Porto Alegre, Brazil

the 6th Mercosul Bienal

Various Venues

IN THE WAKE OF this past summer’s Grand Tour, and the debates surrounding the Venice Biennale and Documenta 12 in particular, some of us were left wondering what, if anything, could restore confidence in the idea that biennials remain a relevant and vital form of exhibition-making. One possible answer: the Sixth Mercosul Bienal in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Organized by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro (soon to leave his post as curator of Latin American art at the Blanton Museum of Art, in Austin, Texas, to become director of the New York– and Caracas-based Coleción Patricia Phelps de Cisneros), the Mercosul Bienal reasserted what Okwui Enwezor, writing in these pages recently, called the “unique grammar” of the large-scale international exhibition. In so doing, it made a compelling case for how pertinent and, well, satisfying this type of event can be. Launched in 1997 as an alternative to the São Paulo Bienal, the Mercosul Bienal acknowledges Porto Alegre’s position near Brazil’s southern border and takes its name from the Portuguese Mercado Comum do Sul, or “common market of the south,” which designates a trading bloc including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Foregrounding the noteworthy activity of artists from this region but remaining unconstrained by borders, Pérez-Barreiro was careful not to bury viewers beneath too many artworks or to mire them in a disorienting network of far-flung sites. He created a biennial that, while feeling abundant and generative, was relatively modest in scale and allowed viewers to pace themselves and actually experience the works, individually and in relationship to one another.

Collaborating on nearly every curatorial and pedagogical aspect of the Bienal, Pérez-Barreiro presented a diverse program, making the range of curatorial methodologies as much a subject of consideration as were the works on view. The Bienal consisted of several exhibitions, each with its own distinct organizing principle. There were three surveys of individual artists of different generations, from countries within the Mercosul geography: Öyvind Fahlström (1928–1976, who moved to Sweden at age ten but was Brazilian by birth), Jorge Macchi (b. 1963, Argentinean), and Francisco Matto (1911–1995, Uruguayan). In addition, three interconnected group exhibitions—“Conversas” (Conversations), “Zona Franca” (Free Zone), and “Três Fronteiras” (Three Borders)—proposed different ways in which curators can work with artists in the realm of exhibition practice. Borrowing the title of a 1962 story by Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa, Pérez-Barreiro cites the notion of the “third bank of the river,” a kind of bridge connecting binaries, as the inspirational metaphor for the Bienal. His stated goal was to put together an international exhibition created from the Mercosul region—with many specific links to its artists, history, and sociopolitical conditions—while at the same time being mindful not to let the project close in on itself. This commitment to creating a space for discussion, exchange, negotiation, and heterogeneity was evident both in the Bienal’s structure and in the works on view. It may be, in fact, that the notion of “the conversation”—grounded as it is in multiple perspectives and processes, rather than implying a predetermined outcome—would have been an even more apt descriptor for Pérez-Barreiro’s organizing principle.

Indeed, the section of the Bienal that did adopt the “Conversations” moniker was one of the most rewarding. Here, Pérez-Barreiro invited artist, curator, writer, and editor Alejandro Cesarco to co-organize, and the pair developed a very simple and compelling methodology. They selected single works by nine artists from the Mercosul region. Each of these participants was then asked to choose additional works, by two artists living anywhere in the world, that he or she felt resonated meaningfully with the work selected by the curators. Finally, Pérez-Barreiro and Cesarco selected work by a fourth artist to support the visible or conceptual connections of each trio, or to put them into a more pronounced tension. The result was a series of nine galleries, each including works by four artists, that were, in the end, tightly conceived individual exhibitions, each with its own set of topics and proposals.

Overt political engagement connected the works in a gallery initiated by Osvaldo Salerno’s Las torres gemelas (The Twin Towers), 2004–2005, a found tabletop sculpture composed of metal fragments from an old refrigerator and computer and depicting the first plane’s collision with the first tower on September 11, 2001. Salerno’s addition of León Ferrari’s sculpture Mariposas y aviones (Butterflies and Planes), 2002, broadened the discussion of violence from the specific to the general. Ferrari (b. 1920), one of Argentina’s most distinguished artists, has long used his Pop-like sculptures and his gorgeously obsessive text-based paintings and works on paper to bravely shed light on the propensity for violence within political and religious ideologies. A combination of colorful palm-size butterflies and ominous plastic toy planes spiraling in a maelstrom around a thin, vertical metal support, Butterflies and Planes suggests a strange topiary bursting with implication, its binary elements allegorizing amplified tensions between beauty and destruction, peace and violence. Colombian artist Beatriz González’s print Zócalo de la tragedia (Baseboard of the Tragedy), 1938, the second work Salerno picked, is a graphic depiction appropriated from a mass-media image, of the assassination of a political figure and his lover. To this mix, Pérez-Barreiro and Cesarco added a more ambiguous contribution by the young Guatemalan artist Alejandro Paz. Titled Guardaespaldas (Bodyguard), 2002, it is a video and group of photographs depicting a beggar walking the streets with a bodyguard. While one observes this odd pair, their roles and functions quickly become confused, rent obsession with security and our tendency to categorize people according to superficial characterizations. Beyond the obvious affinities of subject matter between these works and the artists’ practices, the gallery succinctly articulated the historical importance of sociopolitical investigation to Latin American artists. Further, it elucidated the ways in which younger artists are taking up this mantle in a language that traverses geographic boundaries and transcends specific national events while still expressing a sense of urgency and engagement with the world.

The work in another one of the “Conversations” galleries strikingly illustrated the capacity of a minimal formal language to substantially inhabit space, and the numerous possibilities and iterations embodied within a limited palette of form and color. Here, Waltercio Caldas’s hanging wool-thread piece O ar mais próximo (The Nearest Air), 1991, was shown alongside several small oil paintings by Brazilian geometric abstractionist Milton Dacosta and a gorgeously undulating sculpture made of painted vertical rods by the influential Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto. In each case, the work’s physical presence was complicated by the play of perception, scale, and materiality: From certain viewpoints within the gallery, Caldas’s elegant ellipses of colorful yarn forcefully occupied the space, while from other positions, they were nearly invisible or served to frame the diminutive Dacosta paintings. Caldas’s addition of Steve Reich’s composition Marimbas (1986), playing continuously in the space, highlighted the cross-disciplinary nature of cultural innovation, connecting the concepts of Minimalist music to those of visual Minimalism and furthering the consideration of materiality and immateriality and how variability is inscribed in repetition.

Offering a more conventional format—the full-scale solo show—that is nevertheless rarely part of biennials, the three solo exhibitions inhabited museum spaces rather than the large pier ware- houses where the rest of the Bienal was on view. Pérez-Barreiro’s Matto retrospective marked the first time this artist’s works have been brought together and made visible his profound fascination with pre-Columbian art and his simultaneous engagement with the Uruguayan avant-garde. The curator’s choice of Fahlström was also intended to bring more attention to an overlooked artist; although widely exhibited internationally, Fahlström is relatively unknown in his birth country. Rather than being a comprehensive retrospective, however, this show focused on Fahlström’s obsessive and politically engaged maps, which felt especially relevant in light of current conflicts around the world. The third project presented the work of a living artist still relatively early in his career—Macchi, whose highly conceptual, multimedia body of work served as an interesting counterpoint to Fahlström’s urgent revelations. Macchi, too, takes up cultural systems of information and expression—maps, newspapers, film, music—but distills them into formal abstractions or finds poetic moments of congruity within proliferating complexities. The differences in tone, life experience, and approach to artmaking among these three artists made for a rhythmic viewing experience and succinctly illustrated the point that there are numerous, distinct ways of being a “Latin American artist.”

Elsewhere, the “Free Zone” section of the Bienal consisted of four modestly sized exhibitions-within-an-exhibition in which Pérez-Barreiro and three curators he invited—Moacir dos Anjos, Inés Katzenstein, and Luis Pérez-Oramas—each selected works by international artists. Significant Latin American figures such as Rivane Neuenschwander, Alejandro Otero, Cildo Meireles, and Nelson Leirner were present, as were biennial mainstays like William Kentridge, and some nice surprises, including Beth Campbell, Chiho Aoshima, and the impressive young Argentinean Leopoldo Estol. Estol’s project Poxi-pics: imágenes de principios de siglo (Poxi-pics: Images from the Beginning of the Century), 2007, in Katzenstein’s sector of the exhibition, filled a large gallery with a mixture of color photographs, borrowed clippings of texts related to drug trafficking, and fragile handmade sculptures, all referencing banal commodities that are part of our everyday lives (toothpaste, cigarettes, water bottles, fruit, coffee, newspapers). While Estol’s isolation of these objects into seductively formal color photographs serves to emphasize their melancholic beauty, the artist’s subtle interventions into his findings, both in the sculptures and for the photographs—often cutting whole forms into halves—reveal their inherent vulnerability to decay and obsolescence. In the most tightly conceived show in the “Free Zone” grouping, Pérez-Oramas explored the connections—or the third bank, to return to the Bienal’s central metaphor—between modernism and contemporary art, illuminating the ways in which exposure to the activities occurring within national boundaries can help us articulate the specific legacies of modernism within a broader international conversation. To this end, Pérez-Oramas limited his exhibition to the work of Venezuelan artists—midcentury geometric abstractions by Otero, “naive” paintings of small-town life by the self-taught Bárbaro Rivas, and contemporary explorations of the language of abstraction and photography’s capacity to distill and disorient vast spaces by Miguel Amat, Juan Araujo, Muu Blanco, and José Gabriel Fernández—in order to evaluate what he articulates in the catalogue as the historical persistence of anachronism and tradition within the Venezuelan avant-garde.

Pérez-Oramas’s approach to his exhibition embodies one of the most effective aspects of the Bienal: the interplay it set up between the local and the global, intrinsic to the variety of curatorial methodologies employed and to the substantial pedagogical programs. This theme was also examined in many of the works on view—for example, Meireles’s portrayal of water as a shared necessity and a deeply held metaphor: For his sculptural installation Marulho, 1991–2001, composed of thousands of printed images of water lying on the floor beneath a wooden dock on which viewers can stand and look out, he recorded the word “water” uttered by numerous different people in eighty languages. And the theme lurks, too, in the gut-wrenching reminder of the terrors of combat proffered by Harrell Fletcher’s installation The American War, 2005, which re-creates an institution in Ho Chi Minh City, the War Remnants Museum, that memorializes the Vietnam War. But the dynamic between local and global was most emphatically addressed within the complex projects developed through the Bienal’s artist-residency program, overseen by Ticio Escobar and Pérez-Barreiro, for the “Three Borders” section. These projects—by Jaime Gili, Daniel Bozhkov, A-1 53167 (aka Aníbal López), and Minerva Cuevas—directly addressed conditions in the eponymous trade zone where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet, and took up such topics as the circulation of language along physical and virtual pathways, displacement, colonization, indigenous arts, smuggling, border crossing, and ecology.

Impressively, the Bienal as a whole managed to sidestep the common pitfall of interpreting the works of non-Western and non-Northern artists within a hegemonic structure thinly disguised by the ostensibly open and democratic umbrella of globalization. Pérez-Barreiro’s methodology mirrors the very notion of cultural exchange by engaging in true collaboration. Most inspiring was his incorporation of artists directly into the curatorial process in the “Conversations” section, an approach that acknowledges the ongoing intimate exchanges that take place between curators and artists and that is the implicit model for the kind of colloquy he endorsed throughout the show. Exhibition practice, of course, begins with artists and their work. All exhibitions, and particularly international biennials, rely on the exchange of ideas, forms, and histories. Pérez-Barreiro’s obvious expertise, combined with his admiration for others’ perspectives, was abundant throughout the Bienal. It resulted in a simultaneously poetic and socially engaged exhibition that made a strong argument for the capacity of international exhibitions to stimulate, rather than deplete, viewers and to complicate, rather than flatten, our understanding of art.

Anne Ellegood is a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.