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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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© Copyright text: Alfons Hug, July 2004
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