São Paulo

Clockwise from top left: Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam. Towards the Complex. For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards, 2001, still from a color video, 12 minutes. Chien-Chi Chang, The Chain (detail), 1998, installation with black-and-white photographs, each 61 3/4 x 41 3/4“. Sarah Morris, Midtown—Armitron (Madison Square Garden), 1999, house paint on canvas, 84 1/4 x 84 1/4”. Michael Wesely, 27.3.1997–13.12.1998 Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1997–98, color photograph, 68 7/8 x 78 3/4".

Clockwise from top left: Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam. Towards the Complex. For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards, 2001, still from a color video, 12 minutes. Chien-Chi Chang, The Chain (detail), 1998, installation with black-and-white photographs, each 61 3/4 x 41 3/4“. Sarah Morris, Midtown—Armitron (Madison Square Garden), 1999, house paint on canvas, 84 1/4 x 84 1/4”. Michael Wesely, 27.3.1997–13.12.1998 Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1997–98, color photograph, 68 7/8 x 78 3/4".

the XXV Bienal de São Paulo

Various Locations

After a nearly four-year hiatus during which infighting and political posturing nearly brought about its demise, the Bienal de São Paulo resurfaced with an exhibition that was a compromise from its inception. In desperation two years ago the Bienal Foundation made the tactical decision to turn to a foreign curator, Alfons Hug, an act of disavowal akin to what academic departments call receivership: the “we can’t do it; you do it” approach to conflict (see News, January 2001). A German national who has held various curatorial and cultural-envoy positions worldwide (mostly with the Goethe Institut; he is currently director of the Rio de Janeiro branch) but who had never curated a major international show, Hug was faced with an unenviable task: to bring the high-profile exhibition, one of the three most important biennials in the world, into line, making it fiscally responsible while preserving its significance. In this endeavor Hug was as successful as anyone could have hoped. The event was efficient, pleasant, and quite elegant, rather like a large, sensible German sedan. But glaringly absent were the heat, chaotic spontaneity, and grace under pressure (to say nothing of the “body and soul”) that shape Brazilian life as much as they inform the stunning Oscar Niemeyer building that housed the show.

Whereas the previous installment of the biennial, organized by Paulo Herkenhoff around the theme of anthropophagy, was so theoretically dense as to almost occlude the art, the theme of this year’s exhibition, “Metropolitan Iconographies,” was a pretty spindly skeleton on which to hang a show. It’s not that numerous large exhibitions have already explored the theme of the city (Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru’s Koolhaas-designed “Cities on the Move” at the Wiener Secession, Catherine David’s “Cities & Networks” at Documenta X and the Tate Modern’s “Century City” spring to mind). On the contrary, confronting how art emerges from and expresses the evolving metropolis under globalization ought to be a critical imperative. The rub was that too much of the work in “Metropolitan Iconographies” was precisely iconographic—illustrative and indexical instead of generative or transformative. The result was a show that left too much of our sense of city intact.

Under this general rubric there were several complementing-and-competing models of exhibition—the familiar World’s Fair model (each of seventy countries sent one artist); the UN Security Council model (curators in eleven art-world hubs each chose five area artists); the “think global, act local” model (Agnaldo Farias, exhibition director at the São Paulo Museum of Contemporary Art, selected thirty young Brazilian artists and organized a minishow of “benchmark” works by Karin Lambrecht, Carlos Fajardo, and Nelson Leirner)—along with a small, glitch-plagued section on international Net art and a few special project rooms featuring a number of major artists: Jeff Koons, Sean Scully, Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Julião Sarmento, and Vanessa Beecroft. Hug chose to do away with the Bienal’s traditional inner sanctum, a room of masterpieces from the last several centuries—historically a big draw, since seeing a Rembrandt, van Gogh, or Picasso, normally housed in European and North American museums, remains something of a treat for a Brazilian audience. Hug’s decision was probably a necessary space-clearing measure, but it exposed a fraught choice: pleasing the jaded bienalista/art tourist or the isolated local for whom a biennial presents a major opportunity to be exposed to a broader world of art.

This year the special air-conditioned chamber housed the contemporary big guns. Koons presented a suite of hideous tropical-themed paintings; Gursky a smallish selection of crowd scenes and panoramas; and Beecroft some rather drab photographs and a video of naked bleached-blonde Teutonic models from a 2001 performance in Vienna. On the biennial’s opening day Beecroft offered a new spectacle, lining up some fifty dark-skinned young Brazilian women wearing nothing but Afro wigs and Azzedine Alaïa high-heeled shoes in the central foyer of the Niemeyer structure, where they performed the de rigueur stand-at-attention-and-eventually-lie-down routine. The transition from erotic charge to boredom was effective, and the dialogue with the architecture (often the most interesting aspect of Beecroft’s work) pretty rewarding, but there was something off-putting about the insensitivity to, or flouting of, racial politics: A nappy wig is, after all, not simply an exotic version of a blonde model’s slicked-back haircut. Analogously, Kara Walker’s Slavery! Slavery! installation, abutting the special exhibition, ran into some translation problems; it was smart to choose Walker, one of America’s most important young artists, to represent the United States, but the political, visceral power of the work—originally shown, appropriately, in the heart of the US at the Walker Art Center in 1997 but now presented in the context of Brazil’s quite different legacy of slavery—seemed defused.

In the national-representation section standouts included Willie Doherty’s two-screen video installation showing a suited fugitive running in an obscure tunnel that suggests a border zone (Doherty, a Northern Irish artist, was another winning selection, one that called into question the very idea of national representation) and Swiss artist Fabrice Gygi’s observation tower with a mechanized elevator. (The theme of panoptic power was rather popular, in fact: On the same floor of the gallery—though not officially in the national-representation section—the Cuban collective Los Carpinteros offered an observation tower made of flimsy tentlike material. On opening night, when the champagne was flowing, I saw a woman ascend the tower’s tall ladder only to fall down on her back with a thud, then get up and walk away. The installation is now off-limits.) And Russian artist Alexander Brodsky, listed as an “additional artist,” presented a miniature city built inside rusted Dumpsters. There was also an unusually large number of excellent exhibitors from somewhat less visible countries: Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, from Vietnam, who showed jarring videos of men furiously pulling rickshas underwater; Marran Gosov, from Bulgaria, who crammed himself into a small glass box in an endurance act of extreme corporeal discomfort; Lebanon native Nabil Nahas, known for his striking, colorful paintings of amoeba-like shapes; and the lately ubiquitous Anri Sala, from Albania (via France), whose video focused on the interaction of stray dogs and a lion in what looked like an abandoned zoo.

Hug’s selection of significant metropolises was criticized in the local art press: New York, London, and São Paulo itself were obvious choices, and one can certainly make a case for Tokyo, Beijing, and Berlin as art capitals, but the inclusion of Istanbul, Sydney, Moscow, Caracas, and Johannesburg seemed motivated primarily by an idea of “types” of cultures spread out across the globe—an idea that is challenged by the sometimes violent commingling of cultures one typically finds in the contemporary city. It turns out that Hug had previously worked in Moscow, Caracas, and Johannesburg (as well as Lagos and Brasília) and was familiar with the art scenes there. This is a forgivable shortcut, to be sure, and it did have the beneficial effect of highlighting what too often goes unnoticed (an active art scene in Caracas, for example), but the choice of these cities too closely limned Hug’s rather unoriginal emphasis on economic power centers and biennial havens.

The art in some of these city sections was particularly strong. Berlin was well represented by Frank Thiel and Michael Wesely, both of whom showed large photographs that demonstrate the transformation of (and incipient topographic amnesia in) Germany’s capital; the New York section featured Nancy Davenport’s barely pre-9/11 terrorist fantasies and Sarah Morris’s architecture-inflected paintings; Moscow’s group included Boris Mikhailov’s big color photographs of lumpen Muscovites; and São Paulo broke from the lockstep city-representation mode with Lina Kim’s antiseptic white room installation and Vânia Mignone’s spare, cinematic paintings. But even more impressive was Hug’s speculative “twelfth city,” in which a dozen artists were asked to respond to “the design of a Utopia.” This may have simply been a way to accommodate a spillover of talented artists from certain overrepresented cities and countries, but it worked: Projects ranged from the busy and wryly conceptual (Brazilian architects Isay Weinfeld and Márcio Kogan imagined a thoroughly militarized metropolis complete with armored bâteaux mouches, an international bourse, and a refugee park) to the whimsical and elegant (American Sarah Sze’s bright corner-hugging sculpture in her usual ready-at-hand materials stretched up several stories of the building, illuminating nuances of Niemeyer’s structure). After seeing the work made by these artists, I couldn’t help thinking that the idea of the utopian city might have been a more innovative organizing principle for the whole event.

As is often the case in so-called third-world biennials, the local talent shone. Of the young Brazilian artists selected by Farias, among those to watch are Carina Weidle (whose multimedia installation featured Astroturf arranged in wavelike shapes), José Bechara (who layered oxidizing steel wool on tarpaulins), Ana Miguel (whose video-dominated installation depicted a desert scene populated by bizarre fuzzy animals—actually finger puppets), and Marcelo Solá (whose black-and-white wall paintings with text confronted the political through the concretely poetic). Ricardo Basbaum’s clever installation invited viewers to kick soccer balls against an iron backdrop; during the opening a loud thwack regularly echoed through the building. The next day, apparently responding to complaints, Hug removed the balls, reportedly claiming that art ought to be “contemplated quietly.”

This bewildering move, and the decision to keep the biennial contained in the Niemeyer building and not allow it, as in other years, to overflow into the city, revealed much about Hug’s predispositions when push comes to shove. Yet another, more troubling controversy is even more telling, a sign of how much biennials resemble the Olympic games not only in their late-nineteenth-century form but in their late-twentieth-century spirit. A Taiwanese artist, Chien-Chi Chang, had been invited to display his haunting photographs of pairs of mental patients attached by a chain. When the Chinese embassy in Brazil found out that Chang would exhibit in an area designated “Taiwan,” which China considers a renegade territory, they threatened to pull their own artists. Confronted with the prospect of six empty spaces (left behind by China’s representative and five Beijing artists), Hug conceded to the embassy’s demand and amended Chang’s affiliation to “Taipei Fine Arts Museum,” riling both the artist and the Taiwan national curator, who circulated a notice expressing their disappointment and closed their installation with a curtain. Chang’s neighbors, the Austrian group Monochrom, then invited other artists to donate letters from their own country’s name to reconstruct the word “Taiwan” by Chang’s installa-tion (the two halves of an O formed the W), and when that too was taken down, Monochrom integrated the forbidden name into a dance performance within their own project. Perhaps this act of solidarity emblematized the biennial ideal better than the organization of the exhibition itself could ever do.

Throughout, one had the distinct impression that the twenty-fifth Bienial, more even than previous ones, was a political minefield, and Hug trod lightly to avoid having it blow up in his face. In fact, as with many biennials, the event’s energy derived in large part from the city itself. Everywhere I went in São Paulo, an iconographic (and iconoclastic) metropolis, I came across the word saudade—in songs, on billboards, on people’s lips. Brazilians claim it is untranslatable; it means something like “pleasant melancholy,” a longing for the past that produces not aching nostalgia but a peculiar kind of contentment. “Saudade lite” approximates the residual feeling left by São Paulo and the biennial. Despite the corners cut in confronting contemporary aesthetic and political realities, the biennial, like the city, demonstrated its own resilience, its viability, in all senses of the term.

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.