This was a show about transparency and obsession. When Luis Pérez-Oramas, the frontman for this 30th Bienal de São Paulo, announced the exhibition’s title, ‘The Imminence of Poetics’, nothing could seem more opaque. To my surprise, however, all became clear during my first visit. More than 120 artists were given room to breathe, with a wide selection of works by each of them on display. The pieces exhibited in Oscar Niemeyer’s grand pavilion, a venue that soaks in the sunlight in Ibirapuera Park, all had a chance to be in the spotlight. Yet despite the polyphony of voices, all seemed to sing to one clear tune. This could have been a ballad or a litany on obsession, the soundtrack to making forms through the almost sacred pain of repetition, like Chinese artist Tehching Hsieh’s 1980–81 series of photographs of himself taken every hour on every day for an entire year, or Mexican artist Iñaki Bonillas’s massive and vertiginous display of every portrait taken at his grandfather’s studio in 2004.
This sense of cohesion amongst the works was anchored in both the selection of artists and architect Martin Corullon’s modulated design for each room, where wall heights, openings and empty spaces responded to the scale of each piece. In a biennial that all but renounced grand gestures and monumental works, Pérez-Oramas and his team scratched the surface of recent art history to excavate that which lay forgotten in the muck of unfinished theory, those names left behind in a scene dazed by the market. Dividing their cast of artists into groups they called ‘constellations’, the curators almost seemed to contradict the idea of stars, as these were all quiet ones, artists whose brilliance was only perceptible through sustained contemplation. The usual biennial names – in constant migration between Venice, Kassel and São Paulo – were absent. Nothing drew too much attention to itself. Understatement was key: minimal works that defied the grandiosity of the pavilion all seemed to stand independently, making for an exhibition with a particular buoyancy and rhythm.
Stark white was the dominating colour and shadows were avoided throughout the exhibition. In this sense, the empty canvases by Alberto Casari’s one-man collective Productos Peruanos Para Pensar were an upfront warning. Hung in one of the first rooms, his series of seascapes were nothing but stretched pieces of white cloth washed with ocean water, the almost invisible traces of the sea acting as its very own representation (La Acción de la Playa de Agua Dulce, The Fresh Water Beach Action, 1997).
The fusion of architecture and poetry which serves as a driving force for the work of Chilean collective Ciudad Abierta gained a sophisticated interpretation in the installation Taller Amereida (Amereida Studio, 2010), and perhaps hinted at the idea of the imminence of poetics. The same could be said of Colombian artist Bernardo Ortiz’s recorded verbal descriptions of abstract paintings, an exercise of mediated vision that aims at seeing the unseen (Untitled, 2010). The newly unearthed Utopian discourse behind Ciudad Abierta – the free-spirited, somewhat hippie community of poets and architects in Valparaíso (founded in 1970 and still going) – connected with Israeli artist Absalon’s living units on the second floor. His ‘Cellules’ (1992), white spaces meant to be lived in by just one person, constitute an ironic and melancholic reading of the vocabulary of Modernist architecture; in short, a reinterpretation of Le Corbusier that stands in the pavilion as an almost innocuous extension of the organic forms of Niemeyer’s building.
Whereas Absalon’s work concerns confinement and the vital need for solitude, Arthur Bispo do Rosário – the Brazilian artist who made his entire oeuvre while locked in an asylum in Rio de Janeiro – followed suit with products made as a result of that very isolation. More than 300 of his pieces created using material gathered from around the hospice (or smuggled in by the nurses he seemed to worship) hung from the ceiling of the pavilion in the exhibition’s most ambitious display. There stood Do Rosário’s shrouds, obsessive accounts of mostly violent fait divers collected from old newspapers and magazines, hand-stitched to create endless pieces of clothing. To hang these at eye level was to tell a public tale of isolation and intimacy, drawing an analogy with the idea of a state of exception – being locked up in a hospice – and being literally suspended from reality.
This was where transparency comes in. Nothing was hidden from view and the context behind each work was as much a part of the exhibition as the pieces themselves. Artists showed thorough archives, inventories of real life that double as a long-term artistic project, a labour of years, sometimes decades.
Such was also the case with August Sander’s portraits of his fellow Germans at the dawn of the 20th century, Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom’s inventory of contemporary modes of dress and both Alair Gomes’s and Mark Morrisroe’s detailed photographs of the male body. This was the point in the biennial at which the three currents of curatorial discourse came together: obsession met transparency in the construction of a powerful archive. Work by Morrisroe, the New York artist who worked as a hustler before photographing his peers and their charged homosexual encounters – many of whom lost the battle against AIDS – and Gomes, the solitary engineer from Rio de Janeiro who photographed beautiful men on the beach, became legible when viewed together, in intense sequential displays. One countered the other as the depiction of opposing forces – man at its graceful peak of beauty and the emaciated bodies of those suffering from HIV infection; life brushing against death.
This edition of the Bienal de São Paulo seemed to equate these opposing forces to artistic intention and its very absence. Works that seemed unfinished or were themselves accounts of failure underlined this poignant selection; a testament to artistic labour, the toil of an artist or those who would only later be regarded as such. Whether in photographs, embroideries, paintings or drawings, these authors all address the same question and seem to be caught in the very act of creation, standing at a crossroads between life and death, intention and accident, pain and pleasure.