São Paulo

Eighteenth International São Paulo Bienal

However one views the 18th International São Paulo Bienal, mounted under the appropriately broad title "Man and Life,” one thing is certain: as an event, this second oldest of all international biennial exhibitions (it was established in 1951, by private endowment) is of extraordinary importance for the Brazilian media landscape and provides an invaluable platform for artistic development on the Latin American continent.

Latin American artists’ knowledge of international contemporary art comes, to a very large extent, through the critical media; thus each Sao Paulo Bienal becomes a litmus test for the degree of artistic exchange that has taken place between the industrialized West (and East) and the developing nations of Latin America. This Bienal in particular was marked by this litmus-test quality because of its central (and wholly arbitrary) theme, which, despite the show’s often explosive contents, proved to be its weak point. Sheila Leirner, art critic and the curator of the 18th Bienal, chose to present the works of over 50 painters from South America, Europe, the Middle and Far East, and North America as a sort of “grande tela” (huge canvas) that was intended to display not individual achievement but the common international image-language of the ’80s. To prove this communality (which not even the supporters of regionalism dispute) she lined up canvas after canvas along three lateral corridors at the center of an otherwise architecturally successful installation, thereby creating an international potpourri of color that was neither artistically nor physically digestible. (Leirner did this against the strenuous protest of artists and national commissioners alike, and in spite of the resignation of Jürgen Harten, who had been flown in from Düsseldorf to hang the show, once the plan was made known.)

The “grande tela” installation presented paintings all too facilely lumped together as "expressionistic,” including works by West German artists Jiři Georg Dokoupil, Helmut Middendorf, and Bernd Koberling (Dokoupil was in the official German delegation; the other two, along with Salomé and Hella Santarossa, were specially invited by the Bienal); the Englishwoman Paula Rego; Tadanori Yokoo, from Japan; Spanish artists Menchu Lamas and Juan Uslé; Menashe Kadishman, from Israel; Dutchman Rob Scholte (completely out of place in this context because of his strictly representational figuration); Argentinians Ana Eckell and Juan Pablo Renzi, and the young Brazilian group Casa 7, to mention but a few Was this meant to clarify or to obscure distinctions among regional styles?

At this point, of course, questions of the cultural origin or identity of the different works become especially important. Those who maintain that Latin American art lacks an identity of its own (which in the lexicon of this installation would be easy enough to prove) fail to recognize the broad-based cultural assimilation that has occurred in the late 20th century, which has blurred regional boundaries. If this installation clarified anything at all, it was that the esthetic impulses at work here were clearly not self-determined but rather adapted from the critical media, leading quite logically to heavy-handed images that do anything but reflect a personal identity

Beyond the “grande tela” installation, the rest of the exhibition did in fact do justice to individual artists, partly by allowing generous space, in most cases, for each body of work, and partly by a judicious juxtaposition of works by artists from different regions and countries. High points of this well-orchestrated dialogue included the gallery of monumental paintings by Peter Bömmels, one of West Germany’s “Neue Wilden”; the installation by British artist Stuart Brisley; the mixed-media collages by French artist Christian Boltanski; the assemblage by the Brazilian Leonilson; and the installation of freestanding figural sculptures by American artist Jonathan Borofsky. But the assumption of the superiority of American and European art foundered on the sterile sculptures by British artist John Davis; the overstuffed, bathetic installation by the American Paul Thek; and the seductive but substantively thin work of Zabunyan Sarkis, of France (to mention but a few in this category as well).

Every large exhibition incorporates a range of significant, interesting, and mediocre work. In the case of the Sáo Paulo Bienal, much depends on the choices made by the national selection committees (43 countries participated in this exhibition). However, the panorama of the central “grande tela” as well as the outstanding special exhibits—from the presentation of important forerunners (Wilfredo Lam, the Cobra movement, and Emilio Vedova, among others) and the installation of Bolivian masks to John Cage’s media-crossing presence—gave this Bienal more international weight than the 1984 Venice Biennale had, and provided a unique, irreplaceable platform for the development of art in Latin America.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.