in News | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

Third World First

The São Paulo Bienal

in News | 06 MAR 95

The initial task of the curator of last year's Bienal Internacional de São Paulo was to regain the prestige of the Southern Hemisphere's most celebrated art exhibition. In 1991, when the last Bienal opened, it was hard to spot any traces of a curator whatsoever. The Bienal's rules had been changed making it into a sort of contest, with jury and prizes, open to applications from anyone, anywhere. These democratic intentions backfired: several artists at the time stated their disapproval of the new rules and of its curator's sheer academicism, and went as far as supporting a boycott. When the list of Brazilian artists came out, we were surprised to find that several had obviously submitted their proposals in secret.

So much for the realpolitik of the small Brazilian art world. This tale illustrates the vicissitudes of living and working outside North American and European art centres: many artists could not resist the temptation to take part in the Southern Hemisphere's 'most celebrated art exhibition.' The Bienal has long provided a unique opportunity for Brazilian artists (and critics, curators and dealers) to get a glimpse of the international art scene. Every two years, a dozen or two art jet-setters gather in São Paulo for a week. For artists, taking part in the Bienal may be the path to the next Aperto or Documenta. With multiculturalism kicking in, there have been some changes in the South: once the Bienal was the big chance for Brazil to hit the first world art periodicals, but now Artforum and Art in America, for instance, occasionally review other Brazilian shows.

Traditionally, the Bienal de São Paulo had opened in October every odd year, and its Venetian peer every even year. To coincide with its centennial, however, the Biennale di Venezia decided to skip 1992 and open in the following year. Unable to face such harsh competition, São Paulo had no choice but to follow suit. 'The ball is in their hands,' said Thomas McEvilley in a recent lecture in Los Angeles after coming back from São Paulo - 'the ball' in reference to the game of contemporary art; 'they' being the other. The real question remains: whose game is it?

There's surely more to the Bienal de São Paulo than art games and North-South politics. Last Autumn I interviewed Professor Nelson Aguillar, XXII Bienal's chief curator, for a Southern Hemispheric magazine. The starting point of his curatorial project was not so much an idea as a grouping of three artists whom, he believed, any large scale international exhibition should currently include: Richard Long (UK), Gerhard Richter (Germany), and Hélio Oiticica (Brazil). It then became necessary, he told me, to 'invent regulations and a thematic for these regulations that would satisfy the artists I had already chosen.' The common issue invented to justify the inclusion of these names and to establish grounds to select others was, as Aguillar's catalogue essay's title points out, the 'Breaking away from support.' In its English version, Aguillar's slogan may suggest intriguing relations between art and sponsorship, but the curator's keynote is elsewhere. Aguillar's point is that, since the 50s, artists have been challenging and breaking away from the traditional orthodoxy of media, in a process that would culminate with the appearance of performance, video, installation, conceptual art, etc. This is hardly a new idea per se, and Aguillar further complicates it when he encompasses under his slogan artists who clearly have little concern with 'breaking away from support,' but more so with a 'breaking away' from its very discussion: Marcel Broodthaers (Belgium), José Bedia (Cuba), and Richard Long, to name only artists among the carefully selected 21 who deserved 'special rooms' in the exhibition. A number of others in this group are not at all troubled by the confinements their medium has imposed upon them: Joaquim Torres Garcia (Uruguay), Joan Mitchell (US), Julian Schnabel (US) and Per Kirkeby (Denmark) are masterful painters. Of course, in São Paulo, as in Venice, the curator has no choice but to surrender to official international representatives, accepting and incorporating into the exhibition artists selected without his approval. It is impossible to negotiate with all the commissioners, especially since the process is largely mediated by the dubious expertise of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and foreign cultural attachés. The special rooms and the Brazilian representation are therefore the only areas in which the curator is entirely free to exercise his activities. This is one of his major hardships. Curatorial practice is, after all, about choosing and excluding.

Boasted as the largest of its history, the XXII Bienal included over 600 works from about 200 artists from 70 countries, at a cost of over US$5 million (most of it from private resources). There is something deeply contradictory about mega-exhibitions such as this one and their obsession with figures. The marketing powers of numbers may help prove the grandiosity of the event, but never its excellence. Kilometric exhibitions remain an irresistible invitation to banalisation.

The traditional site for the exhibition, Oscar Niemeyer's massive building, is itself quite tricky. It certainly lacks the pristine features of the first world gallery space, although those are the standards the organisers aspire to. For this Bienal, the cement floors had been sanded down and a major addition made: the so-called 'museological space.' In order to include works by Mondrian (Belgium), Malevich (Russia), Torres Garcia (Uruguay), Tamayo (Mexico), Rivera (Mexico), Mitchell, Fontana (Italy), and Tal Coat (France), the Bienal had to devise a special section with highly specified conditions: humidity control, fire sprinklers, security guards, air conditioning, appropriate lighting. We thought Uruguay would never allow Torres Garcia's paintings to enter Brazilian territory again after 1977, when an entire retrospective of the artist was decimated in the tragic fire of the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro.

Unheard of elsewhere in the country, the clean and refrigerated museological space was a trip to the first world. It also suggested a curious hierarchy in the installation plan:

Mondrian and Malevich on the top floor, video and photography in an inflatable annex, and works of a more tropical palette on the ground level, without a single Brazilian among them: official representatives came from Paraguay, Costa Rica, Barbados, Bolivia, Egypt, Greece, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Equator, Namibia, Greece, Guatemala, among others. Included on that floor were the two official US representatives: John Outterbridge and Betye Saar. Both engage with political and social themes, incorporating flea market objects and pieces of metal with a craft like finish into their work. The word was that Brazilians did not fully appreciate the US representation, which frustrated the expectation of seeing bigger American names.

The rest of the Bienal was somewhat messy. In December, during my two-day visit to the show, there was a shortage of security guards, and although we easily managed to sneak in, maybe half of the rooms, including the video annex, were closed. Two months after the opening, the gallery floors were soiled, and some of its walls graffitied by visitors. The most acute comment about the Bienal was made by Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis. Frustrated by its organisers and virtually unable to install his A sala dos mapas (The map room), Cabrita Reis left his room unfurbished, with a drinking fountain and a cheap blanket in a corner. The title of his installation: São Paulo, São Paulo (1994).

The Bienal de São Paulo needs to rethink its model of art exhibiting, perhaps 'break away' from it. If it cost the same but were smaller, it could probably reach the first world standards the organisers obviously aspire to (they've certainly done a good job on the luxurious two-volume catalogue, which manages to cost even more than Documenta's at $300). It's a tough job in the third world, but the wealthy MARCO, the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Monterrey, Mexico, has gotten there, and every time they put up a show they fly in their skilled Northern neighbours to hammer the nails. The piercing truth is that if the South doesn't come up with an alternative way of exhibiting contemporary art, the Bienal will remain forever what it always has been: a first world business.