An untitled installation of the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, 2012.

An untitled installation of the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, 2012.

the 30th São Paulo Bienal

An untitled installation of the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, 2012.

“LANGUAGE IS ALWAYS A STATE OF EXHIBITION.” The line perfectly encapsulates one of the dominant aesthetic strategies on view in the Thirtieth São Paulo Bienal. Taken from Alejandro Cesarco’s video Methodology, 2011, one of the most thoughtful among the three thousand works exhibited, it is part of a conversation that revolves around the fundamental absences—of the self from language, of language from the other—often structuring narrative, time, and social relationships. In this sense, it responds to the core motif conceived for the biennial. With his call for “The Imminence of Poetics,” chief curator Luis Pérez-Oramas evokes a time of becoming, as well as an understanding of communication that accounts for both what remains unsaid and that which may be said in the future. As a result, language itself—understood as both writing and speech—is predominantly on display. Such an approach is exemplified by works that treat language as material, for instance Erica Baum’s “Card Catalogue,” 1996–97, and “Index,” 1999–2000, which juxtapose images and text or words and numbers, mining typographic forms for the production of a visual poetry. Franz Mon similarly explores visible language by spatializing text, as in the octagonal form that houses his work Mortuarium für zwei Alphabete (Mortuarium for Two Alphabets), 1970, an immersive installation composed of a text and its recorded performance. By probing the materiality of speech, Mon and others also explore the ways in which spoken language both reinforces and destabilizes meaning.

While language’s materiality is a primary concern for many artists in the exhibition, its obsessive deployment is most remarkably evinced in the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosário, which in many ways forms the conceptual center of the biennial. His work occupies one of the largest spaces allocated to a single artist; here the curatorial poetics resonates with his use of language as an instrument for mapping his universe. Admitted to a psychiatric hospital at twenty-nine, Bispo do Rosário made his objects in isolation from the art world. His work incorporates everything from buttons and paper to shoes, bottles, and cans, with religious messages and other texts stitched onto his prolific creations (he repeatedly claimed God had chosen him to make these objects). While such outsider art is not foreign to the history of modern art in São Paulo and beyond, its exhibition in this context raises challenging questions about reception, appropriation, and artistic agency. In a neighboring gallery, f. marquespenteado combines fabrics and embroidery with found images and sculpture to address issues of gender and power in society. Viewing his laboriously constructed installation, I overheard a visitor ask, “Is this also Bispo do Rosário?” How can exhibition displays make legible the psychiatric context of such works? At issue is not the fact that Bispo do Rosário was included in the biennial, but a difference in institutional practices highlighted by his work: In a psychiatric context, obsessive production is related to the diagnosis of a clinical condition, while the institution of art legitimates obsessive elaboration as an aesthetic choice.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, the formal repetition engaged by Bispo do Rosário is by no means limited to language: Many artists also play with the category of photographic collection. In these instances, the work’s serial format engages a quasi-archival logic in order to produce different types of knowledge or elicit countermemories as an alternative to official accounts of history (e.g., August Sander, Iñaki Bonillas). Other collections, such as Roberto Obregón’s, resort to the materials of nature. His assembly of real and watercolor rose petals recalls the seriality of some of the biennial’s photographic work but is instead motivated by the desire for a universal symbolism that could convey the precarity of life and communication itself. That part of the work is pink might trouble some critics, so closely does Obregón’s hue court (if ultimately abstaining from) kitschy effects.

Given the emphasis on repetition as a formal principle in much of the work on display, film offered other artists the means by which to engage alternative structures for narrative, time, and perception, as in Cesarco’s video. Rodrigo Braga’s films stood out for both their superb installation and for the sheer opacity of the enigmas they staged: He struggles with a goat; his hand grasps at a crab in the mud. If Braga explores the struggle of man and animal in an effort to reveal their common nature through filmed performance, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s 16mm, 2008–11, presents its dialectical counterpart by redeploying lessons learned from structural film. Here, for every meter the camera travels in space, a meter of film is recorded. This formal mechanism interacts with the work’s rain-forest setting to create a heightened perceptual effect, unmooring perspectival conventions: As the camera advances, we experience the ways in which the forest’s undifferentiated ground is at once pure surface and pure depth.

Such a diverse body of work could only be held together by a compelling exhibition design. Under the direction of architect Martin Corullon, the spaces alternate between open and closed rooms, which display an acute sensitivity to differences in scale among the various works. These architectural variations and rhythms are especially well suited to the installation by Fernanda Gomes; her quotidian materials—from plywood to feathery tree seeds—occupy the thresholds between interior space, exhibition space, and the perimeter of the biennial pavilion. Thus Gomes does not use the architecture as a container for display; instead, she harnesses its frames to productive ends, generating a thoughtful space for immanence in perception. In the careful specificity of its siting, her work underscores what is perhaps the common thread linking the diverse poetics that the curators chose to put on view: an affirmation of the inevitable partiality—the very situatedness—of all perspectives.

Kaira M. Cabañas is a lecturer and the director of the MA in modern art program at Columbia University in New York.