Visitors entering the Octagon at the Pinacoteca do Estado are immediately confronted by an empty space. However, this void is an important element in Contemplasão Suspensa (Suspended Contemplation, 2008), by the São Paulo-based artist Rubens Mano. The Octagon is a magnificent space designed in 1993 by the architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha for a museum building erected in the early 20th century, which, owing to its new stripped-down Minimalist look, has become an ideal location for such site-specific projects. These commissions have taken place regularly under the curatorship of museum director Ivo Mesquita, who is also responsible for the current show.
In Suspended Contemplation one needs to alter one’s line of sight to perceive fully that the place is not, in fact, as empty as it seems. Overhead there is a narrow suspension bridge 15 metres above the floor, and in a hidden corner of the Octagon an LCD screen shows a 30-minute film of a helicopter flight over São Paulo, including bird’s-eye views of the Pinacoteca itself. The work is actually complete when the viewer reaches the museum’s second floor and then climbs a spiral staircase leading to the small, precarious-looking bridge, which one walks across to apprehend the emptiness fully from above – an act not all visitors have the courage to do.
Mano is a former architecture student, and space – how it’s configured, occupied, perceived, subverted, owned and shared – is one of the primary themes of his work. Vazadores (Leakers), for example, exhibited at the 25th São Paulo Biennial in 2002, was simply a hidden passage allowing free entry to the building and exhibition. At one corner of the pavilion designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the artist used the same Modernist materials to make an alternative entrance that, from a distance, could not be recognized as a passageway, but which actually gave access to anyone who approached it. The work inevitably provoked controversy and was not always available for use, as the Biennial management frowned on the intentional loss of admissions revenue (which ironically ended up happening anyway. The exhibition has been free to the public since 2004).
This re-signification of space through architecture is again the underlying theme at the Pinacoteca. With Suspended Contemplation Mano suggests a new way of perceiving a site that is already occupied by several artists, including Carla Zaccagnini, Regina Silveira and Carlos Fajardo, creating a sly statement about emptiness. The theme of emptiness was not chosen by chance: after all, Mano is one of 40 artists selected for the 28th São Paulo Biennial, opening in October and also curated by Mesquita, nicknamed the ‘Biennial of Emptiness’ because of the much-debated plan to feature an entire floor devoid of art works as a strategy for representing the crisis the institution is suffering.
The emptiness of the Pinacoteca and the void of the Biennial, in this regard, should not be seen as merely coincidental. The São Paulo art world is indeed suffering a crisis of confidence. The problems range from the lack of security at the Pinacoteca (four art works, including two Picassos, were recently stolen) to others that have been dragging on for years, such as the turmoil at the São Paulo Art Museum, where Brazilian federal prosecutors are currently investigating a series of financial irregularities. And then there is the Biennial Foundation, which continues to operate with an illegitimate and discredited president accused of mismanagement and of committing numerous improprieties and acts of nepotism over the last two years.
Thus the bridge passing over the vertiginous space of the Octagon becomes a metaphor for this moment of transition, in which art finds itself in a precarious situation, hardly remote from institutional matters. With Suspended Contemplation Mano attempts to draw attention to the emperor’s lack of clothes, a delicate tight-rope act that Mesquita has promised will also be his aim at the this year's Biennial. At the same time his bridge does not lead anywhere, as it doesn’t actually cross the entire space and takes the visitor to a dead end. Even worse, for those with a healthy respect for yawning gulfs, to reach this lofty cul-de-sac one has to step cautiously over the wide gaps between the planks on the footbridge. However, the metaphor for the crisis is not limited to the perception of space proposed by the artist. On the contrary, it is a work stimulating various levels of perception, the dizzying vertigo of the bridge contrasting with the calm sense of buoyancy captured in the aerial film of São Paulo. By creating two parallel situations of contemplative suspension, vertiginous and reassuring, Mano ambivalently points to involvement as the only way forward.