Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art

26th São Paulo Biennial
25 September - 19 December 2004

São Paulo / 2004

Image Smugglers
By Alfons Hug, chief curator

Set in the deserts of the Persian Gulf, Shirin Neshat’s video Passage focuses on the state of limbo between life and death that can only be comprehended by art and religion. This no-man’s-land, where time and space become one, appears as a blank patch on the map. On the one hand it lies beyond the reach of the conquered world, on the other, it is like a spiritual force field that radiates beyond life. With this burial ritual, full of bewitching beauty, the Iranian artist celebrates a great moment of loss, but also of redemption.

The concept of no-man´s land is of military origin and describes a disputed area between two fronts. The no-man’s-land referred to here has three dimensions, namely, physical-geographical, socio-political, and finally an aesthetic dimension which is, of course, the one that is of most interest to us in the context of our exhibition. The first denotes not only mythical, uninhabited natural spaces such as mountain ranges, primeval forests and deserts, but also wastelands and abandoned zones in our big cities – as well as all kinds of areas that are difficult to define or highly disputed: war zones, refugee camps, pirate radio stations, tax havens, letterbox firms, off-shore abortion clinics and smuggling routes in border regions.

Eighty percent of the city of Caracas is illegally inhabited, and seventy percent of Venezuelan children are born out of wedlock. Entire districts of Rio de Janeiro are extraterritorial zones cut off from state jurisdiction. Curiously, the same applies to many prisons. The population of most mega-cities is not known even to their mayors, and city maps, if they exist at all, are outdated within a year. In the struggle to survive in the metropolises, curious sociotopes develop in the most unlikely places: in deserted high-rise buildings or beneath freeway bridges where, in São Paulo for instance, craftsmen have settled in semi-nomadic conditions. These unstable zones are characterized on the one hand by poverty and exclusion, on the other by an astonishing degree of productivity and creativity.

On the socio-political level, no-man’s-land means that in many Third World countries the so-called informal sector comprises over half the working population, but also that the so-called globalization is fed by invisible financial sources and the locationless Internet. At the same time, entire continents, such as Africa, are being cut adrift from the rest of the world and left to their fate. The term no-man’s-land also applies to the bankrupt social systems and murky political conditions that hold sway in many parts of the world. In the meantime, human relationships have become increasingly deregulated and vague, often to the point of desolation. Even language has wandered off into a cultural no-man’s-land, which seems like an impoverishment to some, an enrichment to others. The cacophony of the mass media engenders speechlessness, and the visual inundation results in a dearth of images.

The lack of points of contact between different civilizations leads to a dangerous vacuum. In this way cultural differences, which could in fact be productive, become absolute and irreconcilable. Can Brazil, whose population embraces 143 different shades of skin color according to a recent survey, serve as a positive model here?

Art as a power-free zone

The no-man’s-land of aesthetics begins where the normal world ends. It designates the area in which reality and imagination are in conflict with each other. Artists are border guards of a realm that lies beyond the administered world, where the power of interpretation is no longer a sovereign right of politicians or economic gurus. While the whole world is constantly arguing over what belongs to whom, art clarifies the ownership question in its own way: in the realm of aesthetics everything belongs to everyone.

What interests us in the context of the Bienal is whether and how the forms of no-man’s-land described above, specifically, 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 (to use an expression from recent war reporting), 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. Art exists outside of causality and must not be imprisoned in the iron casing of mundane constraints. The purpose of a biennial cannot, therefore, be to exhibit convictions.

Every successful work of art tells a second story in addition to what it portrays, and behind every artist stands a second, unknown author. It was the latter principle that led the rock musician Keith Richards, when listening to a solo recording by Robert Johnson, the legendary blues genius, to ask the famous question: "But who is the other one?"

The multiplicity of documentary strategies that has been observed even at major international exhibitions over the last few years suggests that confidence in the power of aesthetics is dwindling. This also seems to be the case in literature, by the way, where journalistic works, biographies and guides have displaced fiction. 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. The colonies of art are places of seclusion and islands of resistance in a sea of uniformity. Art reveals those inner layers of the world that remain hidden to the superficial gaze of politics and sociology. There is a great deal to say in favour of the assertion that art has taken the place of philosophy as the interpreter of the world.

Artists create a power-free zone, a world that runs contrary to the existing one: 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.

Art knows no hierarchy. The question of what is old or new, peripheral or central, modern or primitive, is posed in a way entirely different to that of economics. Art eludes the calculating ways and the hysteria of modern society. While industry continues to furnish the world, the prime task of contemporary art is to purify it.

Abstraction plays a privileged role in this context. It avoids the garrulousness of the modern world and creates a sublime counterpoint. These refuges of art, which enable the imagination to extend beyond the everyday sphere, are in fact the corrective to the all-consuming maelstrom of the urban drama. The no-man’s-land of abstraction frees the world of all its ballast and makes a purified new beginning possible. In the realm of abstraction, says Kandinsky, every form is a citizen with equal rights. Although art does not necessarily make us better human beings, writes Harold Bloom in an essay on Shakespeare, it does help us to put up with ourselves and our loneliness more easily. Art generates the desire to be someone else and to travel along a timeline to inaccessible places.

The War of Pictures

The task of interpreting the world, and particularly its transformation into pictures, attracts other, competing media into the arena in addition to art: first and foremost the picture machines of the mass media and design. The world is being inundated by a never-ending flood of commercial cliché pictures, without becoming any easier to understand as a result. Mass media and design generate ideas and concepts that do not question real conditions or their values, but confirm and continue them. They produce shallow pictures, whereas art creates deep, heavy, complex ones.

Design operates on the assumption that something can ever be finished and completed. Art, by contrast, assumes that nothing is ever finished. Design behaves in an affirmative way vis-à-vis society, while art is subversive. Design asserts, art asks. Design excitedly brandishes its claim to be fashionable; art is self-sufficient and allows itself differences from the idealized picture of the life offered to us, for instance, by advertising. Whereas the latter wants a convincing photographic image of the present, art produces a picture of the future. Fundamentally it is the precise opposite of art.

Hans Belting writes on this subject: "Classical modern painting was sometimes only able to enforce its radiant autonomy by driving out the pictures, in order to cleanse its temple. It preferred to leave the pictures, which were infected by the world, to other media. Painting, as the representative of art, and pictures, as records of the world, declared war on each other." [1]

A gun shot in the middle of a concert

We need not go as far as Stendhal, who said that politics, when it penetrates the realm of the imagination, is like a gun shot in the middle of a concert. Even so, expecting art to directly change reality is simultaneously expecting too much and too little of it: too much, because it cannot prevent a war – it can at best ease the war raging in our own breasts – and too little, because it can do much more than that: it can establish a humane counter-world to an inhumane present. Although every aesthetic experience, and the catharsis that results from it, is something eminently subjective, in specific cases the transformation of the individual can almost be measured empirically. Ultimately, art is more radical than politics, because it reaches into the spiritual levels of the individual, where the real transformation of human society takes place.

Art stands above day-to-day events and has something fundamental to say to them precisely for this reason. A world which has become similar to hell and in which weltschmerz has become deeply ingrained cannot be depicted by art as hell, because it would then lose its essential function of standing firm, of being the counter-model. In a successful work of art the unresolved antagonisms of the world appear at a distance from reality. The artist creates something different, something that is not identical to society, while nevertheless referring to it. In this “disarrangement of the normal" (Heidegger), the accustomed references to the world and to the earth are transformed in such a way that a new truth opens up in the work. Goethe already noted that "there is no more reliable way of retreating from the world than through art, and there is no more certain way of combining with it than through art." [2]

In the last few years art has become overloaded with day-to-day politics. Artists and their audiences are called upon to alleviate the adversities of reality on an ad-hoc basis. Tried-and-tested visual and sculptural strategies are suppressed in favor of pretentious sociological discourses. Exhibitions frequently show not pictures, but politically correct attitudes. As a result, art at best becomes redundant and at worst is degraded to political kitsch. On the one hand, it repeats scenes already seen elsewhere (for example in reports and documentaries); on the other, people preach to the converted, to an audience who are already convinced of the just cause and may regard themselves as members of a small circle of enlightened people. At the same time, those who are not yet initiated turn away disappointed, since they are looking in vain for an enigma that other, more banal pictures cannot supply, but which is always justifiably expected from art. Nobody in his right mind would accuse Monet, one of the pioneers of modernity, of frivolity, because he undauntedly kept on painting water lilies before, during and after the 1st world war.

Basically there are still two rival conceptions of art today which can be followed through the entire 20th century and whose most prominent representatives were Benjamin and Adorno. The former represented an avant-garde aimed at using the potential of committed art to revolutionize everyday life; Adorno, by contrast, insisted on the autonomy of the work of art and its mysteriousness. He rejected any functionalization of art, because this would involve art giving up its transcendence, it would "descend beneath its concept." Indeed, it would become "de-arted." In Adorno's idealistic aesthetics, the observer encounters the work of art with a contemplative attitude, in order to be able to cross over into a different world. After the loss of validity by religions, metaphysical needs survive in modern art.

The paradise just round the corner

Because of their enigmatic character, works of art force us to continuously re-interpret and reflect, ultimately also with the objective of getting closer to the truth. Because the work of art cannot be unequivocally classified, it is a thorn in the flesh of the administered world, which would like to direct everything. This is basically where art's political function lies. More than that: by offering an abundance of complex world-views and interpretations – often enough contradictory ones – art tempts the viewer to make a statement, a judgment, to be stubborn and critical. As Friedrich Schiller said as early as 1795: "There is no other way of making the sensitive human being reasonable than by previously making him aesthetic." [3]

Every aesthetic experience is a deeply subjective process which strengthens the individual, and this in turn is a central precondition of democratic and modern societies. The social assignment is inherent in art; it does not need to be told to do it. Art does not lie down in beds that have been prepared for it, to quote Jean Dubuffet. And, as Hegel would add, even where there is nothing good to be done, art will at least always do a better job of taking evil´s place than evil itself.

The fact that visual art has a more radical concept of material than all other forms of art makes it extremely explosive in the way it deals with the world and its re-invention. As a non-verbal medium it is furthermore particularly suitable for intercultural exchange. Since the theory of modernity was developed particularly early and profoundly in the visual arts, the latter still form an important point of reference to this day, also for the other forms of art.

One reason why art is emancipatory and represents an attack on reality, therefore, is that it arouses a longing for a power-free condition, albeit without wanting to explicitly name the latter or depict it as a picture. It is the "paradise just round the corner" to paraphrase the title of the most recent novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, who wandered in Paul Gauguin's footsteps in the South Seas. As we know, the painter had sought inspiration in Tahiti, because art had lost its vitality in Europe, where it was controlled and manipulated by a clique of critics and gallery owners.

It is due to this utopian idea that, as Boris Groys put it, the briefest visit to the worst museum in the world is a thousand times more interesting than anything you get to see during your long life in so-called reality. Goethe's Faust also experienced the infinite in the library, only to lose it later in real life.

The devil is not as ugly as he is painted
(Brazilian proverb)

In his critique of aesthetic judgement, Immanuel Kant attempts a rating of the arts. He puts poetry in first place, since it owes its creation almost completely to genius and is least governed by regulations. Music comes second due to its characteristic "movement of the soul." Next he places fine arts, within which painting is valued most highly since it penetrates more than other arts into the region of ideas and also expands one's field of vision.

The long arm of Immanuel Kant also seems to be giving valuable assistance to the painters of today. For, after decades of banishment, they are now returning to the elite of the fine arts. Artur Barrio, laconic as always, scribbled the following on the wall in one of his last installations: "Who determines the end of painting is Cezanne and not M. Duchamp."

Since the 1970s, painting had become a victim of superficial politicisation, which connected the canvas with the dominance of male genius from Michelangelo to Picasso and found more suitable, neutral image-carriers in new media such as video, which also had the supposed advantage of being able to transport social and political messages more easily. Has nonpolitical behavior therefore returned to art with painting?

"We have not yet quite grown accustomed to a form of painting that is again openly just painting, without submitting to that program we usually rather thoughtlessly call ART. The "art of painting" already existed long before ART arrived on the scene in its abstract dignity, and that is why it is coming back today, now that ART is losing part of its monopoly. There must be no lies in art, only truth, even though it is one big fiction itself, or at least an uncertain idea. It would be a tough accusation to talk of lies in art; in painting, however, it would be a subtle description, for it has at its disposal beautiful and old lies, if we may use such a term to describe its well-established mise-en-scene of perception, for which we wait like a curious theatre audience. We perceive the world not only in painting. But in painting we are in conversation as a person with another person, who is the director behind the perception. This mute dialogue makes painting full of relish and mystery. Painting makes truths easier for us by dressing them up in "transparent" lies. It uses lies with which one can say truths." [4]

Nothing but unknown masterpieces

In his studio at 311 Rua Cândido Lacerda, in Recife, Paulo Bruscky has compiled an impressive history of art and the world covering the last 40 years: classics of belles lettres, scientific writings, discourses on aesthetics, treatises. Mountains of newspaper cuttings pile up on the floor, plus letters from colleagues of the Fluxus movement, objects and small sculptures. Neatly numbered files with the initials of the most important art countries contain Bruscky's correspondence with the world of art; it is almost comparable with the Bienal de São Paulo's archive. Recife as the hub of the universe, and the artist a scientist, as in Johannes Vermeeer's "Geographer" of 1669. A library as a bulwark against the world? Or is Bruscky's passion for collecting perhaps also a mute plea to young artists to study, to investigate, to fathom out theories, in short to educate themselves?

Ignored in a corner of the untidy studio lie a dusty easel and several pallets with dried-up blobs of paint. The painter's tools seem strangely out of place in view of the supremacy of the books, objects and concepts. A symbol of the crisis of painting that has been evoked time and again over the last few years. What can painted images still tell us in view of the complexity of the world and the wealth of new media, including Bruscky's Fax and Mail Art?

All the imaginary pictures that have not been painted during the last generation are buried under a mass of paper in Bruscky's treasure trove: nothing but unknown masterpieces, to use Balzac's words. Bruscky's studio personifies two competing models of a philosophy of life. One collects, preserves, sifts through documents, proceeding almost scientifically. The other – the one painted with the brush – separates itself from the torrent of information and creates a new, parallel, sometimes even a contrary world. Whereas the first method has an all-embracing claim on the interpretation of the world and therefore runs the risk of becoming dogmatic, for the second it is enough to record a fleeting instant in the intricate network of human encounters and brighten the shadow that has covered the world.

Painting aims at the full diversity of possible ways of understanding, while science strives to reduce them. Works of art can be open and ambiguous, a scientific study cannot. For this reason, good art will continue to be bad science – and vice versa.

The Bienal will reconstruct Bruscky's studio down to the last detail in São Paulo; in addition to its conceptual value, it also possesses a sculpture-like attraction and a certain melancholy poetry. Furthermore, it moves his hodgepodge of nostalgia to one side for a moment and airs all those imaginary pictures which he and his artist colleagues were unable to paint, indeed not allowed to paint, over the last few years. More than ever before, the art of today is again concerned with the power of creating pictures and less with the ability to collect data. We need have no hesitation in leaving that task to the scientists, those chroniclers of the inadequacy of the real world. The mystery of painting lies in the fact that a tiny brushstroke tears up the veil of the ordinary and brings to light a new world whose mysteries cannot be solved by mathematicians' statistics. "The tiny gap that exists between the picture itself and what it means is the source of my painting" (Luc Tuymans) [5]. Every painting, therefore, also has to do with the piece of no man's land that lies where the real world ends and the canvas begins.

Dammi i Colori

In the first act of Puccini's opera "Tosca", the protagonist Mario Cavaradossi paints the portrait of a blonde aristocratic woman. Suddenly he stops, pulls a medallion containing the picture of his beloved Tosca out of his waistcoat pocket, and lets his eyes wander several times between the miniature and the painting, which in some mysterious way unites the beauty of the two women. The coexistence of the female rivals, which in real life would lead to conflicts, can only be achieved peacefully by means of art, which often enough unites the irreconcilable and lets things that are absent be present.

Only Tosca's jealousy persuades Cavaradossi to paint over the rival's blue eyes with black paint to make the ambivalent portrait look more like her, Tosca. The picture's "hidden harmony" – also the title of Cavaradossi's famous aria – is disturbed. The painter has the power to either create or ruin constancy by tiny interventions, to conjure up or destroy beauty.

It should not be said that beauty has long-since taken itself off to the fashion salons and is no longer a criterion in modern art. One of the masters of contemporary painting, Gerhard Richter, insists on painting beautiful pictures, even if this "old-fashionable" attitude disappoints some critics who would prefer to see more violent scenes. Richter likes to point out that, in his case, painting begins with a mental picture which, he says, he rarely reaches in the execution of his work. On the road to this "model" (Vorbild) he then systematically eliminates the more obvious, banal details and clichés.

Abstraction in painting thus consists in this erasing of unnecessary things, and this applies to both figurative and abstract pictures, it should be noted. It also describes the difference between painting and photography. Paradoxically, photography produces impure pictures compared to painting, which creates pure pictures, because, in the case of a photograph, small technical errors or unintended, coincidental irregularities always creep in. Hence, the purity of a painting consists precisely in the loss of details and the decision to avoid overloading. Luc Tuymans likes to tell the following anecdote in this context: at the opening of an exhibition in Brussels in 1940, Constant Permeke was criticized by a lady who said that his paintings were "somewhat empty," whereupon he borrowed her lipstick and drew a few paratroopers falling from the sky into one of his pictures. Voilà, 2 days later his country was at war.

Why is painting, which is also prominently represented at the Biennial, today yet again experiencing a rebirth? Why has it made up ground in the eternal dispute of the "paragons," the hierarchy of the arts so popular during the Renaissance? Certainly there is a demand for its special aura that makes things that are close look distant, and things distant look close. Certainly the critical tussle with the zeitgeist and lifestyle, as propagated by the mass media and advertising, plays a role, and it certainly has something to do with singularity and authentic craftsmanship in view of an avalanche of technically reproduced media. The static pictures of painting have an anchor effect in a flood of mobile, manipulable pictures that nobody trusts any more. The quiet pictures, which invite one to observe undisturbed, oppose the noise and the overstimulation of the commercial world.

The principal reason, however, is probably the fact that painting does not behave in a mimetic way toward reality, but annuls the laws of reality to makes the things of the world appear in a prototypical and symbolically heightened form. The painter is still hunting for an ideal picture of humanity and the world that we have had in our minds since primeval times.


1. Hans Belting, Über Lügen und andere Wahrheiten der Malerei ("On Lies and other Truths in Painting", catalog on Sigmar Polke, p. 131, Bonn 1997.

2. J.W. Goethe, Schriften zur Kunst ("Writings on Art"), 1822. In Goethes Werke ("Goethe's Works"), volume XII, p. 469. Hamburg 1953

3. Friedrich Schiller, Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen ("On the Aesthetic Education of Mankind") (1795). In Schillers Werke ("Schiller's Works"), volume 4. Frankfurt 1966

4. Hans Belting, Über Lügen und andere Wahrheiten der Malerei, loc cit, p. 129, Bonn 1997.

5. Jan Thorn-Prikker, Luc Tuymans: Renaissance der Malerei ("Renaissance of Painting"), Kulturchronik no. 3. Bonn 2003

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© Copyright text: Alfons Hug, July 2004

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São Paulo / 2004