São Paulo

XXIV Bienal de São Paulo

The recently concluded Bienal de São Paulo was notable both for its frequently stunning work and its elaborate theoretical apparatus. Curator Paulo Herkenhoff, assisted by Adriano Pedrosa, conceived of anthropophagy (a recurring theme of Brazilian aesthetic and cultural theory since the ’20s) as the Bienal’s organizing principle. Herkenhoff suggested that such cannibalism—a model of eating and actively incorporating the other—was a novel way to reassess traditional art historical narratives and approach contemporary global artistic production.

The Bienal consisted of four overlapping sections. One followed the familiar world’s-fair/trade-show approach, with “national” curators picking single “national” artists, as if to display their wares. Another section, entitled “Roteiros . .” (“Routes,” repeated seven times to suggest seven continents or geographical zones), focused on what might be called the transnational imaginary—contemporary works concerned in some way with “incorporating the alien.” A third section followed Brazilian art, from Brazil’s response to modernism through Lygia Clark’s and Hélio Oiticica’s groundbreaking projects in the ’60s and ’70s to the often superb work undertaken by the country’s young artists today. Finally, “Núcleo Histórico,” the most elaborate and hyped part of the show, presented a reconsideration of global art history under the sign of anthropophagy, from the sixteenth century to the end of the twentieth.

Each section had its highlights. Olafur Eliasson’s icy plane, Miroslaw Balka’s installation of an invisible dog pound, and Brian Maguire’s project on “troubled” São Paulo youth each stood out in the “National Representations” area, though Herkenhoff’s globalizing approach seemed to suggest that such nationally conceived groupings will soon be obsolete. “Roteiros,” which presented the work of some fifty artists chosen by ten curators, was considerably more memorable, especially the excellent work by Janet Cardiff, Francis Alÿs, Moshekwa Langa, Doris Salcedo, Meyer Vaisman, and Nobuyoshi Araki. But the section devoted to contemporary Brazilian art—subdivided into two parts, “Um e Outro” (One and other) and “Um entre Outros” (One among others)—was undoubtedly the exhibition’s real coup. “One and other,” curated by Pedrosa, featured elegant, provocative works on paper by Sandra Cinto, mixed-media works by Daniel Senise and Valeska Soares, installations by Ernesto Neto and Rivane Neuenschwander, and poignant and delicate paintings by the late Leonilson. (Cildo Meireles’s red room and Beatriz Milhazes’s brilliant paintings were shown in a separate area but were equally noteworthy.) These artists, well versed in art history and contemporary art theory—but not crippled by the irony or political smugness that sometimes reigns in (and reins in) their North American counterparts—deserve a much more comprehensive show.

Núcleo Histórico” was the biennial’s real disappointment. Herkenhoff invited two dozen internationally known curators to contribute works expressing their vision of what anthropophagy might mean for art. Some took the cue all too literally (Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Sons; Bacon), others all too opaquely (van Gogh as “cannibalizing” his contemporaries? Ryman’s white canvases?). The term attained a ubiquity that blunted its critical edge. Meanwhile, the “historical nucleus” closely limned the art-historical canon, as if putting a Brazilian spin on this nucleus—“contamination” is the word Herkenhoff used—were sufficient to change its atomic structure.

Given the show’s scope, ambitions, and thematic (which claimed to draw from Jean-Francois Lyotard’s conception of “density”), it is not particularly astonishing that the viewer was left with a bit of indigestion. More surprising was the hunger for more which followed. But such, perhaps, is the dense structure of desire from which anthropophagy itself arises.

Nico Israel