The main criticism that this year’s 32nd São Paulo Biennial has received is that it is too “politically correct,” all ideas and no art. The debate on political correctness as a way of making art immediately likeable takes us to Francisco de Holanda’s account of Michelangelo’s letters to his close friend Vittoria Colonna in 1506 where he harshly criticises Flemish painter for painting those subjects (saints and madonnas) that are difficult to dislike.
The theme of this Biennial, Incerteza Viva or “Live Uncertainty,” has been, however, celebrated, mainly in the United States where it was read as a harmless critical stance against Brazil’s wretched political climate. Turning tragedy into farse, a few participant artists manifested themselves with shirts bearing slogans like ‘Elections now’ and ‘I want to vote for president’. Appart from one artwork, a lounge-like space of benches and beds that intends to create a “temporary autonomous zone,” by Oficina de Imaginação Política, that directly responded to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, with surrounding chalkboards and posters blaring “Fora Temer” (“Out Temer,” the current president) and “There was a coup,” there were no direct references to the situation.
In this year’s Biennial the displacement between conceptualism and the visual display of an idea was evident. Far from reflecting on modernism, the works failed at articulating politically correct narratives by placing allegory-charged objects. The curators bold belief seemed to be that by embracing uncertainty and experimentation, artists have some advice to give to this chaotic world. Of course, the Biennial was the place where such a statement had to be proved.
The discursive nature of the biennial, like many others before it, can get not only a little exhausting, but vague — cluttering the mind and eye rather than clarifying them. The São Paulo biennial was not always structured this way. When it began in 1951 it was a bit like the Venice Biennale, divided by nation. The change came in 1981, with the 16th biennial, when it, as journalist Leonor Amarante put it, “definitively abandoned the geographical structure and took on the challenge of analogies of language.” At the time, artists and critics were divided, with some believing the new structure would bring more flexibility while others, like the renowned Brazilian critic and curator Aracy Amaral, perceived the change as an excuse to employ pedantic and meaningless jargon.
Amaral had a point. But it is true that these days art has become increasingly discursive and artists stopped exploring what they had been exploring for centuries (the sphere of the aesthetic) to give opinions on social, economic, environmental, and political concerns. This has to problems. The first one has to do with the relevance of artists’ opinion about subjects that are not their area of expertise. Unless we agree that just because they are artists they have a ‘hidden’ knowledge that the rest of us humans don’t have. Secondly, if we agree that they have something to say, the narrative must be clear and this is not always good for poetry.
In “Museu do Pau” (“The Museum of the Stick”) (2013–16), the Puerto Rican artist Michael Linares collects, nails, and suspends various objects that are literally composed of sticks or are stick-like, among them a skewer, bow-and-arrow, matches, markers, a spear, toothbrush, broom, and Catholic cross. The installation stresses human craft and our ancient use of wood, mixing objects continuously used throughout time. Jonathas de Andrade, a contemporary Brazilian artist who has been gaining international acclaim, similarly documents an old tradition, that of killing fish, which fishermen in the northeast of Brazil still practice: pulling the fish from the water with both hands, they hold the convulsing animal in an intimate, caring embrace, petting it until it dies, like putting a crying child to sleep. So what are we talking about here? Anthropoly or aestheticised anthropology? If the latter, we are back in the realm of the aesthetics that artist flamboyantly claim to have deserted.
There are also artists here who attempt to rescue or make visible a past that has been altogether obliterated, altered, or betrayed. In “Rota do tabaco” (2016), Dalton Paula visits cities in Brazil and Cuba with colonial histories in the tobacco industry and where many of the inhabitants are the descendants of African slaves. Paula registers the inheritance of this past in his ceramic plates, which are generally used for food or in Afro-Brazilian rituals, and paints black figures in white clothing going to school, playing music, and socializing. The bodies climb out from the depths of the bowls, which one needs to bend over to see, as their lives zoom into focus.
Nearby, the Portuguese, Berlin-based artist Grada Kilomba, tells a three-part story, using white text projected onto black screens, about the experience of being silenced and judged as a black woman. The sentences are broken, appear and disappear in fragments, stressing labels she’s been associated with: murderer, drug dealer; the adjectives used to describe “them” — “facts,” “knowledge,” — versus “us,” “subjective,” “experiences.” “Why do I write?” the question appears and slides off the screen like a passing reflection in dark waters, a beat thrumming in the background. Out of “obligation.”
The confusion here is between virtue and artistic value. Just because art probes to be virtuous or overlooked subject matter doesn’t make it good. There are, as critics outside of Brazil have also noted, works that bore and disappoint in their psychedelic or familiar spiritual attitudes, including two huts, one inhabited by sculptures and manifestoes associated with the idea of “being Brazilian” by Bené Fonteles and another by Pia Lindman that is intended to transmit the healing practices of a Finnish community from the European Middle Ages. The visitor is offered “a treatment focused on joints and bones” and because of that he or she might expect to undergo some kind of therapy in the mud hut, but instead he is confronted with an empty bamboo medical table and cluster of plants. This is not the first time an indigenous hut has been transplanted into the biennial space. In 1975, a man from the Aritana indigenous community along the Xingu River built a hut where, once inside, the visitor heard the daily sounds of the Xingu tribes. In fact, with so much talk of indigeneity this year, there is only one work that involves Brazilian indigenous artists, a 1986 project by Vídeo das Aldeias that trained indigenous filmmakers.
I was not the only one at the biennial left somewhat perplexed by these encounters. In Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas’s “Psychotropic House: Zooetics Pavilion of Ballardian Technologies” (2015–16), a man appeared to be fashioning a clay bowl in a plastic tent that warned, “Do not enter.” A label says that the artwork had something to do with mycology, as the objects were partly made from fungus. The idea is intriguing but difficult to read if not helped by a long text. In fact, many visitors asked the man directly about what is going on and the artist feels obliged to emerge and explain: “The idea is to make a live object.” I like the idea, but, I need the artists to make it explicit to me in a sentence. That is not good art because there is a basic lack of skill in or concern for storytelling.
When I asked Olascoaga what the local reception has been, she said that much of the local criticism “has to do more with a general discussion on the languages and practices of contemporary art rather than with a keen examination of the biennial’s proposals.” She continued, “There is a kind of claim to have more recognizable and stable plastic or formal languages of art.” Indeed, this is no longer the São Paulo biennial of Légers, Picassos, Pollocks, and Calders. Incerteza Viva serves as a message to these critics: Your way of perceiving the world and the responses to it is outdated and you need to get with the program which is the one that we are handing out to you. The problem is that by being cryptic and aesthetically unattractive, that program ends up only being relevant to the curators and a few artists. J A T