Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art

26th São Paulo Biennial
25 September - 19 December 2004

São Paulo / 2004

Território Livre (theme of the Biennial)
By Alfons Hug, chief curator

The theme of the 26th Bienal de São Paulo was chosen to enable a wide range of artistic positions to feel comfortable. The concept of "Território Livre" (Free territory) 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 territory 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 everything belongs to everyone.

What interests us 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.

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.

55 countries from all continents have accepted our invitation to bring 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. 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. 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. So, despite the complexity of individual voices, the end result will be a common concert.

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.

In addition to an intensification of the North-South dialog, the Bienal´s aims include the promoting of links between non-European cultures along a South-South orientation. It is 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.

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 four soccer pitches.Its airy vault and its projecting ramp that cuts, baroque-like, through all three floors in irresistible spirals make it a privileged venue.

Special attention was therefore devoted to the allocation of space. Conceptual, aesthetic and technical criteria were taken into account. The point of departure 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.

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.

The Bienal as an extraterritorial zone

There has never been a lack of attempts to create free territories 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 modernity.

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.

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© Copyright text: Alfons Hug, July 2004

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São Paulo / 2004