Issue #45, 2014

How To Fight For Things That Don’t Exist
Tobi Maier

31st São Paulo Biennial, 6 September – 7 December 2014


In 1967 Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica published his text General Scheme of the New Brazilian Objectivity in conjunction with an exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Rio de Janeiro.At the time he was advocating for artists to take a position towards political, social and ethical problems as well as pointing at a tendency towards a collective art practice. Quoting Brazilian critic and writer Ferreira Gullar, Oiticica supported the theses that artists have to be social beings, whose work must not only be created but also attempt to change the consciousness of people around them.1 While Oiticica is not presented in the exhibition itself, this spirit permeates much of what is on view in the 31st edition of the São Paulo Biennial.


The above mentioned exhibition title is only one of several designations that the curatorial team has chosen for their exhibition. In a clever move to escape the institutional demand for a clear identity and as a signifier for the multiplicity of issues at stake, others would read How to “look for“, “recognise“, “read about“ or “imagine“ Things That Don’t Exist. Long before the show opened in Ibirapuera Park, the team around Charles Esche, Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Oren Sagiv and Pablo Lafuente had initiated open meetings allover the country, which continue to evolve through lectures and performances in the Biennial Pavilion in São Paulo. This emphasis on the discursive temporality in contemporary art unfolds in the exhibition’s architecture. The visitor is welcomed by a large Agora, a structure that allows immediate visibility to the discursive and performative aspects emphasized by the curators. The ground floor of the pavilion is open for free circulation, converted into a “public“ space, where the counting of visitors through the turnstiles only starts once we start to ascend to the first floor.

From a desire to generate conflict, to think and act collectively, the exhibition proposes a discussion on politics, religion, gender, economic or social structures in contemporary life, opening the way for other approaches that transform the hegemony of image representation and voices that surround us. While there has generally been a lot of disenchantment with political promises in the country and street protests advocating for social justice as well as better education and medical services keep sparking in São Paulo since 2013, these more explicit themes have little visibility in contemporary artistic production in Brazil and gain essential momentum through this biennial. If art of the artists are represented by projects of a collaborative nature. Yet, with few artistic activities integrated into the social fabric of the city, the biennial pavilion has become an aggregator for these initiatives, which at times appear to be mere visual result of activist’s performances.

The dialectical emphasis on the Middle Eastern conflicts in several works on view backfired on curators and instititution a week before the opening when a number of participating artists signed an open letter against Israel’s financial contributions to the exhibition, in the immediate aftermath of the Israeli army heavy bombing of Gaza this summer. The issue was solved after lengthy meetings through a change in the credit line, mentioning that artists are supported by funding from their respective countries. Little effort was spent on discussing the ethical standpoints of other commercial enterprises that are offsetting their tax breaks through involvement with the biennial, Brazil’s cultural flagship. Instead, while seated on the Agora near the entrance, visitors are able to reflect on the political, economical and artistic status quo when pondering Dan Perjovschi’s satirical drawings, this time applied in black and white ink directly on the buildings glass façade.

Some presentations such as the precious 35 mm films Aguaspejo Grenadino (1953–1955) and Fuego en Castilla (1958–1960) by Spanish director José Val de Omar, or the delicate sculptures of Edward Krasin’ski (Spear and Other Works, 1963–1965), stand out with a sublime expography and furthermore attempt to establish a much needed historical context for this show. While Val de Omar openly criticized the clerical sway and the Catholic Church’s ties with the Franco dictatorship, Krasin’ski performed his sculptures in the routinely controled public realm of 1960’s socialist Poland. These installations pinnacle in contrast to the rather quiet works by Jo Baer who in a new series of works is depicting pagan symbols and neolythic sculptures that are painted from memories to the time she spent living in Ireland during the 1970’s or Vivian Suter’s large-scale canvases that boldly embrace the traces and accidents brought about by nature and the tropical climate of her adopted Guatemala.

Bringing the street into the institution, Halil Altındere’s filmWonderland (2013) is a powerful document of anger, resistance and urban hope. The hip-hop collective Tahribad-ı Isyan from Istanbul became famous for its videos posted on the Internet and is the protagonist in this poignant production that protests blatant gentrification in a neighborhood historically occupied by Roma population. In the same vein, and with an explicitly political tone, projects like Clara Ianni and Débora Maria da Silva’s film Apelo (2014), or Espacio para Abortar (2014), an installation by the Bolivian collective Mujeres Creando, discuss the state-sanctioned violence in Brazil or the patriarchal repression of women in countries of South America where abortion is illegal.

AfroUFO(2014) by Tiago Borges and Yonamine, with musical contributions from Cibelle Cavalli Bastos, represents the possibility of flight, or the journey to another reality in the future. Metaphorically the work connects to utopia possibly to be found in the neighbouring African continent, otherwise little represented in the exhibition. With an electronic sound, fluorescent graffiti, HD animations in black and white that evoke the Brazilian neoconcrete spirit, AfroUFO is also one of the few works in the show conveying the aesthetics and anxieties of the post-Internet universe, in which many of us live.

If one of the reasons for the open architecture of the exhibition design was also the intention to pay tribute to the modern building of Oscar Niemeyer (the 31st Biennial is the first after the architect’s death in December 2012), it culminates in a postmodern spectacle on the third floor with an installation of films by Mark Lewis (Invention, 2014). Between walls of smoked and mirrored glass, long shots of several enigmatic sites around São Paulo are projected, among them views of Niemeyer’s 38-story residenctial Copan building and commuters rushing up and down the escalators of the Pinheiros metro station, which in turn dialogue spatially with the staircase of the exhibition space itself. These images are shown in analogy with footage of a couple conversing on the porch of the Galeria do Rock shopping mall and locals strolling down the popular city highway Minhocão, which closes every Sunday.

One of the few projects organized outside the biennial’s main venue and within this urban context of downtown São Paulo is Teatro da Vertigem’s The Last Word is the Penultimate – 2 (2008/2014). Inspired by Gilles Deleuze’s The Exhausted, the play takes place in an abandoned underground passage connecting the Viaduto de Cha bridge with the Ramos de Azevedo Square. Audiences are seated in the empty shopfronts of the passage and witness a Brechtian spectacle on human decay, anxiety, the craze of urbanisation and real estate speculation. To the ocassional sounds of electronic music, a business woman parades nervously back and forth, a mix of agents carry ubiquitous “for rent“ and “for sale“ signboards, a long haired man snorts a gigantic line of cocaine using a traffic cone, another one pulls down his trousers offering his buttocks for sex, an elderly lady is being abandoned by her carer sitting naked in a wheelchair. Actors mix with regular passerbys as they are crossing the usually closed pasage while audiences remain behind the mirrored glass compliant with a spectacle that evokes everyday life and sensory exhaustion in the megalopolis. After Teatro da Vertigem’s 958 metros, staged during late 2012 around the textile production district Bom Retiro, and the seminal performances by Zé Celso’s Teatro Oficina, it seems the true vanguard of contemporary Brazilian visual culture is to be found in theatre.

The 31st São Paulo Biennial addresses many imminent socio-political issues and is giving the visitors ample space and time to engage with them. However within the exhibition a large fragment of works employ the lingua franca of video and transmit a didactic tone; other installations remain opaque without a guidebook at hand. In an era when network communication has greatly influenced the way we perceive and produce images, the aesthetics of some of the works on view feels repetitive, and, at times, even commissioned works appear dated. These are balanced with projects where the viewer can play a role, such as in the ecological discussions with representatives from a number of landuse collectives that participate in Otobong Nkanga’s Landversation (2014) or where one is allowed to contribute with their ones own voice – as in Ruangrupa’s radio karaoke (RURU, 2010–). Thus this edition of the biennial departs from a local and Brazilian landscape that opens to the world.

While the proliferating regional art market has put an emphasis on the latest trends, this edition of the biennial represents an engaged position that believes in arts potential to imagine and support transformations throughout different spheres of society. The exhibition thus represents an evidently subjective diagram in the struggle to conceive “things that don’t exist“ yet in an otherwise hermetically indexed Brazilian worldview. Remains with the viewers as participants to carry this agency into their everyday life and find ways to capture and sustain some of the inspiration offered by the visual and discursive scenario that is this exhibition.


1. ‑Hélio Oiticica, Esquema geral da Nova Objetividade, in Glória Ferreira and Cecília Cotrim (eds.), Escritos de Artistas, Rio de Janeiro, Jorge Zahar editor, 2006, pp. 164–165.