São Paulo

the 27th São Paulo Bienal

Various Venues

FOR THIS INCARNATION of the São Paulo Bienal, chief curator Lisette Lagnado—along with Adriano Pedrosa, Cristina Freire, José Roca, Rosa Martínez, and guest curator Jochen Volz—decided to do away with the exhibition’s long-standing separation by nationality. Instead, the organizers framed the exhibition around the theme stated in the biennial’s title, “Como Viver Junto” (How to Live Together), taken from a series of lectures Roland Barthes delivered at the Collège de France in Paris in 1976–77. This subject was approached from two angles, dubbed “programs for life” and “constructive projects,” which might be described as focusing on social and architectural realities, respectively. These concepts were inspired by Hélio Oiticica—specifically his notion of “construction,” which was developed in the context of his Neo-concrete experimentation around 1960, and the “farewell to aesthetics” that was expressed in his later performances and participatory installations. Bringing all these ideas and terms together, Lagnado focused on ideologies of and proposals for living communally, as well as on the role of artistic responses to them, seeking to explore what she termed the “residual difference between art and life, representation and reality.”

Following the parcours of the installation through the vast Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, built in the 1950s by Oscar Niemeyer, left no doubt that living together more often than not results in struggle rather than in harmony. Front and center on the ground floor was Jane Alexander’s visceral installation Security/ Segurança, 2006, a large, fenced-in lawn with a sculpture of a bird, surrounded by a moat of rusted machetes and watched over by hired guards dressed in South African security uniforms. Flanking this piece, on freestanding walls, were two photographic series that merged social awareness with artfulness: Guy Tillim’s “Congo Democratic,” 2006, a chronicle of last year’s presidential campaign in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mauro Restiffe’s “Empossamento” (Inauguration), 2003, which was taken during the first inauguration ceremony of Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. While Tillim’s photography revealed an atmosphere of threat as much as of hope, where each public rally could—as several did—turn violent at any point, Restiffe pushed the event itself into the margins by focusing instead on the festive crowds gathered in Brasília.

Down the hall, in a room-size cardboard enclosure, was perhaps the most powerful work of the entire biennial—a crowded installation by Thomas Hirschhorn, titled Restore Now, 2006. Employing his now-iconic oversize paper and cardboard replicas of “bound” volumes of philosophy books, mannequins punctured by nails and screws, sofas and tables upended and stacked, and a toolshed replete with screwdrivers, hammers, axes, and drills, Hirschhorn took his artistic practice to its logical extreme by securing everything (right down to the supporting shelves and pedestals) with brown packing tape. Books, tools, props, and figures were all confined and strapped down, suggesting that whatever use, leverage, or freedom they once possessed was frozen in a state of random, fragmented signification, and making clear that the historical achievements they represent, and any benefit they might once have provided, can no longer be taken for granted.

A sense of skepticism also dominated on the second floor, where documentary work centered around the occupation of marginal spaces, both literally and in the social sense of the disavowed or the outcast. Photographs by Randa Shaath, for example, depicted a community of poor migrants living on rooftops in Cairo; Servet Koçyiğit’s videos showed the lives of street children in Istanbul; Ahlam Shibli’s photos documented the lives of Muslim transvestites living in Western European cities; and Pieter Hugo’s disturbing series of photographs, “The Hyena Men of Nigeria,” 2005, portrayed itinerant performers who showcase their barely tamed animals—dogs, monkeys, hyenas, and various large cats—in variety sideshows across Africa. Other artists collaborated more directly with subcultural groups: Jarbas Lopes and Roosivelt Pinheiros presented the installation Rio Amazonas, 2006, a communelike arrangement of tents and improvised boundaries made with bricks, complete with drumming hippies at the opening, and Tadej Pogačar, showed Code: Red Brasil, Daspu, 2006, a project jointly developed with Daspu, a clothing label run by Rio de Janeiro’s sex workers. All these works showed at least an ambivalence toward models of neighborliness, since circumstances here seem at best to represent ways of living side by side rather than together.

By contrast, the works that seemed to engage the biennial’s theme most optimistically were those that took spatial rather than social organization as their starting point—taxonomic and architectural displays, studies of cityscapes or complex economic infrastructures. Pertinent in this regard was a section of the exhibition focusing on Acre, Brazil’s westernmost state, which is more than 90 percent rain forest. Formerly an important source of rubber, Acre is today a stronghold of ecological activism, as well as of indigenous- and labor-rights organizations. Included in this section were Susan Turcot’s large, strangely psychological drawings addressing the effect of deforestation and road construction; paintings by Hélio Melo, a self-trained artist and former rubber tapper; and Alberto Baraya’s life-size latex casts of tree trunks bearing the deep scarring that results from the extraction of rubber. Overall, Acre was presented as a model of a realized “different way”—combining informal economies, cooperative production, unionized labor, and indigenous representation with a deep sense of history and self-awareness. This section made manifest the notion (implicit throughout the exhibition) that the best opportunities for the rethinking of shared existence are offered by specific cities, communities, and neighborhoods, where the documentary and the constructed, the speculative and the empirical, can come together. But it also revealed the key problem with the biennial, as in general with much of the art and many of the exhibitions that deal with social issues and activism: The importance and urgency of the subject matter could not be matched by the quality of the work. The issues most directly relevant to a local audience may not result in works that successfully inscribe themselves into a global contemporary discourse. The “residual difference between art and life, representation and reality” in fact often seems to be the reason for art’s failure to respond adequately to its subject matter through the confines of its forms.

It was therefore particularly apropos that the biennial included a separate section, guest-curated by Jochen Volz, which took the opposite strategy, approaching this “residual difference” from the other side, by exploring how it pertains to the institutional frameworks of art. Next to an excellent selection of works by Marcel Broodthaers, as well as by artists who have responded to him directly—such as Tacita Dean in her film Section cinéma (Homage to Marcel Broodthaers), 2002—Volz placed a num- ber of works that investigate the continued influence of the system of historical and formal organization known as the museum. Among them were Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art, 1997–2002, which uses the format of the museum gift shop to present handcrafted objects made from obsolete African currencies; Goshka Macuga’s model-like modernist pavilion containing a miniature group show of vaguely modern-looking works; Mabe Bethônico’s forays into the archives of the São Paulo Bienal, which examine how its history is understood by the institution itself; and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “tropicalized” version of Jean Prouvé’s 1951 Tropical House, re-created out of corrugated tin and populated with palm trees so as to insert local life back into a structure that had been designed to exorcise all traces of it in the name of colonialism. It was striking that by operating primarily in the context of the art world these works actually possessed more power, and seemed more capable of a profound engagement with exclusion and misrepresentation, than those in the rest of the exhibition that aimed to exercise “real” social criticism.

Although “Como Viver Junto” emerged as an interesting and at times fascinating exhibition, which made great strides toward a more thorough structure of inclusion with many works that were clearly sympathetic to their subjects, the biennial above all illustrated contemporary art’s troubled relation to the ways human life is affected by the realities of misery, struggle, and economic hardship, as well as by hope and by tolerance. The fading power of symbolic gestures within the discourse of identity politics and the widening group of speaking subjects seem paradoxically to have led to a loss of strategies to represent or talk about “others” as well as about oneself. It seems that how to find representational procedures sophisticated enough to deal with the consequences of global crises and how to provide more relevant or interesting ways to increase the visibility of those affected by them are among the major challenges for art today. Indeed, the 27th São Paulo Bienal was a compelling demonstration of the art world’s struggle—and, frequently, its failure—to create a visual language capable of fostering a conversation on a par with the world’s complexity and in which each participant is adequately represented.

Christian Rattemeyer is Associate Curator in the Department of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.