The 31st edition of the São Paulo Bienal filled the mammoth Oscar Niemeyer-designed pavilion that is its home with installations, murals and socially engaged art projects, favoring performances and forums over discrete art objects. Organized by a curatorial team headed by Charles Esche, the director of Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum, the biennial presented over 200 works by 81 artists, many of which were installed as shows-within-the-show, making the overall exhibition impossible to navigate in one day. Repeated viewings, however, appear to be the curators’ intention, with special events scheduled throughout the course of its three-month run.
Titled “How to Talk About Things That Don’t Exist,” the show invited viewers to fill in the blank with words ranging from “look at,” “describe,” “recognize,” “fight for,” and so on, suggesting endless ways one can engage with the not-yet-visible or fully realized artworks. To illustrate this point, the ground floor was open and free to the public to use for meetings and school groups, with biomorphic shaped bleachers framing the space and few other art objects on view. Once inside, viewers encountered a 100-foot mural by Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie depicting an imaginary world map with islands, mountains, oceans, and landmarks labeled with references to religions and Western philosophy, encouraging visitors to plan trips of “Lifelong Learning”—as one boat was named—to places like “Debate Square” or “The Will” pagoda.
The encouragement of audience engagement, one way or the other, was evident in many artworks along the pavilion’s three floors of ramps. Prabhakar Pachpute‘s 2014 painting, Dark Clouds of the Future soared up a column through all three floors, and Chilean artist Voluspa Jarpu created a crystal mobile from suspended sheets of plexiglass engraved with letters and other documentation of CIA involvement in torture in her country.
While political references like this were sometimes explicit, more often artists found more subtle means of expression. For example, Lebanese artist Walid Raad displayed a line of freestanding walls, as if carved from the halls of various art museums. Instead of pictures, each wall bore the silhouette of a shadow of an absent frame, suggesting a kind of immaterial art object. An explanatory text accompanying the installation told the story of the walls’ maker, an Arab artist who lived in São Paulo in the 1930s, a fictional account that nonetheless conveys the anxiety and precariousness of making a new museum, whether we are in São Paulo, Hong Kong, or Abu Dhabi.
This lengthy explanation was typical of most of the works in this dense exhibition, which nonetheless felt empty because of the many faux classrooms or staged living rooms filling the biennial. These spaces sorely needed teachers and docents to activate them and guide audience participation. There were also more than a few installations inspired by funhouse gimmickry—red lights flickering in dark rooms and Day-Glo colors on black walls—so poorly executed that they cheapened the show as a whole.
But there were also many gems within this show, particularly in galleries set up as mini-museums. For example, a little-known Polish artist from the 1960s, Edward Krasinski, had his own room filled with fantastic minimalist sculptures made of electric cable and wooden dowels. Turkish artist Nilbar Güreş was another happy discovery, with collages and soft sculptures from found materials; a three-dimensional cactus made of upholstery fabric and gold threads running away from its broken pot was a particular favorite.
Other artists created fictional institutions, most intriguingly The Transvestite Museum of Peru (2009–13), by artist Guiseppe Campuzano, which traces cross-dressing and hermaphrodites back to Mayan civilization.
Film and video were a particularly strong, if time-consuming, aspect of this exhibition. Late-Chilean artist Juan Downey‘s Video Trans Americas 1973–79, black and white films capturing moments in a journey from Toronto to Tierra Del Fuego, convey a landscape, now gone, just before it was erased by globalization. Open Phone Booth, 2011, by Güreş looked at the flip side of globalization taking place in a town in Turkish Kurdistan where basic infrastructure is intentionally withheld by the central government. In this three-channel video, we see villagers tromping up snow covered mountains in order to find a cell phone signal, only to have the most banal conversations in a spectacular setting.
Given the political nature of many of the projects on view, it is not surprising that the Bienal manifested a protest of its own. A petition signed by 61 participating artists, backed by the curators, objected to the state of Israel being listed as a sponsor of the exhibition. In response, the Fundaçao Bienal de São Paulo removed Israel from exhibition signage, except for those Israeli artists who received direct support. Israeli funding comprised approximately $40,000 of the Biennial’s $11 million budget.
The Israeli artist who did not receive funding from the Israeli government was Yael Bartana, who lives and works in Amsterdam and Berlin. Her widely shown and praised film, Inferno, 2013 was a Hollywood spectacle, worthy of Spielberg, attracting more than its share of attention from visitors at the show. In this work, a messianic band of pilgrims of all races, dressed in white, walk through the streets of São Paulo to a full-scale replica of the Solomon’s Temple that is actually being built by a religious sect seeking to bring Jerusalem to Brazil. In this account, a high priest sings the prayer for the dead, then sets the entire place on fire, causing a riot as people flee for their lives. Once destroyed, except for one remaining wall, the temple is reduced to a contemporary tourist site, where people pray and pose for photographs. It was impossible to watch this film and not think about recent events taking place in Gaza.
The São Paulo Bienal, the world’s second oldest biennial after Venice, remains a prestigious show with an important role to play in bringing the global dialogue around contemporary art to Latin America. Yet, in watching Inferno, I also thought that we who go around the world and attend biennials are much like the pilgrims in the film, hoping for a redemptive experience, that sometimes turns into a disaster. Here, there were no fatal errors, but the true experience of the exhibition could not be felt in its opening days. It would take repeated visits, attending the many performances and engagements scheduled to take place, to truly understand this show. In that way, it will definitely keep the audience in São Paulo engaged for several months.