High and Dry

São Paulo

Left: Dealer Pablo León de la Barra and artist Marcelo Krasilcic. Right: São Paulo Biennial curator Lisette Lagnado. (Photos: Rafal Niemojewski)

Muggings, pickpockets, carjackings, red-light robberies, and drive-by shootings are just some of the tourist attractions listed in my guide to São Paulo. Sadly, Brazil’s largest city (the world’s second most populous) is better known for its high crime rate than its high-minded art biennial, the second oldest after Venice. This goes some distance in explaining why Prada and Marc Jacobs were little in evidence and eight-megapixel cameras remained locked in hotel safes during the low-key opening of its twenty-seventh edition. I wasn’t the only person who had adopted “the chameleon strategy,” which, according to my guide, offers the best chances of survival in the urban jungle.

Following the Brazilian government’s policy of encouraging alternative fuels, guests were greeted with a bottle of spring water instead of the obligatory warm white wine. The lack of alcoholic drinks didn’t help the austere atmosphere that held sway in the purpose-built pavilion by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, though it did allow for a sober look at the art. Several friends from London, unable to cope with unlubricated viewing, were seen slipping out to a nearby bar.

Entitled “How to Live Together” and curated by a team headed up by Hélio Oiticica scholar, writer, and independent curator Lisette Lagnado, this installment of the half-century-old biennial saw the welcome eradication of the outmoded national presentations that have haunted the exposition since its inception. With Roland Barthes and Oiticica as guiding lights, the show favored socially conscious practices and engaged themes by now all-but-synonymous with the contemporary biennial—the city, identity, cultural creolization, each especially relevant to multicultural Brazilian society. The show freely combined the usual suspects (Rirkrit Tiravanija, Monica Bonvicini, Tacita Dean), historic contemporary figures (Marcel Broodthaers, Gordon Matta-Clark, Dan Graham), and young names (Roman Ondák, Loulou Cherinet, Servet Koçyigit). The biennial’s set piece was definitely Nikos Charalambidis’s Social Gym, 2006, a carnival float filled with policemen and samba dancers, while the neighboring installation by Thomas Hirschhorn looked blunt and generic (and was, for me, the show’s biggest disappointment). After four hours on-site, I further experienced the Brazilian melting pot in the biennial’s unofficial hangout, a karaoke joint in Liberdade, one of São Paulo’s most lively areas and home to the world’s largest Japanese community outside Japan.

Left: Exo curator Lygia Nobre (center) with friends. Right: Edificio Italia. (Photos: Rafal Niemojewski)

The following day, the most daring visitors took advantage of the opportunity to lunch with artists from Rio de Janeiro at Jardim Miriam Arte Clube, which was hosting one of the biennial’s educational projects in the middle of the remote favelas (aka shantytowns) on the city’s south side. I was among those who opted for a different kind of thrill, having accepted the invitation of Ligia Nobre, curator of the EXO residency at Niemeyer’s monstrously beautiful Edificio Copan, to watch the sunset from its rooftop. As if the views from the thirty-second floor weren’t enough, an hour found me higher still, on the forty-second floor of the neighboring Edifício Itália, for a cocktail party thrown by an international consortium of dealers—Galeria Fortes Vilaça, kurimanzutto, Alexander and Bonin, Sikkema, Jenkins & Co., and Stephen Friedman Gallery—to celebrate the participation of their artists in the biennial. This party, where the gallerists were happily rubbing shoulders with members of several museum acquisition committees (including Tate’s), was certainly the place to be for those who enjoy mingling with friends in high places.

On Saturday night, I began my weekend follies at the party hosted by São Paulo–born, New York–based photographer Marcelo Krasilcic, who fell short of his initial goal of gathering dozens of Marcelos in one place but did a great job of bringing in the young, rich, and beautiful. The jollity continued on Sunday at the church-cum-nightclub Gloria (reminiscent of New York’s Limelight), where artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster was showing her latest video work, accompanied by a deep-house sound track and the “best caipirinhas in town.”

On my last day in São Paulo, I paid a visit to Galeria Vermelho to taste the latest work of Danish collective Superflex—an energy drink developed on a “fair-trade basis” to undercut and expose the monopolistic practices of multinational corporations artificially suppressing the prices of guarana, the raw material used to produce the most popular Brazilian sodas. During the tasting, guided by Galeria Vermelho’s charismatic cofounder Eliana Finkelstein, I discovered its crisp flavor and a distinctive spice of controversy. Originally slated for presentation in the biennial, the work was removed after the president of Fundação Bienal de São Paulo judged that it was against the “purposes foreseen in the laws of the foundation” (i.e., it could upset his colleagues from the powerful drink industry). Regardless of its artistic and countercapitalist qualities, it tasted great and, unlike any corporate, industrially produced guarana, provided a natural power boost for the rest of the day. The afternoon spent in Vermelho’s slick but cozy interiors, designed by Paulo Mendes da Rocha (winner of the 2006 Pritzker Prize), left me with a conviction that this gallery is definitely one to look out for in the future.

Left: Artist Thomas Hirschhorn with gallerists Monica Manzutto and Jose Kuri of kurimanzutto. Right: Curator Dan Cameron. (Photos: Rafal Niemojewski)

That evening, the biennial’s crowd split into two groups: Those bound for the Frieze Art Fair rushed to the airport, while the rest of us headed to the coast in search of the mandatory Brazilian tan. Only minor accidents, caused by the caipirinhas, were reported; made with cachaça, the local sugarcane alcohol, they were served absolutely everywhere but the biennial.

Left: MAC Niteroi director Luiz Guilherme Vergara. (Photo: Ellen Mara De Wachter) Right: Artist Monica Bonvicini with her performers. (Photo: Rafal Niemojewski)

Left: Curator Teresa Gleadowe, artist Goshka Macuga, and fashion designer Arkadius. (Photo: Rafal Niemojewski) Right: Curator Luisa Duarte with photographer Ding Musa. (Photo: Ellen Mara De Wachter)

Left: A Gentil Carioca gallery founder Márcio Botner with artist Thiago Rocha Pitta. (Photo: Ellen Mara De Wachter) Right: Artists Loulou Cherinet and Servet Kocyigit. (Photo: Rafal Niemojewski)

Left: Members of Tate's Latin American Acquisitions Committee Frances Reynolds, Bina von Stauffenberg, and Catherine Petitgas. (Photo: Rafal Niemojewski) Right: “MAC Na Oca” production assistant Daniela Perez with Galeria Vermelho director Eduardo Brandão. (Photo: Ellen Mara De Wachter)

Left: Funarte's Luiza Interlenghi. (Photo: Ellen Mara De Wachter) Right: IASPIS artistic director Maria Lind and son. (Photo: Rafal Niemojewski)

Left: Castello di Rivoli curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev with Coline Milliard. Right: Curator Paulo Venancio Filho and Daniela Perez. (Photos: Ellen Mara De Wachter)