|Anchored in the idea that the line separating separate art from politics is ambiguous, the 29a Sao Paulo Biennial, taking its title “There is always a cup of sea to sail in” from de Lima’s great work, provides spaces in which to reflect on one’s own personal intersections as well as rapid global reorganizations. Looking out the taxi window as I left Guarulhos airport, I experienced a time warp. As a child I loved walking the streets of my home, Sao Paulo. I guess it defines the experience of a city—a little girl who conquers territories, connects with friends, makes memories, leaves traces, and draws her own historical map. Brazilians tend to be very friendly and outgoing; this makes it easy to communicate.|
Contemos uma história. Mas que história? asks poet Jorge Mateus de Lima in his Invention of Orpheus. Tell a story. But that story?
Anchored in the idea that the line separating separate art from politics is ambiguous, the 29a Sao Paulo Biennial, taking its title “There is always a cup of sea to sail in” from de Lima’s great work, provides spaces in which to reflect on one’s own personal intersections as well as rapid global reorganizations.
Looking out the taxi window as I left Guarulhos airport, I experienced a time warp. As a child I loved walking the streets of my home, Sao Paulo. I guess it defines the experience of a city—a little girl who conquers territories, connects with friends, makes memories, leaves traces, and draws her own historical map.
Brazilians tend to be very friendly and outgoing; this makes it easy to communicate. Sao Paulo taxi drivers guided me and told me about politics, economics, Sao Paulo’s development over the years; it seemed they knew more about the 29th Biennial than most people did.
I was told that, two years ago, the Biennial was in trouble for financial mismanagement, political scandal, and that its reputation was in danger, but that the new president Heitor Martins and a knowledgeable and dedicated team resolved this—and, in fact, had incorporated this troubled history into their overall vision.
The Biennial is located in the Parque Ibirapuera. When I was a little girl, I was enchanted the park’s huge monument Os Bandeirantes, figures that lean forward celebrating explorers who followed the flag as they discovered Brazil’s interior lands.
I was entranced similarly as I entered the 29th Sao Paulo Biennial Pavilion—except today they were not Bandeirantes, but 800 works of art by 159 artists from a range of places and times. I felt like a child again; however, this was part of a Sao Paulo I never knew. I needed a guide, information about the conceptual structure, and the goal of the Biennial.
The press office staff greeted me warmly and introduced me to three young women who were part of the “Educativos” team, students trained to guide people through the art works—a wonderful way to welcome the public and assist interaction.
The Biennial is divided into six “terreiros:” yards, or meeting places.
Growing up in Sao Paulo, I understood the word “terreiros” to have a religious meaning as well: ritual spaces for spiritual practice. The Biennial “terreiros” are spaces where people meet to debate, discuss and celebrate changes, to reflect, or simply to rest.
The six “terreiros” were conceived for these functions, but can also be used as an axis for events. Thus, O outro, o Mesmo (The Other, the Same) organized by architect Carlso Teixeira, is used for performances. A Pele do Invisivel (The Skin of the Invisible) coordinated by Slovenian artist Tobias Putrih, emphasizes audiovisual projections. Dito, Nao Dito, Interdito (Said, Unsaid, Interdict) by the graffiti artist from the state of Goias, Kboco, and architect Roberto Loeb, is used for meetings and talks.
Eu Sou a Rua (I Am the Street) organized by UN Studio architects, and Longe Daqui, Aqui Mesmo (Far from here, in here) by artists Marila Dardot and Fabio Morais, are for discourse and reading.
Rio de Janeiro artist Ernesto Neto created Lembranca e Esquecimento (Memory and Oblivion) for rest and reflection.
There is an interesting work White Flag by artist Nuno Ramos, which consists of three big sculptures, as high as the three floors of the pavilion of the Biennial, made from black granite surrounded by protective netting. On them there are three glass speakers with fragmented music from White Flag, Caracara, and Boi da Cara Preta—songs from the terrible years of Brazil’s worst oppressive dictatorship.
Three live vultures emphasize this sinister mood; they will live there for the duration of the show. While I was there, this caused much controversy with the animal rights people, some of whom approached me with the argument that what the artist was doing was cruel and an exploitation of animals. I disagreed. The vultures symbolize the years of dictatorship, in which scavengers feast on destroyed lives—a good example of how institutionalization intervenes in the expression of art, based on demagogy. (The vultures themselves, having simple concerns, seemed perfectly content.)
My favorite piece was a very popular one by artist Lygia Pape, called Divisor, 1968. It was beautiful: a video of a performance showing a very large white sheet, with over 200 people’s heads coming through openings in the sheet. People seem to be in the ocean moving with the waves; this is a heartfelt piece celebrating the collective in its true sense of togetherness.
Cinthia Marcelle’s installation, This Same World Over, 2009-2010, stands out for me. An accumulation of white chalk dust gathers, forming small mountains beneath an elongated chalkboard, revealing partial scribbles of many absent professors. The piece enacts the dissolution of past teachings, and how knowledge is nonetheless passed on throughout our evolution.
The work by Rio de Janeiro artist Ronaldo Duarte in a video called The VC Roll (Bloodbath), uses a water truck with red water to wash the streets of the carioca hills for three days to reflect on and display—literally, to spray—social issues such as poverty, violence, and crime.
Finally, I would like to mention another heartfelt piece by unknown artist. It’s a television interview with the Brazilian fiction writer and journalist Clarice Lispector, where she appears on a monitor, with a superimposed text “Who died with thirteen bullets, when one was enough!” In the video, Lispector recounts the subject of one of her texts, a criminal named Mineirinho who was brutally murdered by members of the Rio de Janeiro police force.
The overall biggest criticism of the Biennial is for its emphasis on bringing art and politics together. Brazilians have always been involved politically, it is very much part of our lives. I remember myself as a young girl seeing how many led their lives with political ideals—many putting their lives at stake. It is only natural that the Sao Paulo Biennial would reflect this side of Brazilian culture.
The problem as I see it is that much modern politics has been stripped of passion, of ideals; it has been divorced from the heart. It’s from the heart that ideals are born; fighting for what is right—social justice, higher ideals—becomes a way of life, a way to exist, an inspiration.
I see us living in the age of the apathy of the soul. Art and politics is a wonderful combination, if it lives in the heart. As a result the art at the Biennial is in part a reflection on the state of emptiness, the lifelessness in politics. The art has no other place to draw from. It can only express what exists—the small cup of sea in which artists sail.
This is not a lesser art. The time in which we live is uncertain and transitional. The continents are closing in, there is a danger of cultural sameness, differences are blurring; from this springs a strong reactionary bigotry as former tribes close their ranks in what they perceive as self-defense.
If societies are loosing their heartbeat, art can only derive from what is there—each artist setting sail in a small, enclosed, essentially private and therefore meaningless space.
Therefore the Biennial presents each artist’s cup of sea, opening up and inviting us to experience. The young guides, like my taxi drivers, help us tour this landscape; the terreiros work as town commons, plazas, temples, or courtyards, where people gather to sip from each other’s cup of experience—and reflect alone or in groups on commonalities and differences.