When Ivo Mesquita, curator of the 28th São Paulo Biennial, proposed that an entire floor of the pavilion designed by Oscar Niemeyer should remain empty to symbolize the crisis of both the São Paulo Biennial as an institution and the format of biennials in general, many were perplexed. Amidst the numerous exhibitions running concurrently with the controversial Biennial last December, ‘This Is Not a Void’ at Galeria Luisa Strina, curated by Jens Hoffmann, was one of the most intelligent responses to Mesquita’s exhibition to be staged.
Despite the gallery being physically empty, through the use of sounds, projections and interventions on its walls, Hoffmann showed that vacant spaces need not necessarily be neutral or even empty. This one certainly was not, containing, as it did, excellent works from 37 artists as varied as Martin Creed, Gino de Dominicis, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Kos, David Lamelas, Jac Leirner and Tino Sehgal. Complex and intriguing, the exhibition consisted of a series of playful works designed to destabilize the visitor’s perception of the space, such as the intermittently flashing lights of Creed’s Work No 227: The Lights Going On and Off (2000), which gives the impression of there being a fault in the lighting system. The first work visitors encountered was the intervention carried out by Elmgreen & Dragset on the gallery itself: the exterior, normally black, was painted white and the usually white exhibition space was turned black, an intervention entitled, with a delicious sense of irony regarding the conventional, cubic shape of the building, Don’t be a Coconut (2008). Another humorous piece that approached institutional criticism through irony was Grampo (Bug, 2008) by Alexandre da Cunha: each time the gallery owner, Luisa Strina, spoke on the telephone, the sound was emitted through an intercom installed on the outside of the building, making private art-world conversations public.
Also included was an untitled piece by Fernando Ortega: a sealed box posted from Mexico with a tape recorder inside that recorded the entire journey until the box was reopened and the machine switched off. In the exhibition, the box then reproduced the sounds of the entire process on the same tape recorder, adding sound to what was a temporal process. Sound was also present in the gallery’s toilets, with Claire Fontaine’s work Clearstream/White Noise (2008) – a noise that elicits surprise in a space that is typically private. This work was representative of the game Hoffmann had built into the exhibition, namely a sort of treasure hunt: in order to discover the works being exhibited, one had to be alert to each detail of the exhibition space so as not to miss the invisibility of many of the works.
In this sense, Renata Lucas’s work was one of the most illustrative. Invisible Man (2008) was a postbox on a wall facing a side street adjacent to the gallery’s entrance, creating a new form of communication with the area by enabling the postman, or anyone else, to post any material that might fit through the gap directly into the exhibition space. As in Grampo or Don’t Be a Coconut, the art space was rendered permeable and re-contextualised. Therein lay the key to the exhibition’s success: conducting the debate around institutional problems that ‘the void biennial’ attempted but failed to achieve.