Weather or Not

Left: Bienal do Mercosul curator Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy and artist Fernanda Laguna. Right: Artist Aleksandra Mir's installation on the bay of the Guaíba lake in Porto Alegre. (All photos: Silas Martí)

IT WAS A BRIGHT, scorching day in Porto Alegre. The sun was high in the cloudless sky, no wind. You could have fried an egg on the pavement—nothing like the wintry feel the southernmost capital city in Brazil usually boasts this time of year. It was last Wednesday, and Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, the Mexican curator in charge of the ninth installment of the Bienal do Mercosul, was piling into a helicopter with a photographer and curator Raimundas Malasauskas. She wanted to get a bird’s-eye view of Aleksandra Mir’s “secret” work: a pile of garbage made to look like a satellite fallen from the sky, which had just been completed that morning along the bay of the Guaíba lake.

I stayed on the ground, waiting my turn, chatting with artist Guillermo Faivovich and curator Sarah Demeuse. We stood in a shabby amusement park, amid a Ferris wheel and other sundry contraptions; my new friends here called it the “Coney Island of Porto Alegre.” Once we were in the air, we flew over museums and the show’s main venue, the Usina do Gasômetro, a defunct power plant–cum–cultural center that one curator tagged a “poor version of the Turbine Hall.” We also sped over the much, much bigger old warehouses that used to host the biennial, until they were appropriated by speculators who plan to refurbish them as venues for next year’s World Cup.

Keeping in mind the change in sites, it was easy to understand why the scale of this edition is so reduced—a little more than sixty artists, as opposed to 105 last round—and why so many of us left thinking that there should have been a little more to see in this airy show. Chong Cuy concentrated her artists in the spare settings, and there is ample space between one work and another, as though each were a natural accident sprouting from a landscape built to illustrate this year’s theme.

Left: Patrícia Fossati Druck, president of the Fundação Bienal do Mercosul. Right: Curators Luisa Kiefer, Raimundas Malasauskas and Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy.

The biennial’s title, “Weather Permitting,” refers to the perennial clash between man-made and purportedly “wild” environments, as well as to the conditions of possibility that lend certain works visibility while eliding others. It’s a telluric ride, one that tracks thunderous storms, erupting volcanoes, molten lava, hurricanes, and so on. Works like Robert Rauschenberg’s 1971 installation Mud Muse, a pool of bubbling mud, and Allan McCollum’s endless series of fulgurites, the twisty glass-like objects that result from the absorption of a heavy electrical discharge by a pile of earth, are jarringly juxtaposed, an index that the weather could change with more violence than one could suspect.

But it didn’t. Temperatures continued to rise. There remained not a single cloud in the sky, as though Chong Cuy’s umbrella theme were a thaumaturgical device goading global warming. The next day, a group of VIPs including the Guggenheim’s Pablo León de la Barra, Instituto Inhotim’s Júlia Rebouças, and artists Alex García and José León Cerrillo headed to the lake for a boat ride to the little island where a prison once stood. It was there that so-called dangerous political figures, like Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s ex-husband, were incarcerated during the military dictatorship. Now it is just a pile of rocks on a barren piece of land smack in the middle of the bay. Legend has it, according to Júlia Rebouças, one of the show’s curators, that back in the 1970s, Rousseff used to spy on the prison with binoculars from her apartment window.

Left: Artist Alex García with curator Júlia Rebouças and Instituto Inhotim director Eungie Joo. Right: Pablo León De La Barra, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, Latin America.

“Doesn’t it make you want to swim or have some ice cream?” asked Instituto Inhotim director Eungie Joo, emerging from where the prison cells used to be and looking out at the water. Maybe. I know some artists skipped the “Island Session,” as the biennial called the trek, and spent the day lounging by the pool at the hotel Plaza São Rafael. Later that evening, a group of girls, desperate to escape the stifling heat, plunged into the pool at biennial president Patrícia Fossati Druck’s house, gala attire and all. Something in the hot air seemed to tinker with people’s minds.

Perhaps to keep himself focused, veteran Filipino artist David Medalla lugged a bunch of Brazilian and Portuguese classics around town, trying to learn the language as he searched for a dancer to include in his performance on opening day. He settled on a blonde break-dancer, a native to the streets of Porto Alegre, and he attracted a huge crowd to the lounge built on the terrace of the Usina do Gasômetro. Up there, Medalla read a fictitious correspondence between a nun in the Philippines and Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, pausing occasionally for the dance. He later asked Chong Cuy and Fossati Druck to help transform a white veil wrapped around a bunch of balloons into a “cloud.” It was right then and there that a cold gust of wind swept across the terrace and real clouds appeared on the horizon.

Temperatures dropped about ten degrees the day after and biennial-goers left with the spectacle of white balloons drifting into a smoldering sky, a symbol of a show built around the weather and its surprises. The last of the opening parties, a karaoke session at Ocidente bar, a regular dive among the Porto Alegre art crowd, that featured Chong Cuy as well as artists Letícia Ramos and Mario Torres García, was a phenomenon in itself. Prem Krishnamurthy, designer at New York’s Project Projects and the maker of a new font for the show’s visual identity and catalogue, sealed the evening with an ecstatic cover of Madonna’s “Material Girl”—a sign that everything was getting back to normal.

Left: Bienal do Mercosul producer Mônica Bogarin and dancer Cauan Feversani on the rooftop lounge at the Usina do Gasômetro. Right: Island of the White Rocks.