Poet’s Problem

David Velasco at the 30th São Paulo Bienal

Left: Artist Jonathas de Andrade. Right: Dealers Anton Kern and Alexandre Gabriel.

“IT IS NOT THE CITY that needs the biennial but the biennial that needs the city,” explained Luis Pérez-Oramas, the MoMA-trained chief curator of the Thirtieth São Paulo Bienal. “Unlike Venice or Documenta, we work in a very complex place.” In Kassel and Venice, the exhibition takes charge. But São Paulo’s is the largest city in the southern hemisphere, the most expensive metropolis in the western hemisphere, and probably a few other superlatives besides. The city bears down, splintering the exhibition experience.

So we held on and took our time with the three thousand or so works battening Oscar Niemeyer’s pavilion in Ibirapuera Park. The often meticulous, systematic art was a lot to process, especially during Tuesday’s professional preview. “Do we have to look at all of these?” a curator cried, stumbling upon hundreds of Horst Ademeit’s assiduously scribbled-on Polaroids.

Many of the 111 artists are unknown or have never shown in a large-scale exhibition of this kind. It’s not about art stars, I read, but art constellations. And then of course those tricky artists who aren’t even “artists,” like the radical French educator Fernand Deligny, or Alfredo Cortina, a Venezuelan mass-media impresario and Conceptualist avant la lettre who for forty-some years took hundreds of deadpan photos of his wife, the poet Elizabeth Schön, against unconventional landscapes. I’m told it’s refreshing to see so many unfamiliar names, even if the cubicle-style installation and imposing architecture of the grand pavilion mutes all but the most bombastic among them.

And still, plenty of real genius. An especially poignant stop on the third floor contrasts the gangly, pockmarked-beautiful world of Mark Morrisroe with Alair Gomes’s furtive, telescopically idealized beach bodies. So it’s a bit depressing that Pérez-Oramas pinned his show with the nonspecific, tenure track–friendly title “The Imminence of Poetics.” (The poets are coming?) “Everyone’s having a hard time criticizing the biennial,” offered one friend by way of passive-aggressive criticism. Critique is rude, I guess. But so is platitude. “It’s so poetic,” people kept telling me.

Left: Sergei Tcherepnin. Right: Artist Carlos Garaicoa.

Lina, va fare un caffè!”

Anyway. You digress, get interrupted, move on to other stuff. “Lina, go make a coffee!” Pietro Maria Bardi used to bark at his wife, Lina Bo Bardi, whenever the subject of politics came up. She was a leftist; he was, I hear, vaguely fascist. Like the Mary Matalin and James Carville of midcentury São Paulo. The artist Cildo Meireles made a recording of the line and piped it over and over into Bo Bardi’s old Casa de Vidro on Wednesday, during the brunch opening of Hans Ulrich Obrists’s (unrelated to the biennial) “the insides are on the outside.”

The late, Roman-born expatriate architect was in some ways the week’s cynosure. The biennial’s most stunning work—three devoted and delirious paintings by Jutta Koether—was installed, parasitically, in the exhibition “Deuses e Madonas” at Bo Bardi’s São Paulo Museum of Art. An Isaac Julien retrospective (also unrelated to the biennial) took over the Bo Bardi–designed SESC Pompéia complex. And on Wednesday night Obrist took us all to another Bo Bardi masterpiece, the Teatro Oficina.

The simple, elastic theater is a total thrill. The “stage,” such as it exists, is decentralized, comprising a long, tall stretch of hallway with windows along one side and platforms along the other. A trapeze hangs ominously near the entrance. A tree grows up and through the building. There are few architectonic directives: It’s difficult to know where one should “put” one’s self. The audience/performer toggle is continuously recalibrated.

Left: Artist Martín Legón. Right: Art Basel codirector Marc Spiegler.

I found a chair anyway under some platforms and sat down to watch Obrist’s conversation with Gilbert and George (who were also in his show). The artists’ double-act shtick is pro, burnished to a fine, impenetrable glean.

George: “A man said, ‘You haven’t been to São Paulo since 1981. Do you notice anything different?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘The cemetery’s bigger.’”

Obrist was jovial playing straight man to their straight straight men. Everything was controversial, but inoffensively so, with just a few sparks near the end, when a man pressured G&G on their ongoing polemic to “ban religion.”

George: “The pope killed far more people than Milosevic.”

“Would you also prohibit Dionysus?” he asked.

Gilbert: “We are alone here in the world and we have to find ways to live here with each other. Not with God. We have to find ways to live here with each other and have a nice life.”

Left: A Simone Forti performance at the biennial. Right: Dealer Victoria Miro.

Some titters and applause. And then, without warning, Zé Celso, the theater’s charismatic director, stood up, hugged the big tree (which had been gussied up with a bolt of pink cloth), and sauntered toward the group, waving and calling out in singsong Portuguese. Gilbert and George stiffened slightly and watched. My neighbor tried to translate the gist: “You’ve achieved the smallest dimension,” Zé told the artists. “It makes me want to sing a song.”

And Zé did, beautifully. Then he broke out wine and got them all to drink and toast. Obrist asked Zé to talk about his relationship with Bo Bardi, and Zé went on for nearly an hour without interruption. “Well, I had many questions,” Obrist said at the end. “But you seem to have answered them all!” The manic energy of the scene was infectious, the kind of thing that makes you feel, for a moment, like the connections we’re making are real, that everything counts.

Left: Dealer Monica Manzutto with MoMA associate curator Doryun Chong. Right: Dealer Michelle D'Souza.

From there an early morning plane to Belo Horizonte and then an hour-and-a-half taxi to Brumadinho and the immaculately contrived magical realism of Inhotim. That day the Jurassic art park launched pavilions devoted to the work of Tunga, Lygia Pape, Cristina Iglesias, and Carlos Garaicoa. One golf cart carried us to another golf cart and then to the large Tunga building, which was “hardly anything” a month ago, my companion tells me, but which was now thrumming with action and very much “done.”

Inside, more than one hundred performers “activated” the installations. Scores of “inmates” (“This morning they were gardeners,” I was told) braided long strands of hair. Men in suits wended around the space, dropping their suitcases and letting bones spill onto the floor. Tunga’s dealers, the chic trio comprising Mendes Wood Gallery, offered tours, interpretation, and symbolic guidance, while Inhotim’s charismatic founder, Bernardo Paz, stood near the entrance greeting each guest with bear hugs.

When Paz looks at me, his eyes are blazing: “This will become the most important place in the world,” he says. “Quickly!” All alone in the mad and made-up jungle, I almost buy it.

Left: MoMA associate curator Ana Janevski with artist Jen DeNike. Right: Dealer Janice Guy.

Left: Artist Jirí Kovanda. Right: David Lewis with artists Tiago Carneiro da Cunha and Viola Yesiltaç.

Left: Artist Alexandre da Cunha. Right: Artist Isaac Julien.

Left: Artist Sheila Hicks. Right: Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf and curator Pablo Leon de la Barra.

Left: Luis Pérez-Oramas, chief curator of the 30th São Paulo Bienal. Right: Teatro Oficina director José Celso Martinez Corrêa and Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Left: Dealer Daniel Roesler. Right: Sharjah Biennial curator Yuko Hasegawa and Sharjah Art Foundation president Hoor Al Qasimi.

Left: Artist Tunga. Right: Videobrasil curator Solange Oliveira Farkas and curator Agustín Pérez Rubio.

Left: Writer Silas Martí. Right: A performer in Tunga's installation at Inhotim.

Left: Inhotim founder Bernardo Paz. Right: Artist Héctor Zamora.

Left: Artist Arto Lindsay. Right: Dealer Luisa Strina and Inhotim artistic director Jochem Volz.

Left: Artist Cinthia Marcelle at Casa de Vidro. Right: Mendes Wood's Felipe Dmab.

Left: George and Gilbert at Casa de Vidro. Right: Dealer Pamela Echeverria at Casa de Vidro.

Left: Artists Sergei Tcherepnin and Jutta Koether. Right: Artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané.