Slow Burn

Left: Alice Weiner and artist Lawrence Weiner. Right: Artist Paulo Nazareth and dealer Matthew Wood. (Except where noted, all photos: Silas Martí)

IF THE HUSTLE AT PARTIES and the hypnotic glut of Instagram are trustworthy barometers, then the opening week of the Thirty-First Bienal de São Paulo was noticeably slower, less lavish, and less aggressive in its social engagements than any in recent memory.

Indeed, things seemed a little too quiet in the days leading up to the inauguration. But then on August 28, artists in the show, titled “How to (…) things that don’t exist,” launched an open letter protesting Israeli financial support of the biennial, which some participants, like Tony Shakar and the duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, claimed to have only discovered when they saw logos for the Israeli consulate on sponsor panels while installing their works in the Oscar Niemeyer–designed Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion in Ibirapuera park.

Their gesture dominated last Monday’s press conference and was the most tweeted and gossiped-about topic in the Brazilian art world this past week. (The artists announced in another letter that the Bienal had decided to “clearly dissociate” itself from Israeli funding, though the Bienal foundation has recently sent out a counterstatement stating that “nothing has changed in the Institution’s policy toward sponsorship.”) The curatorial team—comprising Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche; Galit Eilat and Oren Sagiv, both from Israel; and Nuria Enguita Mayo and Pablo Lafuente, from Spain; along with two associate curators from Brazil, Benjamin Seroussi and Luiza Proença—stressed from the outset that this was a show very much engaged with the contradictions and injustices of the contemporary world, though they avoided talking about this at length and issued a brief statement only saying that they supported the artists’ right to protest. Some of these very artists, however, claimed the curators had known of the Israeli sponsorship all along and had been warned about the political implications at a time when the war on the Gaza Strip only seemed to worsen.

Left: Artist Yael Bartana and performer Márcio Pantera at the opening of the Bienal de São Paulo. Right: Artists Ana Mazzei, Rose Klabin, and Jonathas de Andrade at an opening at Fortes Vilaça.

The question dominating cocktail parties before the official inauguration was how they could not have seen this coming. Maybe they did, and an article in the daily O Estado de S. Paulo went so far as to suggest, rather conspiratorially, that this was all a publicity stunt to heat up the biennial’s lukewarm reception. All that aside, I have to say it’s a good show, thanks to its bold championing of young talent—including artists like Éder Oliveira, Arthur Scovino, Gabriel Mascaro, and Clara Ianni—and its attempts to give Niemeyer’s pavilion a postmodern overhaul (a glass installation by Mark Lewis serving as a counterpoint to the purity of the Bienal building). Of course, it’s also an irritating one. Irritating, and at times frustrating, because the idea that this is a Bienal anchored in the current political moment, attendant to social upheavals here and almost everywhere else, and opening at a pivotal moment of the Brazilian presidential campaign (with elections pending on October 5), makes some of the pieces seem more like silly provocations than works in and of themselves. (I count among these Bik Van der Pol’s Turning a Blind Eye and Dan Perjovschi’s Wall, Work, Worship). Others are plainly naive, like collective Mujeres Creando’s awkward Space to Abort—an arena made of red cylinders, symbolizing a uterus, where women are encouraged to tell their own abortion tales.

What is cool about the show is its apparent detachment from the market forces now at work in São Paulo. There are no celebrities from the local scene—Tunga, the only originally included artist who might fit this description, dropped out months before, saying his project could not be financed—and the luminaries from abroad are hardly market darlings: Walid Raad, Anna Boghiguian, Yael Bartana, and a score of others are known to wrestle with thorny issues rather than prance around art fairs. Of course, fixating on the bogeyman of “the market” doesn’t get you far either. This is largely the same “market” that has allowed the Bienal to get back on its feet with exuberant strength after its near-death experience six years ago. And even if most of the artists in the show are marginal figures in terms of gallery presence, “discoveries” like Ana Lira, Scovino, and Mascaro represent an up-and-coming wave of talent that will surely be available soon at a dealer near you.

Left: Curator Sarina Tang and dealer Maria Baro. (Photo: Carolina Krieger) Right: Artists Julie Mehretu and Anna Boghiguian. (Photo: Denise Andrade)

The absence of big names, however, might explain why galleries weren’t keen on throwing big receptions this time around. The Bienal’s kickoff week featured a torrent of openings, including Song Dong’s massive solo show curated by Sarina Tang at Baró; Bienal artist Johanna Calle at Marilia Razuk; Yuri Firmeza, another Bienal name, at Casa Triângulo; Tunga, Paulo Nazareth, and Lawrence Weiner at Mendes Wood DM; Thiago Rocha Pitta at Millan; Armando Andrade-Tudela at Fortes Vilaça; Julian Schnabel at Raquel Arnaud; and Julie Mehretu at White Cube. (To name just a few.) But the mood at these gatherings was often a little sour. One collector argued it was all the fault of this “overly politicized” Bienal. Some of the galleries were even empty when I stopped by, contributing to the awkward sense that this is a quiet season, despite Brazil’s recent displays of market prowess. One notable exception was the buzz around Adriano Pedrosa and Lilia Moritz Schwarcz’s beautiful show at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, a kaleidoscopic narrative with works by artists from Albert Eckhout to Adriana Varejão, delving deep into the nature of race relations in Brazil, and Rivane Neuenschwander’s solo survey at the Museu de Arte Moderna, another Pedrosa gig.

Another counterpoint to the otherwise humdrum sequence of openings was Friday’s splashy inauguration of Cidade Matarazzo, an “improvised” artistic occupation of an old hospital in downtown São Paulo. If the celebrities were chased from the Bienal, this is where they ended up. Installations by Vik Muniz, Tunga, Joana Vasconcelos, Tony Oursler, Kenny Scharf, and nearly a hundred other artists filled the old wards of the hospital, from the maternity to the morgue. All this was to promote the construction of a six-star hotel and Jean Nouvel residential tower to be designed by Philippe Starck.

The investor behind it all, Alexandre Allard, paraded the grounds with Gilberto Gil and soap opera stars, taking guests on tours he promised would be “the journey of a lifetime.” I got lost in the crowd and never made it to the morgue, where something was supposed to happen. I also missed the Indians dancing in an installation that resembled a cage, a controversial spectacle one visitor said resembled those “seventeenth-century displays in Europe, when they would put black people on view for the whites to gawk at.” But the screaming crowds locked outside the gates at Cidade Matarazzo, trying to get into the party, were a sharp contrast with the tranquil flow of visitors into the Bienal pavilion on its first public day, a sign that money, more than politics and wars, seems to be the force shaping the art world here more than ever.

Left: MALBA artistic director Agustín Pérez-Rubio and Videobrasil director Solange Farkas at the opening of “Unerasable Memories” at Sesc Pompeia. Right: Artist Nilba Gures at the opening of the Bienal de São Paulo.

Left: Alexandre Allard at the opening of the exhibition “Made By.” Right: Curator Ricardo Sardenberg, Peter Brantley, and dealer Marcia Fortes at an opening at Fortes Vilaça.

Left: Dealer Juliana Freire, curator Márcio Harum, and dealer Flaviana Bernardo at Sesc Pompeia. Right: Artist Sônia Gomes at her opening at Mendes Wood DM.

Left: Artist Rodolpho Parigi at his opening at Phosphorus. Right: Artist El hadji Sy and Clementine Deliss. (Photo: Denise Andrade)

Left: Artist Beatriz Milhazes, dealer Jay Jopling, and Julie Mehretu. Right: Artist Song Dong. (Photo: Carolina Krieger)