartening. Jimmie Durham’s Bureau for Research Into Brazilian Normality (2010) was another witty contribution. Resembling an anthropological display, it presents objects collected in and around São Paulo that describe banal, absurd and at times ridiculous aspects of life, for instance the observation that many Brazilian men carry key chains from expensive cars in order to attract women while they in fact drive a cheap vehicle.
The curators made a specific point about the large number of Brazilian and South American artists in the exhibition. Of the 159 participants, roughly a third were from Brazil, and many more from other parts of Latin America. It was less about regionalism or nationalism, however, than an effort to use the exhibition’s context to talk about the politics of art. Jacob Borges, for instance, presented a re-creation of his Imagen de Caracas (Images of Caracas, 1967), originally a multimedia projection involving several performances, offering a critical view of the history of his home town of Caracas.
Given the bleak state of our planet – ecological catastrophes, rampant social inequality, armed conflicts and other human-made disasters – to avoid addressing politics would seem a dreadful sin for any enlightened and socially conscious individual. I wonder, however, where an artist or curator’s commitment to radical politics and social change really begins and ends. More often than not, they seem to start at the entrance of the gallery and end at the exit. And do we really need a gallery space to be told something we can read in the newspaper? A biennial tends to allow for a wide range of possibilities, but always within defined parameters. I would propose that the idea of real social and political change, should we really be asked to take it seriously, must be taken further than a polite display of art works.
The 29th São Paulo Biennial added little to the conversation surrounding the politics of art. It stayed within a field of thought that originated in theories developed by 20th-century neo-Marxists that finds its latest incarnation in the works of Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Rancière. I was stunned to see the curators’ statement ‘It is truly impossible to disassociate art from politics’ footnoted with the comment: ‘For more on the relationship between art and politics see Jacques Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics.’ There was almost no further elaboration on this core curatorial premise other than a hackneyed tirade against the art market, the spectacle of the art world and a little jab at art history via a denunciation of historical narratives as outdated organizational principles. This was all garnished by such phrases as ‘Art making has a responsibility before life’, and ‘Art is political when it produces knowledge that destabilizes the norm’. To which I would like to add, paraphrasing Marx, curators have only interpreted the world, in various ways; let us get someone else to change it.
Some problematic aspects of the curators’ essay are perhaps due to translation issues. But the ultimate failures of the Biennial are certainly also to do with the overwhelming accumulation of curatorial ideas and the manifesto style of their delivery, resulting ironically in an overcomplicated argument that oversimplified the art on view, and discouraged viewers from looking and thinking in greater depth. If ever there was an over-conceptualization of an exhibition with such small results, the 29th São Paulo Biennial is a contender for the prime spot.