30th São Paulo Biennial: The Imminence of Poetics
São Paulo, Brazil
Through December 9
by Sarah Demeuse
A biennial typically stands for density: we expect it to feature a lot of work and, due to its cyclicity and short lifespan, to create momentum. It also aims to say something about the now, usually resulting in a difficult relation between theme-based curating and a sheer interest in representing the present tout court. Biennials used to be all about national representation, and while they still proudly publish quota based on the participating artists' nationality, they've found a way to work around this prerequisite and have come to play a slicker global game.
The 30th São Paulo Biennial, curated by Luís Pérez-Oramas with associate curators Tobi Maier and André Severo and assistant curator Isabella Villanueva, certainly overwhelms in sheer numbers. It counts within the participation of 111 artists—a fifth of whom are from Brazil and about half from Latin-America—and it features at least five times more artwork which, again, can be broken up into numerous items. A day-long visit to the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion hardly suffices to see the entire show.
Pérez-Oramas and his team went for an enigmatic and sufficiently broad title, "The Imminence of Poetics," that allowed them to link contemporary practices with earlier ones (such as Gego, Robert Filliou or even the "outsider" Arthur Bispo do Rosário). Refusing to propose a definitive narrative or statement about the now, the curators suggested four constellations that primarily highlight artistic method and material: survival, alterforms, voices and drifts. Despite the intention to draw multiple trajectories, this biennial mostly stands out for its slowed-down attention to individual artists (its success is certainly due in part to the clever museography). All in all, this biennial feels like an exhibition made up of about 100 separate small-sized solo shows, each of which aim to tell a precise story about a specific artist rather than a particular work or its connections to a piece made by someone else. While large-scale shows often err towards instrumentalizing work by fitting it into a curatorial straightjacket, this exhibition certainly didn't, yet in so doing it sacrificed coherence and lost its propositive appeal.
The highlight of this year's biennial was the ground floor, where connections between works were well-explored (for instance, in the relation between Daniel Steegmann's film contribution and Fernando Ortega's project, or between Steegmann's watercolors and Sheila Hick's mesmerizing "notebook" tapestries). Going up to the second and third floors of the pavilion, works became increasingly accumulative in tenor: using archival strategies (from Iñaki Bonillas to Fréderic Bruly Bouabré or Horst Ademeit) and often focusing on photography or the found object. Though such works stand strongly on their own, this multiplicity created, at least in my case, a decrease in attention and flattened out perception. Towards the end, I felt as if walking through an immense, materialized Google image or Youtube space. Within such a visual overload emerged a focus on a more literal "poetic," that of the written and spoken word, which oddly complemented the approach to the image or object as primary source information.
As longest-running and largest biennial in Latin America, the São Paulo Biennial continues to maintain its original educational calling; seeing these efforts at connecting art with a larger field of knowledge is always invigorating. As in previous editions, the amount of materials prepared for schools, educators, facilitators and even the attention to extended wall-labels is impressive and experimental. This year's expansion of the biennial into several venues across the city further extends this purpose to connect the thematics of the exhibition with life in the city. What's more, it relieves the biennial, at least in part, of the vision and specter of architect Oscar Niemeyer, which are ubiquitous and indeed confining in the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion.
Surely, this educational ambition stems from a time when arts accessibility was more restricted. An iconic moment for this biennial was, after all, the inclusion of Picasso's Guernica in the 1951 edition. This idea of bringing important art that hasn't been seen in South America continues to direct choices. While it's hard to judge the value or relevance of such international exposure, it did seem at times that recent highlights of the New York exhibition circuit (Mark Morrisroe, Franz Erhard Walther, Jutta Koether, Ei Arakawa) had been brought straight to São Paulo. That said, this biennial also led me to Brazilian and Latin-American artists (for instance, Thiago Rocha Pitta and Ícaro Zorbar) whose work will doubtlessly hit the North-American circuit soon. And perhaps this is what the 30th biennial eventually achieved: to plant the seeds of curiosity while being freed from the burden of an overarching discourse.
Sarah Demeuse reads, translates, edits, writes and makes exhibitions. Together with Manuela Moscoso, she founded rivet, a curatorial office that currently focuses on object-oriented approaches in philosophy and contemporary art.