Uncertain States

Left: Artists Jonathas de Andrade and Aslan Cabral. Right: Artists protest against President Michel Temer at the opening of the Bienal de São Paulo. (All photos: Silas Martí)

THE STREETS HADN’T YET BEEN CLEARED OF RUBBLE, leftovers of the protests that shook the city like an earthquake the past few days, when galleries teamed up to launch nearly forty parallel exhibitions to the Thirty-Second Bienal de São Paulo, which opened this week in tumultuous fashion. Despite barricades, fires still raging in the middle of main traffic arteries, and the acrid scent of tear gas hanging in the air, dealers arranged a marathon of openings for the weekend. In town for Bienal season, artsy types from all over the world braved the chaos to catch a glimpse of exhibitions set up in the aftermath of what many consider a coup d’état.

In the final showdown of a months-long process, the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was impeached last week and replaced with former vice president Michel Temer. While this outcome was predictable, the definitive ousting of a now disgraced leader accused—on flimsy grounds—of fiscal maneuvers to mask the difficult state of the country’s finances fueled waves of protests all over Brazil, and São Paulo’s Paulista avenue became the main stage of the manifestations.

While some critics sought refuge in hotel rooms away from the action, others managed to navigate, for art’s sake, the jittery metropolis. The city’s notoriously horrendous traffic didn’t help, which partially explains the timid crowds at some openings. A few galleries were actually empty by the time I arrived, but powerhouses of the local scene were buzzing.

Left: Artists Fernanda Gomes, Ana Linnemann, and dealer Maria Montero at Sé. Right: Artists João Farkas and Vik Muniz and dealer Nara Roesler.

Nara Roesler, for example, was packed as it launched two solo shows, one with historic works Hélio Oiticica made in partnership with other artists, like Antonio Manuel, Lee Jaffe, and Neville d’Almeida, and the other a survey of early and recent work by Vik Muniz. As phones in the room flashed with news of police brutality against protesters on Paulista, Muniz talked excitedly about his latest creations and ladies wearing stilettos thought twice about walking into the “Cosmococa,” Oiticica’s installation with slide projections and a mattress on the floor.

At Baró, a few blocks east, Lourival Cuquinha, one of the strongest public opponents of Rousseff's impeachment, unveiled a new work. Before the opening, he Instagrammed a video of himself shooting a gun as a sign of protest. The walls of the gallery were now riddled with bullets and the word golpe, Portuguese for coup, a measure of just how angry he is. Most artists have sided with Cuquinha and declared outrage with the ousting of the president, while many dealers and members of the higher echelons of the business world have embraced the change, hoping the new administration will improve the economy.

This class divide was evident the next day as José Olympio Pereira, head of Credit Suisse in Brazil and one of the country’s most powerful collectors, opened a Robert Storr–curated selection of his blockbuster works, from Lygia Clark to Adriana Varejão, inside the undulating Instituto Tomie Ohtake. A dinner at his palatial house later that night was filled with gallerists and financiers, while most artists danced the night away at a party hosted by the art space Ponto Aurora at Executivo, a former brothel in the basement of the Esther building, São Paulo’s first modernist high-rise. Posters decrying Michel Temer decorated the walls.

Left: Artist Lourival Cuquinha at his opening at Baró. Right: Artists Jac Leirner and Carmela Gross at the opening of José Olympio Pereira's collection at the Instituto Tomie Ohtake.

Chants of Fora Temer, or “Out with Temer,” also dominated the Bienal de São Paulo, and a banner with these words was even hung from the third floor of the colossal Bienal Pavilion. “When Temer took office, he said the uncertainty was over,” remarked chief curator Jochen Volz, as he opened the press conference to present the show. “But we want to talk about uncertainty. Art feeds on uncertainty,” he added, echoing the very apt title of this iteration: “Live Uncertainty.” The meeting ended with artists including Cristiano Lenhardt, Jonathas de Andrade, Bárbara Wagner, and members of the Opavivará collective parading in front of the curators and screaming Fora Temer.

With the greatest number of women artists (forty-seven) in Bienal history, Volz’s show, constructed on the eve of the deposition of Brazil’s first female president, targets global warming, environmental destruction, and other climate-related catastrophes. Many works, such as the gardens, huts, mazes, and towers made of dirt and bamboo by artists like Bené Fonteles, Ruth Ewan, Rita Ponce de León, Lais Myrrha, Pia Lindman, Dineo Seshee Bopape, and Susan Jacobs, touch on the power of traditional and indigenous methods of construction, a sharp contrast to the violence animating Brazil’s modern avant-garde movements of the 1950s, most notably the construction of Brasília, by the same Oscar Niemeyer who designed the Bienal’s space in Ibirapuera Park.

Left: Inhotim founder Bernardo Paz at the opening of the Bienal de São Paulo. Right: Cristiano Lenhardt's performance at the opening of the Bienal de São Paulo.

Historic documentaries by Leon Hirszman depicting work songs at cocoa and sugarcane plantations along with images of indigenous rituals by Vídeo nas Aldeias and de Andrade’s new film, in which fishermen caress and cradle agonizing fish, add to the show’s romantic vision of the natural world and the working classes as opposed to the evils of corporate culture. While somewhat heavy-handed in its esoteric, almost hippie outlook, the show delivers a potent selection of up-and-coming artists.

But nothing shone brighter than the political urgency that laced the exhibition’s opening. Tuesday’s VIP preview saw yet another series of protests, with artists walking around the pavilion in black FORA TEMER T-shirts that quickly became coveted collector’s items. A spoken-word concert was also improvised with chants against the new president. The lighting of fireworks attached to Sandra Kranich’s abstract paintings, a performance programmed as the day’s grand finale, evoked the spirit of the protests outside. After the explosions, which left black marks on the pavilion’s pristine walls, guests walked out under a thick cloud of smoke and the smell of gunpowder.

Left: A Carmela Gross installation at her solo show at the Chácara Lane. Right: Art Basel director Marc Spiegler.

Left: Performers at an event hosted by Pivô and Mendes Wood DM. Right: Artist Gediminas Urbonas explains his research with mushrooms at the Bienal de São Paulo.

Left: Architect Ruy Ohtake at Vik Muniz's opening at Nara Roesler. Right: Pivô's facade damaged by protests in downtown São Paulo.

Left: Artist Fernanda Gomes and collector Ricardo Kugelmas at an opening at Sé. Right: Artist Alex Flemming at an opening at Andrea Rehder Arte Contemporânea.

Left: Curator Caroline Carrion and artist Maria do Carmo Carvalho at her opening at Rabieh. Right: Artist Gustavo von Ha at the opening of his solo show at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo.