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‘Various Earths’: On the 35th Bienal de São Paulo

While ‘Choreographies of the Impossible’ stumbles curatorially, this edition nevertheless feels vital and exciting


Fonte: https://www.frieze.com/article/35th-bienal-de-sao-paulo-review-2023




Publicado em: 15 de Setembro de 2023

In their statement to accompany ‘Choreographies of the Impossible’, the four curators of the 35th Bienal de São Paulo – Manuel Borja Villel, Grada Kilomba, Diane Lima and Hélio Menezes – refer to their methodology as ‘horizontal’. Elsewhere, in the catalogue, they’ve described their decision-making process as driven not by consensus but by dissensus. This emphasis could suggest a dialectical technique that would highlight the unique interests and expertise of the curatorial team or it might simply be a way of telling the audience that they couldn’t agree on much. I wish they would have admitted the latter, as that’s the experience you feel navigating their impressive yet scattered, frustrating yet significant exhibition, the fragmentary nature of which serves as a boon to its decolonial, transhistorical enterprise.

The pavilion opens with Ibrahim Mahama’s massive site-specific installation, Parliament of Ghosts (2023): filling the space are egg-shaped ceramics, some erupted. Off to one side and sprinkled with dirt is a rusted railway track, signalling the transportation of resources and of bodies that served the Portuguese colonial project. Contrast this with a grouping of works that all convey the expressive movement of the body. Katherine Dunham’s joyful partnered dances – three videos of which are paired here with her friend Maya Deren’s Meditation on Violence (1948) – draw from African and Caribbean traditions to reimagine a Black diasporic choreography. Adjacent is a collaborative, overly ambitious installation by Ana Pi and Taata Kwa Nkisi Mutá Imê, featuring copper kinetic sculptures and animated videos against a soiled floor littered with cast footprints, which Pi describes in the wall text as ‘various earths’. It’ll be hard to extricate this phrase from my experience of the biennial.

This year’s iteration features 121 artists, most from countries in the wake of colonialism. Two works by Indigenous Brazilian artist Denilson Baniwa – installed at the top of the ramp on the first floor of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed biennial pavilion – affirm this theme of various earths. Just outside, Baniwa has created a labyrinth of soil beds where, in collaboration with Jerá Guarani, he has planted corn (Kaá, 2023): in the centre of the maze sits a large, ovate ceramic. This consideration of land calls to mind the extractivist policies of Brazil’s far-right former president, Jair Bolsonaro – still in power during the planning of this biennial – who advanced the deforestation of Indigenous lands, specifically in Baniwa’s home state of Amazonas, on behalf of industrial agriculture. These unsustainable land thefts disrupt the world’s largest tropical rainforest and actively contribute to our climate catastrophe – a subject conspicuously unaddressed in the biennial. Just across the hall from Baniwa’s display is a kitchen run by Ocupação 9 de Julho – MSTC, a popular movement advocating for rights to housing and public space in São Paulo. Using sustainable, locally sourced ingredients, the kitchen is an extension of the women-led collective’s Cozinha project – community spaces where individuals can gather over food to discuss political and social reforms. ‘Autonomias Coletivas’ (Collective Autonomies) is just one of the curators’ planned community outreach projects, which will also include a large-scale educational initiative.

Among the failures of this otherwise fascinating show are Paulistan firm Vão’s architectural interventions. One in particular – the creation of a pathway intended to encourage visitors to walk directly from the first floor to the third before descending to the second, supposedly to subvert the existing flow of the building and to draw attention to how we move through the pavilion – was completely overlooked not only by myself but by most visitors I spoke to.

The first and second floors are dominated by installations – including some great ones by Julien Creuzet (Zumbi, Zumbi Eterno, 2023), Igshaan Adams (Samesyn, 2023) and Daniel Lie (Outres, 2023) – paired with smaller rooms dedicated mostly to video and photographic work. The contrast felt awkward, despite these more intimate spaces containing some of my favourite art of the entire biennial: Dayanita Singh’s jubilant photographic series ‘Museum of Dance: Mother Loves to Dance’ (2021); Rosa Gauditano’s shots of underground lesbian clubs in São Paulo (‘Forbidden Lives’, c.1970s); Citra Sasmita’s feminist canvases done with a traditional Balinese technique (‘Timur Merah’, 2023–ongoing). Conversely, a Dan Flavin knock-off by Kapwani Kiwanga was anomalous and disappointing (pink-blue, 2017) and a painting by Sidney Amaral (The Foreigner, 2011) felt unintentionally lonely. These isolated artist presentations seemed to be positioned as mini, incomplete exhibitions, removed from the overall context of the biennial – not of a piece with the dialogue ostensibly being promoted by the exhibition design.

The third floor, which most clearly revealed the chasm in the curators’ dissensus, came as a shock: the central staircase, from the ceiling of which hangs a stunning display of Sonia Gomes’s fabric sculptures, ingeniously paired with textile works by Judith Scott, led into a sterile, narrow and intuitional-feeling mini-show of stanley brouwn’s highly conceptual practice, which – although brilliant – felt completely out of place in the context. A couple rooms over were two of the oldest works in the biennial: Juan van der Hamen y León’s Portrait of Doña Catalina de Erauso: The Military Nun (c.1625), a depiction of a Spanish trans man who participated in conquests throughout South America, beside a vitrine containing a 17th-century account of Xica Manicongo, a Black trans woman forcibly brought from Congo to Salvador, where she was attacked for her free gender expression, but who eventually escaped her oppressors. The third floor of the pavilion, it should be noted, is the one area that is sufficiently climate-controlled for older works (Wilfredo Lam’s excellent cubist paintings are nearby): that said, the experience of these galleries feels off-kilter with space allocated to the installation works on the floors below. However, this installation was arguably the strongest curatorially in its facilitation of our encounter with the art. With the exception of the brouwn display, these works and the dialogues between them were some of the more thoughtful moments of the biennial.

Stand out pieces included Arthur Bispo do Rosário’s intricately crafted, tapestry-like maps of an unfamiliar Earth, detailed with flags and buildings and given titles like You, Inhabitants of the Earth, I Introduce Your Nations … (undated), and the untitled, undated paintings of Aurora Cursino dos Santos: colourful, surrealist, figurative scenes incorporating the artist’s anti-patriarchal writings. Active mostly during the mid-20th century, Bispo do Rosário, Cursino dos Santos and Scott all spent the majority of their lives in various types of mental institutions, making their creation of such fantastic visions of the world all the more remarkable.

In his accompanying catalogue essay, Menezes quotes scholar Saidiya Hartman: ‘Choreography was an art, a practice of moving even when there was nowhere to go […] an effort to make the uninhabitable liveable.’ As I made my way around this year’s biennial, I thought a lot about that idea of ‘nowhere’, specifically in terms of utopia and its etymological meaning of ‘no place’. It’s difficult to situate yourself physically in the tangled layout of this biennial but, ultimately, I think this is to the curators’ credit. These are artists who are or were actively resisting colonial, patriarchal forms of violence and oppression, and who continue to work to undo these legacies – in so doing, disseminating both new and, often, very old ways of thinking and seeing. Any attempt at presenting alternative methodologies is going to be messy – especially when you have four curators at the helm. Nonetheless, I imagine I’ll reflect on this template and these artists for years to come.

The 35th Bienal de São Paulo is on view until 10 December.