São Paulo is a city of contrasts. Among its most striking is the difference between the 20th century pavilion housing the Bienal, an icon of modernism, and the 19th century landmark of the Matarazzo Hospital, where 500,000 Paulistas were born before it closed its doors in 1993. Now, the abandoned site has been revived with an ambitious art exhibition, “Feito Por Brasileiros/Made By Brazilians,” with 100 artists—50 from Brazil and 50 from abroad—taking over almost 100,000 square feet of hallways, examination rooms, maternity wards, and courtyards, all in derelict condition.
The place is nothing if not evocative, but the artists meet the challenge of living up to the romantic aura of the site, often to thrilling results. Visitors are met with a canopy of bright red wood beams by Belgian artist Arne Quinze and welcomed by a primal group of abstract sculptures by Brazilian master Tunga. Inside the first building an early video of a performance choreographed by Lygia Clark paired extremely well with equally rare footage of Francesca Woodman, posing in a room as deteriorating and dusty as the hallway of the hospital. Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos took over the chapel with massive soft sculptures and a piano swathed in crocheted lace, while Artur Lescher flooded two stories of a decrepit wing with water streaming down from the ceilings, recreating the condition the room was found in before the project began.
The exhibition was curated by Marc Pottier–with Simon Watson organizing the U.S. artists–who was invited by the Groupe Allard, which is developing the hospital into a multi-use commercial center designed by Jean Nouvel and Philippe Starck that will include shops, galleries, a boutique hotel, design studios, and an art center. The budget for the show was over $12 million, $1 million more than the Bienal’s budget, though much of it could have been spent on the opening night party where a crowd of 4,000 were treated to champagne and caprinhas. Performances were staged throughout the complex, none more riveting than samba star Carlinhos Brown who whipped the high-heeled audience into a pulsing frenzy.
Key installations in the hospital were immediate hits. New York artist Kenny Scharf created a Day-Glo playroom from recycled toys, television sets, and other cast-offs with its own rhythmic musical score. Alexander Lee turned his room into a studio and classroom, printing with the leaves of the breadfruit plant onto bolts of fabric while holding workshops for school children about the fruit’s role in the slave trade. Vik Muniz uncovered a secret file on a doctor dismissed because he believed in a case of invisible gallstones, with a recreation of the doctor’s office and archives bringing his ghost to life. Graffiti inspired works by Barry McGee and Gary Simmons were paired with São Paulo street artists, putting layers of markings on top of peeling paint along the hallways.
“Made by Brazilians,” though made by both Brazilian and international artists, was notable for the emotional impact of many of its art projects which made even challenging work immediately accessible. It was easy to get lost in the maze of hallways of the old hospital with rooms on both sides of long corridors vying for viewers’ attention. But the rewards were great, whether wandering into commissioned works by such Brazilian art stars as Rivane Neuenschwander and Beatriz Milhazes or bumping into the latest video by Marilyn Minter. The dialogue established between these artists, enhanced by the juxtapositions of the works, were much more effective than most of the installations at the São Paulo Bienal and clearly were preferred by the audience at the opening. It is too bad that the site will soon be overtaken by architects and contractors, converting its magnificent spaces into more commercial uses. The Hospital Matarazzo would be the perfect site for international art events for years to come.