“SÃO PAULO IS WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if New York threw up on LA,” Alex Cuadros wrote in last year’s Brazillionaires, about the meteoric rise and fall of the country’s rich from the aughts to the 2016 Rio Olympics. I thought of the line often during this year’s Sp-Arte, while overlooking Paulista Avenue and the Lina Bo Bardi–designed Museu de Arte de São Paulo from the perch of an Airbnb in Oscar Niemeyer’s Edifício Copan downtown. Twisting the comparison could work for politics, too. Look at the crisis in Brazil last year in a funhouse mirror, and one might see something similar to the US at present; to put it bluntly, America in 2017 is sort of like what would happen if 2016 Brazil threw up on it. Dissolving the ministry of culture, abetting cries of prosecuting the former president, closing doors to refugees: The unelected interim—now permanent—president of Brazil, Michel Temer, checked off all three last year. And the uncertainty fostered by the sudden change of leadership—the president’s name literally translates as “to fear”—has become the norm.
Last year, Sp-Arte opened days before the impeachment vote on former president Dilma Rousseff, and in the midst of the Zika crisis, and tensions ran high. (The Bienal, held in the same Niemeyer-designed pavilion as the fair, attracted protests.) This year, one got a glimpse of what normalization looks like through the glimmer of an art fair.
“People are paralyzed,” Sp-Arte founder and director Fernanda Feitosa said of the current moment, at a meet and greet with press at her house. “I hope the fair will help them come out of their, eh, shyness,” adding, “I think we can’t wait for a good time. It’s the time we have.” Would collectors be wary? “Not more or less than any collector based in London last year, or New York now,” she offered. Point taken.
For the dealers’ sakes, there was optimism: While last year the Brazilian real hovered close to a four-to-one exchange rate with the dollar, this year it settled closer to three-to-one. And despite the anxiety, the city’s art world welcomes much that is new. There’s Japan House, a recently inaugurated sparkling cultural center on the city’s main drag helmed by Marcelo Dantas. Respected outfits are regenerating, too. Jaqueline Martins moved to a multilevel space in the Centro a few months ago, and the nonprofit Pivô recently completed a renovation of an event space above the exhibition hall and twelve artist studios. And top dealers continue to expand abroad: Mendes Wood DM now has locations in New York and Brussels, while Nara Roesler recently moved its New York location to the Upper East Side and will also inaugurate a new space in Rio.
On Tuesday, when the Jardins dealers participated in a gallery night, Roesler opened a pair of shows by Daniel Buren and Daniel Senise. “Brazilians aren’t really into asking questions,” Daniel Roesler said of the exhibition talk held before the opening. Does that extend to governments? He laughed. The night also saw about a dozen other openings, such as site-specific installation work by Bosco Sodi at Luciana Brito and Paulo Nazareth’s examination of cultural appropriation in everyday Brazilian commodities at Mendes Wood DM.
The fair opened for VIPs on Wednesday––by nightfall, lines of cars choked Parque Ibirapuera, and a steady stream of crowds entered the pavilion. I noted the sickly sweet paintings of Pedro Caetano at both SP’s Luciana Caravello and Rio’s Galeria Cavalo. Popsicle canvases made ghoulish faces, and a pink pastel painting announced BRAZILIAN LATIN ART 20% OFF! BLOW JOB INCLUDED. Here’s some 2017 millennial pink I can get behind, more like cotton candy around a razor blade.
FREEDOM CANNOT BE SIMULATED said a T-shirt. The Rirkrit Tiravanija installation at Galerie Neugerriemschneider began to pop up on fairgoers backs by afternoon. “The city is destroyed,” curator Pablo León de la Barra said about Rio, wearing the T-shirt at a party that night at the home of Pedro Mendes and Matthew Wood.
“I’m trying to get in the right mood,” said artist Roberto Winter, holding a drink.
“That’s a great philosophy for life,” said gallery director Renato Silva.
In São Paulo, people complain how traffic trumps time. Though outside New York, where isn’t that true anymore? Ditto the art world’s glut of events, as Sp-Arte this year wedged itself snugly alongside Dallas Art Contemporary, Milan design week, and Documenta 14 in Athens, with dealers and artists racing between time zones, all before a summer of nonstop parading.
“It’s an art-world eclipse,” Michael Wellen of Tate Modern noted Thursday night on his way to the annual dinner party at Feitosa’s home.
In the backyard of the chicly minimalist compound, amid circles wielding champagne and caipirinhas, John Kunemund of Alexander Gray confided, “I tell everyone every year: If I were rich, I’d want to be São Paulo rich.” São Paulo is home to nearly all of the country’s art culture as well as its billionaires.
“They still let me in town so I guess it went well,” said Pinacoteca’s new director Jochen Volz, joking about his recent Bienal.
At Pina, Ana Maria Tavares has a survey of decades of work that takes over most of the building, even the corridors. “I grew up with dictatorship,” Tavares said during a walkthrough of the show, which deals with questions of, in her words, “what happened to our utopian ideas.”
Even if the fair itself had lost some of its steam by the weekend, it always delivers on parties. Collector Fabio Faisal’s annual Friday rager at his Jardins home, cohosted with Jacaranda magazine, began hours earlier than in previous years, though by 1 AM I caught sight of a coat dangling off what I was told was a sculpture by Tunga.
A harsh snapshot of the current moment arrived with the new show at Videobrasil, centered around Miguel Rio Branco’s 1980s film featured in the exhibition “Nada levarei quando morrer, aqueles que me devem cobrarei no inferno” (When I Die I Will Take Nothing, Those Who Owe Me I Will Charge in Hell). “What’s a nice way of saying this,” curator Gabriel Bogossian mused about the show’s more explicit conceit: “victims of economic growth.” Contemporary works included Virginia de Medeiros 2015 paean to Rio’s red-light district, which was uprooted during the port revival project for the Olympics.
The Mendes Wood DM party at its new Centro bar Lourdes bled well into the fair’s final day, so I took a break to see Era O Hotel Cambridge. Eliane Caffé’s docufiction film focuses on a housing occupation in São Paulo’s city center in an abandoned hotel, where squatters, many of whom are refugees, live cooperatively. The occupation also became the site of an artist residency last year of which Medeiros was a participant.
“I’m a refugee from Palestine in Brazil,” one resident says during a meeting to discuss the occupation’s then-jeopardized status. (It has since been legalized.) “You are refugees from Brazil in Brazil.” I hope the film sees a US release: It is a strong reminder that São Paulo’s present is vitally important—in the US, and everywhere.