Politics and "The Political" at the 29th São Paulo Biennial

Octavio Zaya

October 5, 2010
São Paulo Biennial, São Paulo
September 25–December 12, 2010

How do you follow, and what do you do after “The Void,” the so-dubbed 28th edition of the São Paulo Biennial (2008)? Its Artistic Director, the internationally known and experienced curator Ivo Mesquita, left the huge second floor of the Oscar Niemeyer building entirely empty as a comment on the intricate bureaucratic politics of the event, and on biennials in general. His budget had been reduced as well, from the $12 million of the previous 27th Biennial to a mere $3.5 million, and he left a debt of some $2 million. He selected just over 40 artists to convey a radical curatorial statement, while trying to place the 28th Biennial “in living contact” with the art of the world.

In contrast, this year’s 29th edition, said to be anchored by the notion that “it is impossible to separate art from politics,” has benefited from major advantages: the commitment and resolve of the new president of the Foundation (elected last year), the well-respected consulting executive Heitor Martins, who presided over a spectacular turn in the finances of the SP Biennial; as well as a new Biennial Council, directly linked with the arts. On top of all that, this edition had at its disposal a very healthy and generous budget of $17.5 million and 159 artists to boot.

In July 2009, Moacir dos Anjos was appointed Chief Curator of the 29th edition of the SP Biennial. He served as Director of the Museum of Modern Art of Recife, Brazil, between 2001 and 2006; and as co-curator of the Brazil participation as guest country at ARCO’08 in Madrid. A specialist in Nelson Leirner, Cildo Meireles, and Rosângela Rennó, dos Anjos immediately revealed his intention of “reasserting the relevance of the São Paulo Biennial” after its rather serious institutional crisis, and of vindicating what he called the “experimentalism” of biennials as the fundamental principle of his platform. He conceived an ambitious project, inspired by the Brazilian poet Jorge de Lima’s major work, Invenção de Orfeu (1952), from which dos Anjos took the title of the 29th edition: “Há sempre um copo de mar para um homem navegar” (There’s always a cup of sea to sail in).

By mid-November 2009, at the same time that dos Anjos disclosed the composition of the international team of curators who were to assist him in developing his project, it was announced that he was about to share the directorship of the Biennial with Agnaldo Farias, better known for his involvement and work in the two worst biennials in the history of São Paulo, those directed by Nelson Aguilar (1996) and Alfons Hug (2002). When the Biennial opened to the public on September 25th, the Brazilian press covering the Biennial devoted its attention to Farias, often without mentioning dos Anjos, who had already disappeared from the public eye. Farias had become the de facto Chief Curator of the 29th edition of the Biennial.

What happened in between I cannot say. It will most likely remain a subject of speculation and dispute, among the secrets that always surround events of this kind. The story is very telling, however, not only about the dynamics that may have doomed this promising edition, but also the shortsightedness of those in a position to prevent it. For this Biennial not only has a spectacular team of curators—Rina Carvajal, Sarat Maharaj, Chus Martínez, Yuko Hasegawa, and Fernando Alvim (who nevertheless ended up fighting among themselves for lack of proper direction)—but it also has the support and enthusiasm of a whole art community, a public ready to turn the corner from oblivion and irrelevance, the means to get there, and a multitude of artists with impressive works to make it happen.

The result, instead, is boring, to say the least. Forget the utopian dimension that dos Anjos envisioned from the verses of Jorge de Lima, whose Invention of Orpheus sings of “the power to sail on, even without ships, / even without waves and sand”. Forget experimentation and forget risk. But please don’t get it wrong: when Rina Carvajal announced in November 2009 that the Biennial was going to take up the relations of art and politics, I’m sure she could not have foreseen the dispersal and misplacement of artists and their works—works that, in context, could have offered a compelling, even revisionary understanding of the complex ideas and influences that preceded what today passes as “political art.” And I’m almost convinced that the contributions of Chus Martínez would have made clear the direction of those routes and openings that talented artists such as Jonathas de Andrade, Tobias Putrih, Mário Garcia Torres, Tamar Guimarães or Antonio Vega Macotela could only manage to insinuate, individually, in this general confusion.

In truth, there was enough to have “an extraordinary Biennial,” as Carvajal had dreamed of, but not enough to make sense of it. A purpose, a direction, or a clear idea of how to relate artists, artworks, times, and places to one another was missing. And the 29th SP Biennial really has it all: from wonderful terreiros (meeting places) with a variety of functions to art-fair-style, monumentally ugly-tacky sculptures; from political manifestos to social documentaries; from opportunist trivialities to philosophical conundrums; from porno-misery to graffiti; from anthropological entertainment to psycho-poetry; from light shows to poetic pedagogy. It was all there together, leveled, as if in an art fair, without purpose and without sense; loosely framed, instead, between Flávio de Carvalho’s revelation (“All of the ideas here exposed, all of the conclusions reached, are attempts to attain a supposed truth… an illusory phenomenon imperceptible to the naked eye”) and Anri Sala’s predicament via The Clash (Should I Stay or Should I Go?).

There are also “political scandals,” some more entertaining than others. The one instigated by Roberto Jacoby’s work, a sort of electoral office managed by an Argentine Brigade for Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party candidate to the Brazilian presidency, threatens to be milked until the end of the Biennial. According to the Biennial Foundation, a report by the Electoral Attorney General’s office considered the work to be “an electoral offense,” breaking the law that prohibits “the transmission of propaganda of any nature” in places run by public authorities. Agnaldo Farias declared to the press: “We can not contest the court ruling because we even run the risk of going to jail. If we had known in advance that the work dealt with Dilma, we would have warned the artist, because we’d have known there would be problems.” Consequently, the work was covered from view, literally censored from the exhibition. As for the curator’s claim not to have known the nature of the work: he could have seen it perfectly reproduced in his Biennial’s catalogue and its website.

The apparent paradox that this situation has happened within the context of an exhibition that insists on the relations of art and politics attests to what Jacoby wanted to achieve in the first place: “forcing the art establishment to become involved in a discussion on the verifiable fact that, today, in a geopolitical space like Latin America, there is more experimentation, more creativity, and—ultimately—more hope in the realm of politics—from institutions to social movements—than in the contemporary art system.”

Whatever you may think of the work, it seems beyond the pale when a curator decides to censor a work by protecting himself behind the alleged decision of a tribunal that expressed the possibility that Jacoby’s work may be required to comply with an electoral law. The least that an artist could expect from a curator is the total and unequivocal defense of the art space as “territory of full liberty,” as editor Marcos Augusto Gonçalves characterizes it. But instead of evaluating and answering for Jacoby’s politically confrontational work with artistic and aesthetic criteria, Farias allows it to be judged by an electoral law to which he subscribes his authority and his exhibition, thus confusing politics and the political. That is, Farias’s decision dangerously obliterates any distinction between what Jacoby is dealing with (politics) and that other meeting ground between politics and the police (the political), where rights and freedoms confront the established order of control.

In brief, under Farias’s conservative and reactionary direction of the 29th edition of the SP Biennial, scattered and adrift, is a missed opportunity, lacking much sense or much guts. As if playing a game of daring to fall with a noose around his neck from a place high enough off the ground that the fall would hang him, Farias’s failure was already foretold. And so, the complexity and poetry that dos Anjos proposed became, simply put, a matter for the police to deal with. I’m almost sure that this is precisely what the three live vultures in Nuno Ramos’ gigantic and brutalist sculpture were anticipating.

Management & Bureaucracy
Biennials, Censorship, Law & Justice

Octavio Zaya is a curator and writer living in the US since 1978. He has been Director of the journal Atlántica (CAAM, Canary Islands) since 2007. Zaya was one of the curators of Documenta 11 (2002) under the direction of Okwui Enwezor.

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