New York

“Brazil: Body and Soul.” Installation view.

“Brazil: Body and Soul.” Installation view.

“Brazil: Body and Soul”

“Brazil: Body and Soul” is among the most expensive and polemical museum exhibitions in recent memory, and its genesis is worth considering. The extravaganza is a refinement of “Mostra do redescobrimento” (Rediscovery exhibition), which in 2000 celebrated the five-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese in Brazil. Installed in three sprawling Oscar Niemeyer buildings at Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo and accompanied by thirteen exhibition catalogues, this encyclopedic overview gathered half a millennium of Brazilian culture—from archaeological finds to contemporary art—and drew almost two million visitors, which, for a numbers-obsessed establishment, was a sure mark of success. But there were critics, many of whom assailed the emergence of a unique contribution to exhibition design: highly elaborate “stages” built by a team of set designers whose authority seemed to surpass that of the curators. So, for instance, in a section called “O Olhar distante” (The distant gaze), works by foreign travelers were displayed amid a forest of artificial blue trees and bathed in blue light. Much to the dismay of local detractors, this regrettable museological model would soon be reprised in New York.

Indeed, the show’s organizers, Associação Brasil 500 Anos de Artes Visuais (a coalition of businesspeople that last year renamed itself BrasilConnects, in keeping with its global aspirations), had a master plan: to send the exhibition abroad, introducing the world to the cultural splendors of Brazil. Sections of the show have already been seen in Buenos Aires, Lisbon, London, Paris, and elsewhere, and New York’s Guggenheim Museum is the ultimate, coveted stop. Of course this is not the first Guggenheim-Brazil alliance. Last summer, Guggenheim senior curator Germano Celant oversaw Brazil’s million-dollar representation at the Venice Biennale (produced by BrasilConnects). And, after a two-year flirtation with four Brazilian cities, the Guggenheim recently popped the question to Rio de Janeiro, where it plans to build its very first third-world outpost, to be designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. While director Thomas Krens is determined to look before leaping where this initiative is concerned, with the downtown Manhattan museum on hold, Brazil seems a Guggenheim priority.

It is in this context—uptown art capitalism meets third-world arrivisme—that the Guggenheim’s exhibition must be understood.

The works in “Brazil: Body and Soul” date from the seventeenth century to the present, though the entire nineteenth century is inexplicably skipped (an omission head curator Edward Sullivan acknowledges but does not manage to justify in the 600-page catalogue). Indigenous, Afro-Brazilian, modern, and contemporary art and artifacts are all represented, but religious objects—saints and angels, processional articles, decorative and architectural elements, and ex-votos (I counted 523 on the checklist)—outnumber everything else several times over. The centerpiece of the show is a five-story eighteenth-century altar dismantled in a church in São Bento de Olinda, Pernambuco, and reconstructed on Fifth Avenue. While spectacular, the altar, in losing its function, has lost its significance; here it is nothing more than a fetish within the exoticizing apparatus of the museum. Ironically, the altar, like Carmen Miranda, another Brazilian icon, is in fact Portuguese (attributed to José de Santo Antônio Vilaça, a Portuguese monk who never set foot in the colony). Further disturbance: Conservational logic would suggest that the altar’s séjour in the climate-controlled air of the Guggenheim might compromise its structural integrity when it returns to its hot and humid homeland.

Starring alongside the Portuguese altar is another foreigner—Nouvel himself, who was given carte blanche to transform the museum for the occasion. Here, melodramatic black walls recall the nostalgic blue of “O Olhar distante.” Like the set designers before him, Nouvel has enjoyed considerable say in the display of the art itself, which only confirms the overvaluation of spectacular architecture over art epidemic in today’s art world. And now, with Nouvel’s appointment as architect for Guggenheim Rio, it all makes sense: “Brazil: Body and Soul” was a timely opportunity for the Frenchman to dip his feet in Brazilian culture.

After winding up the black-washed spiral rife with jewelry, feathered adornments, objects in wood, gold, and silver, one finally finds evidence of our own era. A series of white rooms contains a selection of works from such leading midcentury figures as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, as well as from contemporary luminaries Tunga, Adriana Varejão, Miguel Rio Branco, and Ernesto Neto. (Noticeably absent is Cildo Meireles, who has chosen not to participate in this or any BrasilConnects project, in protest of their “simplistic” approach.) Never has such good art looked so bad. The poor, peripheral installations of modern and contemporary work push the notion of the museum’s “kiss of death” to new extremes. That an institution founded precisely to showcase nonobjective art would so disregard modernist abstraction is particularly incomprehensible in the case of Brazil, which has made such substantial contributions to the idiom. Brazilian contemporary artists fare better if only because they exhibit regularly in New York, so they don’t have to rely on the Guggenheim for exposure.

Blockbusters come and go, but the fragmentary, perverse image of Brazil disseminated in this exhibition will take time to redress. “Brazil: Body and Soul” may inspire tourism and investment, but the reported $8 million production fee paid by the Friends of BrasilConnects seems like a high price, especially if the show puts Brazil on the (tourist) map for pleasure rather than culture. In the end, what one misses most here is intelligence. Then again, this exhibition only promised to deliver Brazil’s body and soul—one hopes the country’s mind will figure in future curatorial endeavors.

Adriano Pedrosa is curator of the Museu de Arte de Pampulha, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.