Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art

26th São Paulo Biennial
25 September - 19 December 2004

São Paulo / 2004

Território Livre
By Alfons Hug, chief curator

Arthur Bispo do Rosário's now legendary installation Faixas de Misses was exhibited in the Brazilian pavilion at the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995. It consisted of 41 sashes and scepters of imaginary beauty queens from all over the world – from Brazil to Saudi Arabia – neatly lined up in rows. No hierarchy among the countries is either recognizable or intended.

Yet again, 55 countries from all continents have accepted our invitation to an event that is itself an allusion to Bispo's seminal work, bringing the best and most relevant of their present production to São Paulo. Most artists have created new work after preliminary visits to gain onsite knowledge concerning the building and the city. In virtually all cases there has been a gratifying exchange of views between the Bienal and the curators from the individual countries. Unlike Venice, where the participating nations are left to their own devices and manage their pavilions independently, in São Paulo there is a spatial interaction between the 55 artists of the "national representations" and the 80 artists invited directly by the Bienal. With a total of 135 artists, the Bienal de São Paulo remains one of the biggest international exhibitions. The 25th Bienal turned out to be the most highly attended exhibition of contemporary art in the world in 2002 with 670,000 visitors – even ahead of the Documenta in Kassel. This year there will again be a major, systematic program of guided tours to introduce contemporary art to a whole generation of pupils and students, including many from the poorer suburbs of São Paulo.

In order to emphasize the thematic unity of the overall exhibition, the invited artists and those representing the countries are mixed together on the 25,000 square meters of the spacious Oscar Niemeyer Pavilion, and not artificially separated as in past years. So, despite the complexity of individual voices, the end result will be a common concert.

As always the Bienal speaks in many idioms and, grammatically speaking, in two numbers: in the plural, because the countries have lined up different curators presenting an astonishing diversity of artistic positions from all over the world, and in the singular, because the curator of the Bienal also has an opportunity to make known his own subjective view of art within this worldwide context. The Bienal de São Paulo's traditional "special rooms," reserved for particularly high-profile artists, will again be part of the exhibition. As always, the biggest contingent of artists comes from Brazil: like all the countries it has an artist in the "national representations" segment, while another 19 Brazilians were integrated into the list of 80 invited artists from all over the world. The regions São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and "the rest of the country" are equally represented, each providing one-third of the invited Brazilian artists.

Historically, the two oldest international art biennials in the world, Venice and São Paulo, were founded on the format of national pavilions. Venice began with a handful of European countries in 1895, while São Paulo hit the ground running with 20 countries from three continents in 1951. These two cities are the only international art biennials that still adhere to this tried-and-tested format. Although it has occasionally been criticized in the past for being antiquated, today this national-representation format is as alive and productive as ever before – if not more so. Only the system of national representations makes outstanding large-scale projects possible – they would otherwise be beyond the reach of the Bienal for financial reasons alone. National representation also makes it possible to follow the artistic development of a given country on a continuous basis. This is especially important in the case of nations that have hitherto tended to be classified as peripheral and are not situated on the regular flight routes of curators and critics. That astonishing discoveries can frequently be made in this context was shown, for example, by the Bolivian contribution to the last Bienal de São Paulo, which became a major favorite with the public, or by the Luxembourg pavilion in Venice, which won the jury's Grand Prize.

The Documenta in Kassel, which was established in 1955 and has no national pavilions, completes the trio of the most important large-scale exhibitions that still serve as the metronomes of the international exhibition scene. Yet unlike São Paulo – which has always had a global focus, was truly international from the outset, and had more than 50 participating countries as early as the 1960s – it was not until relatively recently that Kassel and Venice began opening up to world art. For example, in both Kassel and Venice, artists from Africa were not shown until the 1990s. So the Bienal de São Paulo has always been a corrective to the Eurocentrism of Kassel and Venice. It was predestined for this task, being based in one of the largest and most pluricultural cities in the world, where European, African, indigenous and Asian elements mix and enter into productive relationships. Thus, in addition to an intensification of the North-South dialog, its aims include the promoting of links between the non-European cultures according to a South-South orientation.

In the case of the Bienal de São Paulo, "South" refers not only to geographical location, but also to the aspiration to make a redistribution of culture possible in the world. The 26th Bienal de São Paulo is therefore deeply committed to inviting countries that up to now have been outside the mainstream. This applies above all to Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Now that the hegemony of the Northern Hemisphere in the world of art has been broken, several key events have taken place in the industrialized countries that are worthy of note – in addition to positive endogenous factors that have evolved in the developing countries themselves. In the cases of New York, Paris and London, it was multiculturalism that opened things up to minority cultures. This also spread to other Western countries like Germany, which did not take note of art from the Third World until relatively late (i.e., from the mid-90s) – despite, or perhaps even because, of the Documenta. In France, which has always maintained close cultural relations with its former colonies, it was the epoch-making exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre (1989) that led to a re-assessment of so-called peripheral art.

The old metropolises may still be dominant in economics, but in the cultural sphere new centers have developed in various countries, from China to Brazil. In this way, art is correcting the geographers' "Mercator projection," which makes the industrialized countries of the northern hemisphere appear larger than they really are. Indeed, in recent years one can observe a certain universal weariness regarding the classic metropolises – and the finality and intransigence of their social and urban processes. New, unspent pictures are being sought.

In the meantime there are more than 50 art biennials worldwide, most of which were launched in the past 20 years – and, astonishingly, largely outside of Europe and North America. So the world of art has become multipolar for the first time and, thanks to the biennials, centers have been formed in places like Dakar, Cuenca, Sharjah and Gwangju, which were not marked on the maps of contemporary art a few years ago. The Other Modernities, to quote the title of an exhibition staged at the Berlin House of World Cultures in 1997, have come into their own. This has been not so much a process of political or economic globalization as an act of cultural emancipation by hitherto marginalized regions. As a result, contemporary art has become finally established as a global language – even if the centers of the art trade and art collecting remain in the industrialized countries of the north. The biennials have thus become the places where things perceived as irreconcilable are brought together from all directions. Within this lingua franca, modernity has developed regionally distinct visual "dialects" and sculptural varieties enabling certain works to be ascribed to a certain cultural area. Chinese art, for example, has developed a specific way of handling material that is full of originality and sculptural sensitivity – and is still noticeable even if the artists have been working abroad for several years. An equally strong local color, which should not be confused with exoticism, can be ascribed to African photography, new German painting and Brazilian sculpture. So there is absolutely no need for pessimism or warnings that regional peculiarities might be leveling off.

The international biennials have become serious competition for the Documenta to the extent that they have taken over the functions of searching for talent and scouting for new trends. Their faster, two-year rhythm means that they are more in tune with what is happening than the renowned exhibition in Kassel. The history of the biennials is therefore also the history of the de-provincialization of art in the second half of the 20th century. There is no longer a periphery in the classical sense of the word; new talent no longer remains hidden. The visual arts' high degree of abstraction and their nonverbal character facilitate transnational movements of works of art and their mutual exchange.

In this regard, the Bienal de São Paulo still has a central function for Brazil and South America, two regions of the world which, despite a considerable local production of good quality, still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to meeting demand for exhibitions of foreign contemporary art; because this demand is still not being satisfied by local museums and galleries. The Bienal has confronted several generations of Brazilian artists and critics with global developments and created a favorable environment for the entire art and cultural scene throughout Brazil. It is no surprise, therefore, that astonishing discoveries can repeatedly be made outside of the Rio de Janeiro/São Paulo axis, be it in the Northeast, in the South or in the Federal District of Brasília.

One dilemma that faces all biennials should not be ignored, however: the difficulty of making the selections. It is evident that São Paulo will always try to seek out the latest trends in Brazil or South America, in exactly the same way as the European biennials will strive to present the latest from their continent. But should São Paulo only show the European "cutting edge" and run the risk of omitting an entire older generation that is not yet known in Brazil? And conversely, is Venice expected to show the youngest art of South America, or, on the other hand, the positions that have already received the stamp of approval? The answer will have to be pragmatic and will probably consist of a well-thought-out mixture of the well-established and the new.

Sculpture Park - Salon of Painting - Planetarium of Videos

The Bienal Building itself - a cosmopolitan icon of modern architecture made of concrete, steel and glass that also embodies the city's industrial heritage - automatically places each work of art into a context of modernity and offers perfect conditions for presenting and appreciating contemporary art over an area measuring the equivalent of six soccer pitches. It is probably the most beautiful of all the world's biennial buildings, not least because of its airy vault and its projecting ramp that cuts, baroque-like, through all three floors in irresistible spirals. The building is bathed in natural light from all sides, light that is filtered by the surrounding park, giving it a slight hint of green. The incidence of light changes with the time of day, producing an ever renewed dramaturgy of light in the pavilion that has the magic intensity typical of the outer tropics. This creates ideal exhibition conditions, especially for painting and photography, but also for sculpture and installations.

The curator and architect of the 26th Bienal therefore devoted special attention to the allocation of space. Conceptual, aesthetic and technical criteria were taken into account. The point of departure for all the ideas was the architecture of the building itself, which suggests a spatial grouping of media. The spacious ground floor, with a ceiling height of over seven meters and panoramic view of Ibirapuera Park, is particularly suitable for a sculpture park with large, free-standing three-dimensional works. The first half of the second floor offers ideal conditions for a salon of painting, thanks to the favorable light that comes in from the east and west and, diffusely, from above and below. The second, darker half of this middle floor is perfect for a "multiplex" of video installations, a planetarium in which viewers can lose themselves, undisturbed, in the cosmos of digitally generated pictures.

This arrangement not only helps the visitors to keep their bearings, but also makes it easier to reach a critical mass within each medium. Various gravitational centers with their respective specific aesthetic "temperatures" thus develop in the building. Crescendi and diminuendi alternate abruptly.

The weight and down-to-earthness of the sculptures on the ground floor is offset by the ethereal lightness in the salon of painting. In the central vault, sculptures by Artur Barrio, Cai Guo Quiang and David Batchelor strive upward through the space of all three floors, strengthening a feeling of cohesion between the individual parts of the exhibition. This vertical axis leads from the ruins of the earth to the elegant salon of painterly refinement, and finally to the airy heights of artificially created images.

In this setting, who is not reminded of a Brazilian Baroque city with all its contradictions? Niemeyer's elegant ramp quotes the grandiosely curved lines of Aleijadinho's São Francisco de Assis Chapel, while young Brazilian sculptors allude to the decline by way of precarious installations, for example in the form of the ramshackle Casa da Baronesa in Ouro Preto. The fragment was always the noblest material of Baroque creation. "Allegory is in the realm of thought what ruins are in the realm of things. Hence the Baroque veneration of the ruin." wrote Walter Benjamin in "Allegory and Tragedy".

Photography, which allows cross-references to painting, sculpture and video, forms a central connecting link between the other three techniques and runs like a thread through the entire exhibition. On the second floor it creates a fluid transition from painting to video. It is again photography that reveals surprising parallels in the choice of subject between artists from very different cultural regions, such as Alec Soth (USA), Zwelethu Mthetwa (South Africa), Simryn Gill (Australia) and Veronika Zapletalova (Czech Republic).

The dialogue between the Bienal and São Paulo

The designers of the exhibition did their best to avoid blocking the glass façades, thus ensuring visitors an open view of the São Paulo skyline and enabling a dialogue between the works of art and the city itself. Indeed, historically speaking, the Bienal and city are inseparable. They are mutually dependent - and very closely connected with the biggest modernization project that the South American continent has ever seen. Their growth followed the same rhythm; they both generated the same energy and were occasionally the victims of the same crises. In architecture, too, the city seems to have copied some of the distortions and uncertainties that originated in the art of the last few decades. Even today, the city of São Paulo still creates the impression of being a temporary exhibition, or, to phrase it better, a huge showroom with all kinds of provisional exhibits - menaced, as it were, by the hovering bronze wedge from Joseph Beuys's legendary installation Lightning with a Stag in its Glare (20th Bienal), like Kafka's giant fist over the Tower of Babel. It is certainly no coincidence that Brazilian art, whose strength has for many years lain in three-dimensional works, has repeatedly placed obstacles in the way of the city in the form of sculptures and installations, as a final warning against unbridled excursions into the unknown. They use durable material to counteract the city's feverish, volatile youthfulness with its soon-expired "use-by" date.

However, in excursions into the hinterland the artists have stubbornly insisted that, behind the high-rise buildings of São Paulo, there is also an expansive landscape that follows a more leisurely pace. Rural isolation, ecological intactness and slowing down are symbolized by Artur Barrio's Jangada from Brazil's Northeast, Ieda de Oliveira's confessional, or Huang Yong Ping's monumental safari elephant.

Overall, many of the exhibited works show a healthy skepticism toward the industrial society and the digital world. Doubts relating to technology and its promises are spreading. The preferred materials of many sculptors are therefore "old, rotten wood" - a translation of the indigenous word ibirapuera - and humble objects of all kinds which are processed using simple craft methods without a lot of sophisticated technical equipment. This aesthetics of the precarious also crops up in the subject matter of many photographers. So it is not surprising that the drawing is also making a comeback; after all, in its modesty and aspiration to incompleteness drawing is the anti-high-tech medium par excellence. These observations relate to artists from both the First and the Third World.

Humboldt in the jungle hut

The myth of a legendary golden country called El Dorado has lingered in people's minds ever since the Europeans arrived in South America. It was thought to be situated in the broad plains between the eastern slopes of the Andes and the jungles of the Orinoco and the Amazon. Conquistadores from all over the world took part in the search for this fairy-tale place, where all buildings were made of pure gold and the children played with jewels.

In his famous letter to the Spanish Royal Court [Carta a los Reyes Católicos], which describes the admiral's third journey in 1498, Columbus had called the north-east of South America the "Land of Grace" where heaven on earth must be situated. The fact that El Dorado was also regarded as the home of the Amazons only made the fabled land more mysterious.

In the mid-19th century, Eduard Ender painted his Humboldt and Bonpland in Their Jungle Hut in the tradition of German Romanticism. Ender's painting shows two self-assured researchers studying the natural history of the tropics with a rather strange collection of instruments, as though nature were forever controllable and understandable. In this painting, the Europeans' encounter with the New World seems harmonious, nothing spoils the idyll of the Orinoco landscape.

Ever since Alexander von Humboldt traveled the continent with his instruments 200 years ago and founded the modern sciences, European models - and later those of North America - have been imported time and again, and this ultimately led to unfortunate forms of dependence in many areas. Whether they were based on socialism or neo-liberalism, the ideas of the Chicago Boys or theories of the London School of Economics, the many imported systems were rarely successful.

It therefore seems more promising to attempt an aesthetically justified rediscovery and re-invention of America via the arts, since the arts can give the continent a face of its own. The Bienal de São Paulo and its younger sister in Porto Alegre have a central role to play in this respect. Perhaps the unity of America can be achieved faster and easier through culture than via political and economic processes.

Art has the potential to become a modern Nheengatu, that amalgam of Portuguese and indigenous languages that served as a lingua franca during the colonial period and still lives today as a "lingua geral" in rural areas of Brazil.

The no-man's-land of art

The theme of the 26th Bienal was chosen to enable a wide range of artistic positions to feel comfortable. The concept of no-man's-land involves various dimensions: it has a physical-geographical, a socio-political as well as an aesthetic dimension - the latter, of course, being of greatest interest to us in the context of this exhibition.

The no-man's-land of aesthetics begins where the normal world ends. It describes the space in which reality and imagination are in conflict with each another. Artists are the border guards of a realm that lies beyond the administered world, where politics and economics have no more jurisdiction over interpretation. While the whole world is constantly arguing about what belongs to whom, art clarifies the ownership issue in its own way: in the realm of aesthetics nothing belongs to anyone, and everything to everyone.

What interests us now in the context of the Bienal is how the devastations of the real world and interpersonal relations are reflected in art. Since works of art are more than bare facts, an artistic condensing of phenomena of reality will always be more ambiguous and more complex than simple reporting. This rule even applies if the artist uses photography and video, i.e., two media regarded as being very close to reality. Although artists are embedded into conflicts, they do not copy the world, but create free spaces within reality. With the help of metaphors and symbols they transform the earthly raw material into a new condition that can be experienced by the senses. The work of art reveals the other; it is allegory. Art exists outside of causality and must not be imprisoned in the iron casing of mundane constraints. The purpose of a Bienal cannot, therefore, be to exhibit convictions.

The multiplicity of documentary strategies that has been observed at major international exhibitions over the last few years suggests that confidence in the power of aesthetics is dwindling. Confronted with the precarious state of the world and the urgency of its problems, artists and curators appear to be seeking their salvation in scientific analysis, reportage and discursive treatises on reality, flagrantly underestimating the possibilities of aesthetic processes.

Artists create a power-free zone, a world that runs contrary to the existing world: a land of emptiness, of silence and respite, where the frenzy that surrounds us is brought to a standstill for a moment. But it is also a land of enigmas, where the flood of images surging in on us from the breeding grounds of kitsch are encrypted. By breaking through the barriers of the material world, the artist becomes a smuggler of images between cultures.

The Bienal as an extraterritorial zone

There has never been a lack of attempts to colonize no-man's-land in Brazil. We simply have to remind ourselves of the founding of Brasília, and before that, a good fifty years ago, of the Bienal de São Paulo. Both are natural allies, as they were created by the same enlightened spirit, and share the call to change. Each was conceived as a quarry of new images, and together they have smoothed the country's path towards modernism.

The Bienal de São Paulo is an extraterritorial zone where artists erect their utopian settlements. It is a sanctuary where the streams of goods run dry and political strategies are to no avail. The Bienal sees itself as a place for retreat where critical mass and positive energy can be concentrated and combined to create basic formulas for transforming society and conjuring up premonitions of future forms of human social life. Each generation of artists is called upon to make a new survey of this no-man's-land and to draft its contours.

The arts are unique in that they possess a universal reservoir of signs and archetypes which, through exchange, mobilize the collective memory of mankind. If the artist is an image smuggler, therefore, the Bienal can act as an emporium in the realm of aesthetics, where curiosity and the desire to discover suffice as a passport, and an alert mind serves as the entrance ticket to a place where priceless goods are traded yet no customs duties are levied.

Don Quixote's will

"Y si algo sobrare..." ["and should anything be left over…"]: with this laconic phase ends the will and testament of Don Quixote, who had little to bequeath at the end of a life that had been so rich in adventures. In economics, too, there rarely seems to be anything left over: debts, the minimum wage, mandatory monthly expenditures for workers' food baskets, interest and installment payments - taken all together these mean that there is never enough. Modern societies, both in the developed and in the underdeveloped world, try to win this eternal zero-sum game by forever developing new instruments, charts and indices to measure and control the economy, and by hiring ever-growing armies of so-called analysts. The market appears like a veritable Minotaur, threatening to devour not seven virgins as in antiquity, but the entire society.

Small wonder that in Brazil, too, the economy dominates the agenda, and all other areas of society are banished to the back burner. Spiritual concerns weigh little on the scales of economics. In view of this "cargo cult" (a religion that originated in the Second World War, when food parachuted by the American troops to their soldiers in the Pacific islands was regarded by the native Melanesian population as a gift of God), the call is growing ever louder for art, that classical form of anti-economics which annuls the primacy of the financial markets for a precious instant and ends the dance around the golden calf.

Art, in its "uselessness" (which certainly does not mean that it is redundant), creates a cultural value-added which cannot be registered by statistics, however sophisticated they might be. Although its material value is insignificant, its nonmaterial value is enormous. In times when everything is expected to have a purpose and a use, art sparkles with "pure uninterested pleasure" (Kant).

Art represents what cannot be bought or sold and is therefore synonymous with the absence of economics. According to T. Adorno, anything that has a function is replaceable: the only things that are irreplaceable are those that are good for nothing. Art thus produces an aesthetic surplus that compensates for the permanent economic deficit.

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© Copyright text: Alfons Hug, July 2004

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São Paulo / 2004