São Paulo

“Arte/Cicade 3”

Industrias Matarazzo

The third edition of the large-scale exhibition “Arte/Cidade 3: a cidade e suas historias” (Art/city 3: the city and its histories) included about forty Brazilian artists and designers working in different media—from newcomer photographer Patricia Azevedo to veteran architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, musician and writer Jose Miguel Wisnik to abstract painter Carlos Vergara, and fashion photographer Willi Biondani to designer Carlos Nader. The show also featured Brazilian artists with a presence on the international art scene, such as Cildo Meireles. This eclectic, cross-generational mix was one of the show’s unique aspects, yet the thoughtful context provided by curator Nelson Brissac Peixoto was the project’s distinguishing mark. Like a handful of other recent mega-exhibitions (last year’s “Sculpture Projects in Munster,” the Johannesburg Biennial’s “History and Geography,” and “InSite” in San Diego and Tijuana come to mind), “Arte/Cidade 3” attempted to address memory, geography, and histories of the city. Yet despite the domestic focus, the carefully constructed setting of “Arte/Cidade 3” reached, on one level, far beyond more international efforts.

A respected cultural critic in Brazilian intellectual circles, Brissac Peixoto has written extensively on cities and their histories, and has only somewhat recently turned to curatorial practice, organizing all three editions of “Arte/Cidade,” beginning with the first in 1994. The show’s third installment was located along a five-kilometer stretch of an old railroad linking the Luz (light) station to the once-prosperous Matarazzo industries, with a stop at the ruins of the Moinho Central (Central mill). This trajectory was meaningful because it revisited once—industrious, now—defunct sites in São Paulo, the most important economic center in Latin America. Until the ’70s, the Matarazzos, an Italian immigrant family, were a national symbol of wealth and prosperity. In another of the show’s clever twists, the train—a powerful, turn-of-the-century emblem of speed, development, and modernization—was used to transport visitors from one site to another.

Such was the layered context Brissac Peixoto both rescued and reconstructed. Yet, although his selection and elaboration of sites and trajectories was intelligent in recalling the histories of and desires for speed, development, and modernization so characteristic of the Paulistano bourgeoisie, his choice of artists and projects unfortunately failed to match or contribute to his complex urban and historical excavations. In most cases, what one encountered throughout the heavily layered and beautifully decayed sites were works that either simplistically addressed or completely ignored the issues raised by Brissac Peixoto’s dense curatorial setting, and that dealt with the space and its history in a superficial or purely formalist way. Among the exceptions were Meireles’ room covered with syringes, which reflected the current use of this now-abandoned site, and Mendes da Rocha’s locked elevator running up and down, a piece that questioned the function and productivity of a building that is a landmark of Brazilian industrialization.

The outcome was frustrating, yet who was to blame? The question raises fundamental curatorial problems that only seem more poignant in site-specific exhibitions. Here, the curator’s task cannot be restricted to selecting names and commissioning pieces, but must also encompass the supervision of projects in order to relate their conceptually to sites and settings. The major hardship is that an artist may respond to one project or context better than another, and negotiations with curators may be quite tricky. What is at stake here are the strict and clear demarcations of fields and practices traditionally allotted to curator and artist. This delicate overlapping seems at times unavoidable, yet can artists and curators handle it?

In the end, if “Arte/Cidade 3” was a failure, the final record of the show was a success. Since the exhibition catalogue had to be ready for the opening (another problem faced by site-specific shows), it included only a penetrating essay by Brissac Peixoto on the symbols and symptoms of the third-world desire for modernization, industrialization, and urbanization, juxtaposed with beautiful black-and-white photographs of the decadent, loaded, and artless sites.

Adriano Pedrosa