Material Conflict
The 31st São Paulo Biennial: How to see things that don’t exist

Published in Mousse Magazine

The face of an indigenous man emerges from a black screen. Speaking to the camera with downcast eyes, he starts to describe the invisibility of the indigenous peoples in proportion with exotic representations of dance and celebration. “That human being that is hungry and thirsty, that is massacred, that is persecuted in the jungle” says Almires Martins, “that one doesn’t exist.” Ymá Nhandehtama [In the Past We Were Many], by Armando Queiroz and Marcelo Rodrigues, forefronts the violence inflicted upon the Guaraní peoples of the Amazon and their ongoing struggle for human rights, thereby questioning the state of democracy in Brazil. The video ends with Martins painting his face black and disappearing into the screen.

Enunciating the things that do exist but that the power elites would rather not see, this work unravels and articulates best the curatorial proposition of the 31st São Paulo Biennial. How to see things that don’t exist shifts the focus from theme to process and from art history to histories, to disengage from the legacies of modernity that weigh heavily on contemporary art from Brazil and propose different ways of experiencing the now and conjure possible futures. Whereas the discourse surrounding the organization of the biennial is aligned with the utopian idealism associated with the historical avant-garde, the works in general propose narratives, both historical and fictional, that focus on conflict and the revision of hegemonic discourses. Throughout the exhibition, there is a focus on art’s emancipatory and democratizing potential, in its ability to transform social structures, even if its political agency beyond the institution of contemporary art remains an unanswered question.

The concept of rupture has a prominent place in the narratives of modern and contemporary art in Latin America. In keeping with this idea, the curatorial proposition, led by Charles Esche, was developed in the midst of horizontal working models, collectivity, and risk. The process started with a series of open meetings across Brazil, including peripheral cities such as Recife and Belém. More than seventy percent of the works are new commissions, a risky curatorial move that deferred the exhibition’s outcome to the artists to examine the contemporary as a condition located in the sociopolitical moment. Conflict, in its material and visual form, is seen as a necessary transformative agent in tandem with local civil unrest against an oppressive political landscape. Government expenditures on infrastructure, in anticipation of two international sporting events, have accelerated land expropriation and gentrification. Protests against the world cup and real estate speculation have culminated in citizen imprisonment and in some cases political exile. And the sudden death of a presidential candidate just two months prior to the elections has placed in lieu a candidate that represents the increasing growth of the evangelic church. Brazil is on the cusp.

And it is precisely this idea of imminent transformation, of inhabiting a moment of conflict coupled with notions of rupture, that is the central engine of the biennial. It fractures Gilberto Freyre’s notion of racial democracy in Brazil, and eagerly desires to disassociate from the ubiquitous presence of Oscar Niemeyer’s modernity.

Designed by architect Oren Sagiv, a first in the biennial’s history, the pavilion is articulated into three different experiences: sociality (park area), simultaneity (central area), and singularity (columns area). Although the biennial is purportedly without a theme, race, gender, politics, and religion occupy a prominent place. How these issues are articulated in space through “moments” is one of the most compelling aspects of the exhibition. On the first floor, several works gather around the role of images in surveillance, racism, and state sanctioned violence. Não é sobre sapatos by Gabriel Mascaro discloses the ways in which the police identifies protesters in São Paulo through the careful analysis of their shoes. Alongside this work, a large-scale mural by Eder Oliveira features portraits of young men, most of them mixed-race descendants of Africans and Native Brazilians, who are reported as criminals by the press in his native city of Belém. Other works in this constellation are Violencia by Juan Carlos Romero and Voto! by Ana Lira.

Recuperative and revisionist histories rise to the surface on the second floor. Línea de vida/Museo Travesti del Perú, a parasitic project by Giuseppe Campuzano, presents a queer counter-narrative where the history of Perú is revised through objects, texts, and artworks. In Apelo by Clara Ianni, images of a mass grave where people who had disappeared under Brazil’s last military regime were buried are accompanied by the voice of Débora Maria da Silva, whose son was brutally killed in 2006 by the São Paulo military police. Other projects that grapple with histories are Histórias de aprendizagem by Voluspa Jarpa and The Excluded. In a moment of danger by the art collective Chto Delat. Also here, Errar de Dios, a collaboration between Etcétera… and León Ferrari, is a participatory installation that merges the ideology and imagery of the Catholic church with that of neoliberal capital accumulation, including works by Ferrari that were previously censored.

Several projects on the third floor demonstrate that the lack of fixed outcomes and a flexible commissioning process can cause major pitfalls. Afro UFO by Tiago Borges and Yonamine is awkward to say the least, and the exacerbated didacticism put forth by Nosso Lar, Brasília by Jonas Staal borders on arrogance.

The columns section, a deep and dark area with hidden galleries, requires more concentration and is deliberately video heavy. Dios es marica [God is Queer], organized by Miguel López, spearheads one of the most controversial themes of the biennial: the queering of Catholicism. In this project, culture, politics, and religion intersect with drag practices and the theatricalization of gender through the recuperation of four queer artists from Latin America. In close proximity, Sergio e Simone, a multichannel video installation by Virginia de Madeira, addresses the complexities and the fluid exchanges between identity, gender, and religion. In three split-screens, the work follows the life of Simone, a transvestite from Salvador who has undergone a series of physical and spiritual transformations, including her ‘death’ and reincarnation as Sergio, and the resurgence of the more hybrid identity ‘Sergio e Simone,’ embodied in her becoming a pai-de-santo of the condomblé religion.

Hearing from a gringo what you should see or do can become a colonizing gesture despite good intent -this is the first time since its inception that the Bienal de São Paulo Foundation has appointed a European curator. But to claim this as a critique is too simple. A more productive one would be to interrogate the material conditions of conflict in contemporary art and its aspirations on democracy through decolonizing strategies. An interesting case is the project Espacio para abortar [Space to Abort] by Mujeres Creando, which comprised an action whereby women were invited to tell their abortion stories in Ibirapuera Park, unleashing the fury of the religious right-wing (abortion is illegal in Brazil). The long-term impact of actions such as this one is unforeseeable, but they do call attention to the need for hybrid practices that negotiate between art and activism.

The optimism of working collectively, of horizontality and dialogue, can quickly crumble at the heels of social disintegration and political upheaval once exiting the space of art and entering the turbulent streets of São Paulo. It is no coincidence that the title of the biennial is formulated as a question, one that could also be read as an instruction manual for unapologetic self-help. But in the face of exhibitions and artworks that reinscribe the modern notion of art’s autonomy, the 31st São Paulo Biennial is a welcome reality check.

-Carla Acevedo-Yates