São Paulo Biennale captures a perpetually discontinuous world

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SÃO PAULO – How to capture a perpetually discontinuous world was clearly in the minds of the curators of the 34th São Paulo Biennale. The event opened last September, after a year of delay and a small prequel in November 2020. Since its creation in 1951, the biennial has resisted military juntas and has been faced with boycotts of its curation and reviews for pay-per-view shows, as well as calls for more social responsibility. , especially now that right-wing populism and its backlash against civil liberties is on the rise again. It is therefore not surprising that this year’s biennial has highlighted the discontinuity but also the historical recurrence.

When, inspired by the poetics of Édouard Glissant’s relationship, the curators – Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, Francesco Stocchi, Paulo Miyada, Ruth Estévez and artist Carla Zaccagnini – expressed during the press conference their wish that the works reverberate against each other, the idea seemed quite obvious. It was only when I was physically in space that I was able to appreciate this concept. In addition to works that have the theme of disruption and repetition, such as the apocalyptic monologue by Norwegian artist Mette Edvardsen, the quirky steps of retired ballerinas designed by Danish artist Nina Beier, or the spellbinding experimental film in 35mm by Austrian artist. Philipp Fleischmann – the same artists have resurfaced in different sections of the vast Modernist pavilion, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, creating multiple affinities.

View of Meteorito Santa Luzia and view of the installation of Boca do inferno by Carmela Gross (© Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)

Carmela Gross hell mouth (2020), a series of smoky drawings on silk and paper, opened the exhibition alongside two artefacts that survived the 2018 fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, called ‘statements’ in the Biennale: a meteor and an amethyst that have changed color. (Other “statements,” ranging from objects to mentions of historical figures, were strategically placed throughout the Biennale.) Next to these “statement” stones, the volcanic evanescence of Gross’s work suggested threat but also drama and gravity through repetition. On the same floor, Gross’s urban interventions of the 1960s addressed more directly to today’s troubled times, especially when paired with letters from Hélio Oiticica, in which the Brazilian artist mourned the murdered. by the military junta.

The pairings have often emphasized the idea that art drinks from multiple sources, sometimes at the same time. The delicate clay reliefs by Romanian artist Anna-Bella Papp have channeled ancient art but also socialist realism. Some connections were transient, such as Papp’s closeness to Brazilian painter Eleonore Koch, with her dreamy maritime classicism, or Koch’s twilight-infused blues and ochres rhyming with the autumnal palettes of tapestries by Israeli choreographer and artist Noa Eshkol.

Daiara Tukano, installation view Dabacuri in the sky (© Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)

When the reverberations ran deeper, they revealed the divergent roots of Modernism, as happened when Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes were placed alongside folk paintings by Cypriot artist Christoforos Savva. Likewise, the association of Lygia Pape’s totem sculptures with sacred birds based on the geometry of the indigenous Brazilian painter Daiara Tukano made it clear that the Brazilian art of concrete and neo-concrete reorganized abstraction in part by important motifs of Native American civilizations.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, “Which Comes First (The Insects or the Humans)” (2004), mixed media on canvas, 183 x 122 cm. Private collection (courtesy of the artist and the Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)

Indigenous artists Jaider Esbell (Brazil) and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (US) have drawn attention not only for their depiction of animals imbued with a strange spiritual force, but also for their striking figuration and robust coloring. Based on the Abakuá religion, Cuban artist Belkis Ayón’s dark engravings bewitched, much like medieval sacred altars, conveying a sense of still ecstasy. This sense has also fueled the photographs of ruined Buddhist statues by Korean artist Jungjin Lee and candomble rituals by French photographer Pierre Verger.

the short film by EB Itso, Carl August Lorentzen’s Escape (2014), in which the Danish artist reconstructed the escape of an infamous burglar, initially felt out of step with the Glissantian ethos, but on reflection turned out to be an apt metaphor for challenge and subterfuge in adversity. Alongside this, Claude Cahun’s non-gender self-portraits and Deana Lawson’s dramatic photographs of black models reiterated the strength of inventive stylization; a similar force emanates in another section, from the dramatic self-portraits of indigenous Brazilian artist and drag queen Uyrá.

Cahun has also proven to be an inspired companion for Indian experimental host Nalini Malani, whose 16mm film Onanism (1969) tense bodies in sexual trances, and Danish indigenous artist Pia Arke, whose video, Arctic hysteria (1996), combining ecology, ethnography and feminism. The three artists addressed social taboos.

Arjan Martins, “Atlantic Complex (Ocean)” (2021), acrylic on canvas, 275 x 765 cm. Commissioned by the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo para a 34ª Bienal (© Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)

With Glissant as a wise patron, the Biennale kept a persistent spotlight on post-colonial artists, including Arke (whose mother was Greenlandic), Martinican Victor Anicet, represented by an entire room of porcelain vessels and caracan paintings (“handcuffs”) referring to slavery, and Kelly Sinnapah Mary from Guadeloupe, with figurines representing diasporic myths. “Nativity Painting (Reggae Jam)” (2018), by Jamaican DJ and artist Lee “Scratch” Perry (1936-2021), composed in part of typed notes, apparently gibberish. Yet it sparked neologisms – such as “deathless,” “not cried,” and “unchained” – whose vengeful spirit spelled out grief and trauma.

Meanwhile, “Atlantic Complex (Ocean)” (2021), by Brazilian black artist Arjan Martins, was in many ways the highlight of the Biennale – a vast and majestic fresco, with bodies, ships and black and brown continents breaking into a prismatic abstraction against permutations of aqua. Similar to Anicet’s molten sculptures or “statement” stones, Martins’ art promised that what destroys must also create, must be a force which not only renews the artistic imagination, but also strengthens an entire people. Like all his work, Martins’ painting perfectly embodies Glissant’s idea that a new baroque art is possible, and must be born outside the West.

Lee “Scratch” Perry, “Laptop from Black Ark” (2012). Collection of John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis (courtesy Swiss Institute New York)
Jaider Esbell, installation view Entidades (© Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)
Ximena Garrido-Lecca, installation view Insurgências botânicas: Phaseolus Lunatus (© Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)
Belkis Ayón, “La Cena” (The Supper) (1991) (photo: José A. Figueroa, courtesy of Belkis Ayón Estate)
Neo Muyanga’s musical performanceA labyrinth in grace With Legítima Defesa and Bianca Turner at the 34th São Paulo Biennial (© Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)

The 34th São Paulo Biennial (Av. Pedro Álvares Cabral, Ibirapuera Park, Gate 3, Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, São Paulo, Brazil) continues until December 5. The biennial was organized by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, Francesco Stocchi, Paulo Miyada, Ruth Estévez and Carla Zaccagnini.

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