A new preeminent cultural axis is emerging in the Americas, one extending from Florida to Brazil, suggests US social theorist Gregory Ulmer. It will eventually outshine the already worn New York-to-California tie, he believes. If Ulmer is talking sense, the Bienal de São Paulo, the biennial art extravaganza in South America's leading metropolis, can be viewed as a powerful magnet pulling southward. (For hotel recommendations near the Bienal venue, scroll down to the end of this page. For more on Brazil’s biggest city, see the BrazilMax São Paulo Travel Guide.)
During over half a century of sometimes-euphoric ups and inevitable downs, the Bienal has served as the principle point of contact between the international and Brazilian art worlds. Thanks to this cross-pollination, Brazilian artists are beginning to overcome logistic and cultural barriers to gain permanent residence on the international art circuit and, not incidentally, in its market. The 2001-2002 extravaganza Brazil Body and Soul at the Guggenheim Museum in New York perhaps best exemplified this trend.
Second in longevity among the growing legions of international artistic megaevents (only the granddaddy Venice biennial is older), the Bienal de São Paulo ranks up there with Venice itself and Germany's quadrennial Documenta as the most prestigious gatherings. "The Bienal de São Paulo is the most important event in the hemisphere and the second worldwide after Venice," said Marianne de Tolentino, a leading art critic and curator in the Dominican Republic.
It would be wrong and simplistic to reduce Brazilian art history during the second half of the 20th century to a history of the Bienal. Yet few deny the links. Examine the development of Brazilian Pop Art after the 1967 appearance of works by artists like Roy Lichenstein and Claes Oldenburg, or the splash made by Germany's Anselm Kiefer in 1987, or maybe the influence of Philip Guston (a posthumous US representative in 1981) on the Casa 7 contingent in São Paulo (Carlito Carvalhosa, Paulo Monteiro, Fabio Miguez, Rodrigo Andrade and Nuno Ramos) in the 1980s. "The Bienals have helped bring Brazilian artistic ability up to date," noted former Bienal Chief Curator Nelson Aguilar.
Brazilian informal abstractionism is a case in point. Led by Yolanda Mohalyi and Japanese-Brazilians Manabu Mabe and Tomie Ohtake, the movement was enriched by the Bienals of the late 1950s. "The influences led to a combination of what was best of North American abstract expressionism and the Tachisme movement in Europe," said Aguilar.
Founding a major art event in post-World War II São Paulo could only be considered audacious. The city was hardly a dot on the international map, the nucleus of a modest 2.5 million-strong metropolitan area - compared to over 15 million today. It was a mere satellite of comparatively cosmopolitan Rio de Janeiro, still the capital of a mostly rural nation. President Juscelino Kubitschek's "50 years in five" industrial drive, a further stimulus for São Paulo's industrial boom, was yet to come.
But the seeds of today's national prominence were being subtly planted - both economically and culturally. The Bienal's catalyst was an industrialist of Italian heritage, Francisco "Ciccilo" Matarazzo Sobrinho. The art event was the third leg of a "Paulista" cultural tripod that included a dramatic boom centered on the Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia and a nascent film industry based at the Vera Cruz studio. "It was all part of a project to build a cultural production center," noted artist José Resende, "though maybe it was a little premature to try to implant an international event like the Bienal."
At the time, Brazilian art was playing out the final act of a modernist play, relying on veteran headliners like Candido Portinari and Anita Malfatti. Just as Malfatti's groundbreaking work was rejected by conservative critics in 1917, emerging artists were straining to budge the weighty icons of the 1930s and 1940s. It took a geometric crowbar borrowed from Swiss concretist Max Bill, first in a 1950 show at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) and again a year later at the first Bienal, to help pry loose the sediment of nationalist stagnation.
"Brazilian modernism was particularistic while abstraction and concrete art were universalizing," explained Aguilar. Max Bill won the grand prize for sculpture at the inaugural Bienal. "It helped Max Bill's career and helped provide an artistic basis for modern Brazilian architecture," noted Aguilar.
The ensuing artistic commotion ultimately cleared the way for Brazilian trailblazers Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark and Mira Schendel. The three are precursors to many among the current crop of conceptual artists. "As young artists [who emerged in the 1990s] were growing up, they had local references, artists who were also drawing international attention," once observed the late Marcoantonio Vilaça, who ran São Paulo’s Galeria Camargo Vilaça and represented then rising stars like Rosângela Rennó, Leda Catunda and Paulo Pasta in the 1990s.
The Bienal has never been a stranger to polemics. In 1953 Picasso's "Guernica" left its exiled home at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to visit São Paulo long before it was repatriated in Spain after the return of democracy there. Yet many remember that Bienal more for the scuffle over first prize for Brazilian painting - jointly awarded to veteran modernist Emiliano Di Cavalcanti and Alfredo Volpi, who had abandoned figurative painting in favor of abstraction. "Volpi was a marginal figure and Di Cavalcante was hallowed," noted Aguilar. "It sparked some bad feelings. There was a big communist, nationalist faction, and figurative painting had a big communist lobby."
Many of the Bienal's problems are those inherent in any large undertaking in a country with precarious cultural institutions. The Bienal's worst moments invariably reflect broader trends in Brazilian society. Official neglect compounded by an international boycott nearly killed it in the late 1970s during the height of the country's military dictatorship. "It had become mediocre," recalled Walter Zanini, who accepted the mission to rehabilitate the event as chief curator for the 1981 and 1983 editions - precisely as the dictatorship began a program of gradual political liberalization. Zanini introduced changes that continued to provide the logical underpinnings for many subsequent initiatives. He installed a board of international curators and strove to reduce the influence of the so-called "diplomatic representatives," artists chosen independently by participating countries. "I thought that we should have more choice over the artists," said Zanini. "It couldn't be so official. We eliminated the organization of exhibition space by country and instead used criteria based on artistic language."
Once Zanini got the Bienal back on its feet, a period of brief euphoria followed with full redemocratization in 1985. That year Sheila Leirner decided to highlight large-scale painting. "Her thesis was that everybody was painting alike," said curator and critic Agnaldo Farias, who twice headed the choice of Brazilian artists for the Bienal, most recently in 2002. "It was really a commentary on globalization, though the term didn't exist yet."
Leirner set up a series of long corridors and hung paintings side-by-side, 15 centimeters apart. "I don't think any curator had ever imposed herself that much," Farias recalled. "Many young Brazilian artists were placed alongside people like (German painter Jiri) Dokoupil, people who really knew how to paint. The young Brazilians didn't have the same quality. Many of them went back to their studios and began to rethink what they were doing. Many abandoned painting. Nuno Ramos is a curious example. He began with painting but then went into sculpting. There were others. They returned to the basics, tried to be more careful, more cautious, to do more work rooted in art history. The influence of the Bienal was clear."
Soon, however, the Bienal was hamstrung by economic troubles touched off by the foreign debt crisis and hyperinflation. By 1993, Brazil was suffering through 2,700% inflation and the Bienal was postponed for a year. Coincidentally or not, it by 1996 it had begun to regroup in step with the Brazilian economy, which got a semblance of stability from the mid-1994 Real Plan. Then after the 1998 edition ended in December of that year, it took officials over 3½ years to put together another “biennial” event. Having already declared a one year postponement, the Bienal board voted to push the event back even further to allow time for repairs in aging structure of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed pavilion inaugurated in 1954. That decision stirred a flurry of controversy and culminated in curatorial musical chairs.
Warts and all, even critics agree the Bienal is a can't miss event for South American art lovers. They flock from Argentina, Uruguay and as far away as Puerto Rico on their biennial pilgrimages. As a 17 year-old aspiring artist, Siron Franco suffered a 900-kilometer bus ride for the chance to experience his first Bienal. "Information (on developments in the international art world) didn't reach us here in Goiás," Franco recalled, referring to the native state that he calls home. "Today all the kids from Goiânia (the state capital) go." An internationally recognized artist and Bienal veteran, Franco still skips off to São Paulo for the event, recording videotaped personal interviews with artists who strike his fancy, like the Korean Yoon Geon Byung did in 1989.
"You can't take the Bienal out of its social, economic and cultural context," argued Franco. "In a country where people only talk about football (soccer) and where crime and violence run amok, any cultural manifestation is more than welcome."
Below you will find brief critical reviews of the last two Bienals, each written at the time of the respective event.
1998: The 24th São Paulo Biennial
Just as in recent editions, the Bienal’s curators tried to organize the event around a theme that they hoped would highlight Brazil’s role in 20th century art history. Once again, many artists seemed unable to fully grasp the idea. As before, they might be excused: this time, the Bienal paid homage to a characteristically ambiguous Brazilian concept called “antropofagia.”
“Antropofagia” literally means cannibalism. In the spirit of that narrow definition, visitors saw more than their fair share of images of real and symbolic body parts, bodily fluids, bodily functions, mutilated bodies and dead animals. With a sign apologizing for his inability to serve human flesh, Austria’s Franz West invited folks to sample his pork rinds. Brazil’s Artur Barrio offered his “Livro de carne” (Meat Book), pages/slices of raw steak thankfully sealed in a glass case.
A literal translation of antropofagia hardly does justice to a notion that’s driven much of Brazil’s best art for seven decades. Bienal curators drew up an incomplete list of 95 definitions for antropofagia before they started hyperventilating. In the US context, the most accessible definition might be multiculturalism, but that too falls short. Antropofagia is an attitude, perhaps reminiscent of rappers who sample James Brown to help create a new sound. Brazilian Adriana Varejão provided a graphic (in more ways than one) definition of antropofagia in her “Estudo do ‘Tiradentes’ do Pedro Américo (Reflexo de sonhos no sonho do outro espelho)” [Study of Pedro Américo’s ‘Tiradentes’ (Reflex of dreams in the dream of the other mirror)]. She took a classic painting depicting the quartered body of a fatally unsuccessful 19th century Brazilian republican revolutionary, made a copy in her own style, and cut that into pieces. The piece bled with multiple layers of antropofagia.
Beyond blood and guts, perhaps reflecting the Internet generation’s coming of artistic age, the Bienal included a remarkably large number of interactive exhibits. Some, like the contraptions designed by Hélio Oticica and Lygia Clark, now seem enshrined with the status of permanent Bienal attractions. But the old-time Brazilian duo scarcely cornered the interactive market. Even the security guard couldn’t resist joining the kids to slide across Danish Olafur Eliasson’s mini-ice rink.
The Bienal inevitably erects an imaginary ring where the denizens of the Brazilian art world scratch and bite in a verbal tag-team match. Despite the debate, the event always offers enough gems, with enough diversity, to make the visit worthwhile for everyone. Those looking for examples of crackerjack Brazilian art found excellent work by people like Nazareth Pacheco, an emerging artist who designs unwearable jewelry made partly from sharp objects like razor blades. Latin America enjoyed yeoperson representation by top contemporary names like Venezuelan Meyer Vaisman. The rest of the world could count on people of the caliber of Judy Plaff from the United States.
Some critics observed that the Bienal’s historical “museum” section is expanding blob-like into space once dedicated to contemporary work. True. And here’s why. Van Gogh and Magritte do pull in more people than even contemporary standouts like Jeff Wall and Doris Salcedo. And most South Americans, including most young artists, rarely get to see anything by Giacometti or Francis Bacon. Except for their Brazilian modernists, the permanent collections of most local museums offer little of note. Rare is the blockbuster traveling exhibit that gets to South America. Whatever its limitations, the Bienal continues to serve its role as the most important artistic link between South America and the rest of the world.
2002: The 25th Bienal de São Paulo
Straightjackets flowed and overflowed from stainless steal faucets and basins; they spilled from upturned stainless steal buckets. With her installation “Cry Me a River,” São Paulo artist Lina Kim captured the lunacy of megacities like her hometown. Also, if unwittingly, her work could well symbolize the perhaps inevitable craziness of the Bienal itself.
With all its sensory overload, the world’s fourth-largest largest city wasn’t just the venue but also the main character of this Bienal. Of course São Paulo got a spot among the 11 urban centers featured in an anchor exhibit entitled Metropolitan Iconographies; Kim’s work appeared alongside four compatriots in that capacity. But the exhibition’s bonds to the host city extended much further.
An unusual number of foreign artists drew inspiration and/or materials from São Paulo. Camaroon’s Pascale Marthine Tayou traveled along a city expressway until he stumbled upon some folks who literally live under an overpass. They also use that piece of ostensibly public real estate to build and sell elaborate doghouses. The artist bought some doghouses and placed them prominently in his installation “Brazilisme.” Brought to visit, one overpass resident reportedly said, “Just like home.” Mexican Abraham Cruzvillegas turned to the logo of Brazilian rappers Racionais MC’s (the weird apostrophe is part of the name) to adorn an installation centered on a levitated camping tent.
The local connection moved even closer to home in Annika Eriksson’s Staff at 25th Bienal de São Paulo. The Swedish video artist recorded self-introductions of everyone from Chief Curator Alfons Hug to maintenance guy Gimarior Leme da Silva. The result: a curious study in class contrast: sophistication vs. simplicity, confidence before the camera vs. insecurity.
Perhaps because architect Carlos Bratke served as president, this Bienal seemed overpopulated with pseudo-architectural models. Russia’s Alexander Brodsky offered one of the most intriguing. His untitled work started with a formation of 20 rolling industrial containers of rusty iron. A slit at one side of the conglomeration allowed an eerie view of the insides: a seemingly infinite small-scale clay model of urban devastation. Another disconcerting shock came from “Happyland” by Brazilians Isay Weinfeld and Marcio Kogan: they contrived an urban mock-up replete with Horizontal Twin Towers, Armored Bateaux Mouches and a tent city called Refugee Park. Flying Bowl by China’s Huang Yong Pin and Shen Yuan took Oscar Niemeyer’s emblematic basin from capital Brasília and filled the insides with an all too realistic shantytown. Two unconnected installations included fake toilets.
Though Hug stressed that all media were nearly equally represented, photography seemed, along with installations, to predominate. Many photographs depicted urban scenes, real or contrived, but the most memorable came from the Afghan countryside. Brazilian Arthur Omar accompanied a television crew to report on the Taliban’s March 2001 destruction of 5th century Buddha statues. During the journey, Omar took some almost hyperrealistic, nearly unbelievable shots of machine-gunned cars and gun-toting locals. Also notable among the photographs: Taiwanese Chien-Chi Chang’s black-and-whites of patients chained together in a mental institution. Urban madness revisited.
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Where to Stay During the Bienal: Ibirapuera Hotel Recommendations
* For suggestions in other parts of town, see our São Paulo Hotel Recommendations page.
Shaped as half a watermelon with the flat side on top, this architectural landmark cum hotel near the Ibirapuera Park has become popular with self-styled trend setters like advertising executives and fashion models. Click here to read more about the Hotel Unique on BrazilMax. Avenida Brigadeiro Luis Antonio, 4700 telephone: +55 11 3055-4700.
Sofitel São Paulo
Located near Ibirapuera Park and just 10 minutes by taxi from the domestic Congonhas airport. Rua Sena Madureira, 1355; telephone: +55 11 5087-0800.