BY Márcia Fortes in Reviews | 02 JAN 97
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Issue 32

XXIII Bienal

BY Márcia Fortes in Reviews | 02 JAN 97

Badly lacking money in previous years, the Bienal de Sao Paulo had plenty of it this time. It was money that provided better quality work and organisation for a foundation that had previously been suffering from confusion and amateurism. Created in 1951 following the model of the Venice Biennale, the Sao Paulo Bienal had been running the risk of becoming 'a giant without a soul' ­ a bankrupt institution and a blatant anachronism that manifested a dismaying distance between the art on show and contemporary works on the international circuit. But now the diagnosis is optimistic, as some vital structural changes bring credit back to the Bienal foundation.

Previously, each country sent three artists to Sao Paolo, but now that has been reduced to a single name per nation, increasing the potential for 'quality' representation. But the main novelty this year was the creation of 'Universalis', a section featuring 42 contemporary artists selected by seven curators from different parts of the world. Private capital also enriched the 'Special Rooms' ­ an invention of the 1994 Bienal ­ with work by 18 'great masters of contemporaneity', including crowd pleasers like Goya, Picasso, Munch and Warhol. (The convulsion at the opening in front of Munch's The Scream (1893) reminded one of the struggle for a sight of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre during holiday season.)

Curator Margery King of the Andy Warhol Foundation put together an unexpectedly extreme, electric installation of Warhol portraits and torsos, with pictures of public faces and private parts (including a 1963 painting of a woman's breasts, visible only under ultraviolet light, as well as some piss paintings) hanging against the pink, black and white 'Warhol wallpaper' that covered every wall of the room. In a 'Special Room' at the centre of the Bienal, Anish Kapoor's cast aluminium spheres reflected the inverted image of the viewer and the building's structure, while in another the ghostly eroticism of Louise Bourgeois' installation ­ with female garments clothing oversized bones ­ triggered the viewer's mechanisms of desire.

Standing out amongst the national representations were Nikos Navridis, a young artist from Greece who uses balloons to make works that play on the see-saw of 'being' and 'not being', and Gary Hume representing Great Britain. With all the charm of a painter who can't really paint, Hume, in his use of pop imagery and the odd juxtaposition of colours in high-gloss finish, makes sometimes sensuous, sometimes dazzling paintings of familiar subjects ­ flowers, birds and girls. Also among the memorable was Waltercio Caldas from Brazil, showing works using the air and hanging threads of wool: elegant, lucid forms in a state of suspense.

Quality has perhaps never been better at the Bienal, and there were some beautiful things to be seen. However, one still wishes for a better sense of timing. Much of the art felt old, or looked too much like 'art' ­ there was a lot of very 'arty' art in Sao Paolo. Despite this year's overall theme of 'the dematerialisation of art at the end of the millennium', visual austerity abounded, as did formalism in terms of process, aesthetics and physicality.

The 'Universalis', which was intended to package 'emerging' contemporary art, lacked strength of character, maybe the fault of the invited curators. Or perhaps this was because the Bienal's curator, Nelson Aguilar, divided 'Universalis' into continents. After all, there is nothing older than the idea of staging cultural dialogue within the geographic boundaries of nationalism. Still, it was a great relief to enter the US/Canada section. Paul Schimmel (of the Los Angeles MoCA) was the only invited curator to take a chance by showcasing genuinely 'new' art. Here were Elizabeth Peyton's delicious paintings of pop stars and friends, emotional and intimate with a languid touch that makes everyone she paints look like a dandy. Tom Friedman's handy manipulation of banal materials and the irreverence of the intellectual puns in his small works were an immediate pleasure, while Jim Hodges' curtain of artificial silk flowers pushes prettiness and craft to their obsessive limits. This felt good ­ yummy stuff among a load of heavy, pained art.

The good news is that the Sao Paulo Bienal is alive again, but the one thing still lacking, and which the Bienal is crying out for, is a definite sense of curatorship.