Waldemar Cordeiro, Parque Infantil do Clube Esperia (Playground Esperia Club), ca. 1965/2012, concrete. Installation view, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo.

Waldemar Cordeiro, Parque Infantil do Clube Esperia (Playground Esperia Club), ca. 1965/2012, concrete. Installation view, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo.

the 30th São Paulo Bienal

Waldemar Cordeiro, Parque Infantil do Clube Esperia (Playground Esperia Club), ca. 1965/2012, concrete. Installation view, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo.

LUIS PÉREZ-ORAMAS, the chief curator of the Thirtieth São Paulo Bienal, stakes out a critical space for an “imminent poetics”—for “what is on the verge of happening, the word on the tip of one’s tongue,” as he puts it—as if now is the time for art to open onto the “about to be” rather than remain in thrall to melancholic reflections on “that which has been,” or on what art has lost of its own histories. The exhibition makes the claim that to turn away from an art of explicit social engagement is not necessarily, or not only, to turn inward or backward to older formalisms; there may be ways to imagine the efficacy of art beyond this simple dichotomy.

Certainly, the hundreds of artworks on view here veer away from obvious social or political content, making the case for a more nuanced sense of what a relationship between art and politics might look like. To be frank, the term poetics is given a broader ambit than it can comfortably encompass. At issue is something closer to what I would call the work of the work, following Maurice Blanchot. That is to say, we are urged to attend to the conflicting demands made by the work in a permanent state of questioning itself and its place in the world. Oppositions such as those currently prevailing between poetics and politics, the hermetic and the social, are precisely what much of the work refuses and what the curatorial strategy tries to reconfigure. Pérez-Oramas’s decision to represent each artist with a substantial amount of work, shown in a single and relatively autonomous space, allows viewers to get a handle on the art and a grasp of its nuances—something fairly rare in the desperate anthologizing that is typical of themed biennials.

Metonymy and juxtaposition, key poetic strategies, help to drive these nuances home. The adjacencies here are unpredictable, and as ever, the ones that carry the most danger or verge on the absurd often work best. Absalon’s white monochrome units of sensory deprivation are close to Brazilian artist Fernanda Gomes’s brilliantly spare spatial bricolages, as are John Zurier’s slow, sensual, yet exacting paintings. It is an incongruous cluster, but questions of immersion and of what it is to be in the artwork, in both a phenomenological and an ethical sense, are posed in each work. Elsewhere, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s film of being drawn deeper and deeper into jungle vegetation reflects on what pulls us into images—including his own serial drawings—only to be lost there. The excesses of Hans Peter Feldmann’s collections of other people’s personal effects, near the extraordinary work of the outsider artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário, both have a compulsive logic. Objects here are not mired in the past, but are motile, modular units of meaning, however opaque—or perpetually imminent—that meaning may be. Even the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay loses some of its classical poise here and looks a little manic, while its late creator appears more like a purveyor of synthetic totems of nature than a latter-day Green Man or forest sage. Laid out in this way, a reclusive impulse is shown to be not much of a refuge. It’s not that there’s no safe place—just that art isn’t it.

What does it mean, then, to claim a space for intensely reflective work at a time when direct protest may seem more important than ever? The question is crucial, and necessarily complicated. Pérez-Oramas answers by making a case for art to do its work differently from other knowledge forms. What kind of critical regime must be dominant, in any case, for art’s proximity to poetry to be assumed to be any withdrawal at all? Rather than plead a special case for poetics, one might instead question how far art criticism has come to believe that art is subservient to other determining orders of meaning, whether they be social or technological.

In a show with multiple threads, one of the most intriguing is the movement away from visions of grand utopias toward basic forms of community and collectivity. The work of historical figures in the show illuminates this transition. Waldemar Cordeiro was among the Brazilian Concretists who exhibited in the First São Paulo Bienal, in 1951, presenting abstractions that made plain Concretismo’s relationship to Constructivism. His later playgrounds, presented in the show through a series of black-and-white photographs and a mazelike reconstruction, extend the geometric vocabulary of circles and triangles into the field of childhood play—itself no less a social field than any other, as well as a powerfully symbolic sphere where the conflicts, alliances, and dangers of adult life are allegorized. This is a trajectory in which the utopian gives way to the pragmatic, yet the children articulate a poetics of space, their massive abstract play structures recalling the props of Neo-concretist performance.

Near the entrance of the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, but so self-effacing that you might easily miss it, is another exemplar of this movement, Ciudad Abierta (Open City), a utopian community affiliated with the circle of radical Chilean architects known as the Valparaiso School. Since the 1970s, the group has been building its own dwellings communally, rather than individually, without drawings or models, at a site just outside the city of Valparaiso. Beyond the inherently arresting nature of an encounter with such an enterprise at the heart of Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist pavilion—situated in a park in one of the largest and most complex cities in the world—I couldn’t help thinking that the display’s retiring quality spoke to the core problematic of the show. It was inevitably hard to get any real sense of the group’s ideas, including the idea that architecture might begin with the poetic word rather than form, from the presentation of small-scale photographs of their experimentally staged collective events.

If the Open City group’s self-invented community exemplifies a kind of turning inward, so too does the work of Fernand Deligny, who is well known in France as a radical psychiatrist and educator. The story goes that Deligny refused Félix Guattari’s invitation to photograph les événements on the streets of Paris in May ’68 and retired instead to the rural depths of the Cévennes to establish a community of autistic youngsters. For therapeutic purposes, he and others created lignes d’erre (wandering lines), drawings whose meandering vectors mapped the children’s movements. Determining how such material should be exhibited is never straightforward. Here the wandering drawings are exhibited in a manner quite contrary to the way they were conceived (as maps). They hang from the ceiling like Mira Schendel drawings, which contextualizes them “as art” in a problematic way but also allows us to see them, arguably in the visual terms they require. Deligny’s idea of the “autistic image,” the image that is mute but that communicates without words, would from the outset pose a challenge to existing notions of linguistic signification; it influenced key thinkers like Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. The latter would insist that Deligny’s “geoanalytic” mappings have nothing to do with language: “It is on the contrary language that must follow them.”

The lignes perhaps epitomize Pérez-Oramas’s admirable effort to rethink what art’s relation to language might be—to reinvigorate, that is, the word poetics with some of its originary avant-garde criticality. Muteness’s opposite, lexical surfeit, can also exceed and explode the constraints of linguistic structure—and this dynamic is abundantly evident in the extraordinary lifework (a better way of putting it than outsider art, surely) of Ivorian artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. In the most vivid pictogrammatical terms, Bouabré’s vastly complex self-invented syllabary generates its own meanings—arguably far more robustly than the work of most professional artists.

Pérez-Oramas is a brave man to state in the catalogue that “it is impossible to be global” (italics his). If the global is unthinkable, it is at least partly because it is impossible to encompass the precision of the local in a phantasmic projection of an imaginary everywhere—which is what the construct of “the global” actually is. Bouabré began constructing his syllabary around 1950. His goal was to help the people of his community learn to read, a local impulse if ever there was one. Crucially, Bouabré’s localness did not give way to the universal or the global, to the every-place that is really a no-place. It gave way to a particularity so precise and extreme that it simply can’t be reduced to platitudes suggesting that all microcosms are actually macrocosms, singularities waiting to expand.

But this particularity isn’t hermetic. The best work in this biennial does not withdraw from the social world, but rather occupies that world differently. Although the curators insist that this alternate vision of art is not “formalist,” it is surely not unrelated to critical moments in modernism’s history where art’s raison d’être has been most under threat. It is not inconsistent, for example, with the way Russian Formalists such as Viktor Shklovsky maintained the systematic operation of formal “devices” in the service of estrangement (of making strange what is familiar) at a time when avant-garde practice was endangered by totalitarianism. The prospects for art now might seem much brighter, given the sheer amount of it that we are meant to be able to engage with. But of course the difficulty of making art matter—and making art that matters—is all the greater. The São Paulo Bienal makes art matter by unexpected means. At its best, the show lays out an array of possibilities between art that turns its back on the world and art that carries the world on its back.

The 30th São Paulo Bienal is on view through December 9.

Briony Fer is a professor of the history of art at University College London.