The XXIV São Paulo Biennial was marked by a strong curatorial voice with an emphatic Brazilian accent. It was conceived in four segments: the traditional 'National Representations', a globalised section called 'Roteiros' (Routes), a special part dedicated to 'Brazilian Contemporary Art' and a 'Historical Nucleus'. Turning the emphasis inward, the curators Paulo Herkenhoff and Adriano Pedrosa linked the series of shows with the idea of anthropophagy - the eating of human flesh - an apparently quintessential analogy to Brazilian cultural practice.
In 1928, the poet Oswald de Andrade's Anthropophagic Manifesto defined Brazilian culture as the devouring of all foreign values in order to create its own identity. To base a Biennial at the verge of a new millennium on a 70 year-old concept may seem retroactive, but, until now, there has never been an exhibition which has realised the potential of this historic idea.
The historical section includes an impressive line-up: from Brazilian baroque sculptor Aleijadinho, the Modernists Tarsila do Amaral and Alfredo Volpi, to contemporary masters Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark and Cildo Meireles. Their work was exhibited alongside the work of Gericault, Goya, Van Gogh, Rodin, Giacometti, Magritte, Münch, Bacon and Bourgeois. Inside this historical nucleus a few contemporary works by Brazilian artists were placed like intelligent contaminations. For example, Ernesto Neto's photograph of a female doll in a mouth and an image of Freud by Vik Muniz are included in the 'Dada and Surrealism' section and a sculpture by Tunga was inserted among paintings of indigenous natives from the 17th century.
Although an exhibition under a national banner no longer holds much value, the section dedicated to Brazilian contemporary art was coherent and engaging. Among the best works were Vik Muniz's witty, beautifully crafted photos of portraits made in chocolate, sugar or carnival garbage; Sandra Cinto's graceful, painstakingly executed small drawings forming a large 'tattooed' wall; Rochelle Costi's wonderfully crisp colour photos of bedroom interiors; Leonilson's sentimental drawings; Tunga's photographs of twins intertwined by their long, floor-length hair; Miguel Rio Branco's poignantly romantic Hell Diptych (1998) photo; and Adriana Varejão's study room of paintings deconstructing Pedro Américo's 19th century academic portrait of the Brazilian revolutionary Tiradentes.
One of the Biennial's highlights was Ernesto Neto's Nave-Deusa (1998) - an animalistic, sensual walk-in work made with stretched translucent lycra, resembling a uterus on the inside and a tent on the outside. Another was the interactive ice-skating ring, The Very Large Ice Flow (1998) by Olafur Eliasson. Coolly minimalist, the work seemed to flow through the glass wall of the exhibition space. Closer to the cannibalist psyche were the rough plywood, leathery gadgets and ferocious dog sounds of a haunting piece by Miroslaw Balka.
Overall, the curators established a smart dynamic in the presentation of works, avoiding the prosaic arrangement of one room per artist in favour of an open conversation between the different exhibits. Avoiding the formality of the closed box, walls were used only when necessary and the general intermixing of works was liberating.
'Roteiros' also included Swiss artist Markus Raetz's visual pun sculptures; Blind Cities (1998) by Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis‚ a rugged wall installation of yellow panels, tape, Perspex and aluminium; Colombian artist Doris Salcedo's furniture and cement pieces, with their eloquent forms and textures; Esko Manniko's panoramic photographic constructions; South African William Kentridge's echoing animation The Return of Ulysses (1998); and the Chinese Luo Brothers' silly but cute pop renderings of the World's Most Famous Brands (1997). Also silly but cute was General Idea's Fin de Siècle (1990) installation of three stuffed seal pups lying amidst sheets of polystyrene.
We tend to judge biennials on the amount of fresh, novel work they showcase. Yet this becomes relative when one bears in mind that the bulk of the São Paulo audience has a good deal of catching up to do in terms of new developments in contemporary art. Nonetheless, the US/Canada section of 'Roteiros' felt like a bland revision of past achievements. General Idea, Michael Asher and Sherrie Levine are hardly 'thermometers of the present', as Herkenhoff claimed. Also, there were a few works that the frequent art traveller probably cannot bear to see anymore - Jeff Wall's photo panels seem ubiquitous, and Gabriel Orozco's La D.S. (1994) has clocked up almost as many miles as its Citroen engine. Yet, in Brazil, this had never been seen before, and it may well be considered a worthwhile, if overdue, arrival.