Poetic Justice

Porto Alegre, Brazil

Left: Mercosul Biennial curator Jose Roca, pedagogical curator Pablo Helguera, biennial foundation vice president Beatriz Blier Johannpeter, and MoMA director Glenn Lowry. Right: Manuela Ribadeneira and artist Duke Riley. (All photos: Brian Droitcour)

“RIO DE JANEIRO IS SECOND ONLY to São Paulo in its contemporary art effervescence,” said the guidebook that I leafed through after arriving at ArtRio last Wednesday. I’d never been to Brazil before, but I still sensed the second-city feeling at the first edition of ArtRio at Pier Maua. (SP-Arte, back in the superlatively “effervescent” megalopolis, happened for the seventh time in May.) The mild air drifting into the pavilions from the palm-lined waterfront promenade gently reinforced the stereotype that São Paulo is for work and Rio for play. Most of the art looked correspondingly frivolous. There was big, bright “art-fair art” and blandly tasteful retreads of local traditions in abstract geometry. At least four stands hung versions of a work by Paris-based Venezuelan Carlos Cruz-Diez: As you passed a grated panel, it caught your eyes with a fluttering toucan palette of turquoise, orange, and fuchsia. Some welcome depth could be found in the curated section, organized by Julieta González of the Tate and independent curator Pablo de la Barra. Half-thought gestures repeated throughout the fair were elaborated and connected in works like Alberto Baraya’s display of dried floral specimens under glass and photographs of the same flowers thrust at aging specimens of Brazil’s modernist architecture.

I was on a group trip sponsored by the Brazil Contemporary Art Project, a gallery association supported by the country’s ministry of economic development, and much of the time my perception of Rio was mediated by the window of a van full of curators. After the fair we had a brisk gallery tour, then dinner at the home of a young collector named Fabio Szwarcwald. He owned some smoky photography, as well as Amazonian folk art and gallery-ready works inflected with it, which at times were indistinguishable from the toys of his two small children (not present). In a corner of the master bedroom stood a two-foot statue of a pouty brunette in a black G-string, her pink flesh pale at the hips and breasts. “At first my wife didn’t like it,” Szwarczwald said. “But I told her: ‘Don’t worry! It’s art!’ ” The next day started with a visit to another private home. The core of Ricardo Rego’s collection was the sharp-edged geometry of Neo-concrete artists—Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Mira Schendel, among others—and it was enlivened with more recent, corporeal pieces, like José Resende’s animal hide folded into valleys of wax, and a ribboned braid by Tunga. The display resonated with the scene ten stories below, where bodies moved amid the sinuous, two-toned Copacabana boardwalk and the cybernetic lines inscribed on the adjacent road’s median.

Left: Artists Jonathan Harker and Donna Conlon. Right: Regina Silveira and dealer Marga Pasquali.

The main item on the itinerary was the Eighth Mercosul Biennial, and on Friday morning we flew to Porto Alegre, a city of four million and the capital of Brazil’s southernmost province, a rhomboid patch of the Pampas wedged between Uruguay and Argentina. What had begun as a gorgeous day in Rio got clammy and gray when we went further south. Drizzle was falling on the power lines, barbed-wire fences, and pallid high-rises of the generic city. “This is not very alegre,” remarked one of my traveling companions. In short order we arrived at the hilltop gated compound of patron Patricia Druck, who was hosting a reception for the biennial foundation. Lunch featured endless platters of meat barbecued gaucho-style and a bar tended by “the top maker of caipirinhas in all Brazil,” as I was told by a burly dealer who described himself as “the Paris Hilton of Porto Alegre.” The caipirinhas were indeed exceptionally satisfying. As I drained my second, the gray sky turned blue. Taking in the city’s sweep from Druck’s backyard, I believed that Porto Alegre must rank a close third in Brazil’s contemporary art effervescence.

The biennial proved it. Bold and wise, the exhibition persistently traced a network of questions concerning borders and conflicts, statehood and nationalism, independence and commonwealth. Pablo Helguera, director of educational programs, said he and the other members of the curatorial team “tried not to make it the biennial of flags and maps.” They did not succeed. But that’s okay, because while the repetition of blatantly geographic motifs leaves a strong impression, it is mitigated by plenty of sideways approaches. Miguel Angel Rios’s riveting two-channel video makes you a witness to fierce conflict but never hints at who or what the hostile parties are. Lais Myrrha studded a wall with digital clocks along time-zone contours, and in a video by Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker the artists play “The Star-Spangled Banner” on bottles of Panama brand beer. The works are installed in warehouses stretching half a kilometer along Porto Alegre’s riverfront, and viewing the biennial could have been a grueling march. But the curators slowed the show’s rhythm by interrupting it with half-inside, half-outside shipping crates presenting documentation of “zones of poetic autonomy,” do-it-yourself countries such as Irwin’s NSK State, and Duke Riley’s attempts at reclaiming a New Jersey island for the family that declared itself royalty there a century ago. With all the gestures toward porous borders, it was a bit jarring to find wall texts and subtitles in Portuguese only. A blue-aproned attendant assured me, however, that he could answer any question I might have, whether I asked it in English, Spanish, or French.

Hours after the opening Friday night, the action moved to Ocidente, a rambling dive that locals called “legendary” for outliving a few generations of Porto Alegre’s Paris Hiltons. Harker, the life of the party, got the other artists to form a circle and take turns dancing alone in the middle. The twist to the dance-floor ritual was that each soloist had to hold Harker’s gigantic leopard-print umbrella. As it spun in the hands of each dancer, its bright points looked like they could describe the navel of a collective body, or the center of a fleeting autonomous zone.

Brian Droitcour

Left: Performers in a work by Jon Rubin as Presidents Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama. Right: Independent curator Miguel Lopez and Irene Kopelman.