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‘Conflicts Are Productive’: Behind the Scenes of the Bienal de São Paulo

As the city of São Paulo returns to normal in the wake of the FIFA World Cup, one wing of its cultural scene is swinging into ever-increasing action. Inside Ibirapuera Park, in the imposing building that’s home to the São Paulo Art Bienal, an army of carpenters, painters, and electricians prepares the space for the installation of the first artworks, ahead of the opening of the 31st edition of the biennial, on September 6. Works by the Indian artist Prabhakar Pachpute, who also produced the design for the official Bienal poster, will be some of the first to be installed, and also already inside the building are works from Zona de Tensão (‘Tension Zone’), part of a 1980s series of large-scale collages by the Brazilian artist Hudinilson Jr., who died last year.

They’re just two of seventy “projects,” as the curators refer to the diverse set of artworks and events chosen for the Bienal, which is this year entitled, “How to … things that do not exist,” where the ellipsis stands in for words including “speak about,” “learn,” “fight,” “use,” and “live with.”

Installation view ofthe 2014 Bienal de São Paulo. ©PEDRO IVO TRASFERETTI/FUNDAÇÃO BIENAL DE SÃO PAULO

Installation view of the 2014 Bienal de São Paulo.

©PEDRO IVO TRASFERETTI/FUNDAÇÃO BIENAL DE SÃO PAULO

A welder sends a burst of sparks shooting over a doorway as a troupe of cleaners sweep up sawdust and debris, mopping paths of shining concrete across the floors of the immense building, designed by the late Oscar Niemeyer. The scene is the epitome of a group endeavor; but this year, in particular, the collective effort of staging South America’s biggest art event is underscored further by its highly collaborative team of curators. One of five candidates invited to submit curatorial proposals to São Paulo’s Bienal Foundation, the British curator Charles Esche—director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland—premised his application on forming a team also comprising four of his long-term collaborators: the Spanish curators Nuria Enguita Mayo and Pablo Lafuente, and the Israelis Galit Eilat and Oren Sagiv.

“I don’t believe in a modernist notion of hierarchy, where you have a single, inspirational leader, and then the followers,” says Esche. “We’re equals, each of us is accountable, and we’re all responsible for the entire thing. We choose to work in a horizontal way. And I think that corresponds to a current that’s present in society in general, whether it’s in architecture or in the way social movements organize themselves.”

Working collaboratively is also a practical choice. “The kind of information you need to put an international exhibition together would be incredibly difficult to acquire as a single brain,” he continues. “You need collectivity—that cerebral mass that’s bigger than the individual—and a process in which members are free to concentrate on specific areas but also to interfere in other areas, constantly challenging each others’ work.”

Anna Boghiguian's Cidades à margem do rio (City's on the Riverbank, detail), 2014. ©PEDRO IVO TRASFERETTI/FUNDAÇÃO BIENAL DE SÃO PAULO

Anna Boghiguian’s Cities by the river (detail), 2014.

©PEDRO IVO TRASFERETTI/FUNDAÇÃO BIENAL DE SÃO PAULO

Sagiv, an architect, is chief designer at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and has created numerous exhibitions internationally. For the São Paulo Bienal, he has re-imagined the layout of the 1957 building, including a radically open ground floor, dubbed the “Park,” and the temporary division of the 35,000-square-meter (376,700-square-foot) interior into four well defined sections.

Mayo is an art historian and curator who, along with fellow Spanish curator Pablo Lafuente, works with Esche on the contemporary-art journal Afterall. In São Paulo, Mayo is focusing on publications, including the production of a book and a guide to the exhibition, while Lafuente works in the field of education. The latter area includes making plans to welcome more than 200,000 schoolchildren into the exhibition over its three-month duration, as well as planning and executing research trips for some of the artists commissioned by the team.

Meanwhile Esche, a thoughtful, engaging speaker who has co-curated biennials in Istanbul, Ramalla, and Gwangju, handles much of the team’s communications, while Eilat, who works with Esche at the Van Abbemuseum, concentrates on production, liaising and negotiating with artists and driving the logistics of setting up the artworks, some 75 percent of which have been commissioned for the Bienal. In a highly eclectic range of artists, the exhibition features works by well-known Brazilian artists including Yuri Firmeza, Clara Ianni, and Éder Oliveira, as part of a large complement of Latin American artists that also includes the Bolivian collective Mujeres Creando, presenting work based around a giant mobile uterus as “a platform for discussing the meaning of abortion, the colonization of the female body, and free choice.” The significant number of Middle Eastern artists is a result of the curators’ highly international origins and connections, and includes Anna Boghiguian, Tony Chakar, and Nilbar Güreş, from Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey, respectively.

Éder Oliveira's Sem título (Untitled), 2014. ©LEO ELOY/FUNDAÇÃO BIENAL DE SÃO PAULO

Éder Oliveira’s Sem título (Untitled), 2014.

©LEO ELOY/FUNDAÇÃO BIENAL DE SÃO PAULO

The five curators, aided by a pair of local assistant curators, Benjamin Seroussi and Luiza Proença, have also spent part of the last few months traveling Brazil, meeting artists, and holding open meetings intended to allow lesser-known artists to present themselves to the team. In Recife, a city close to Brazil’s easternmost tip, the artist Ana Lira came to the curators’ attention in that way, attending a meeting at which she spoke about the city’s fertile protest movement. “She came along and started to speak at the meeting,” says Esche, “and she was very convincing.” For the Bienal, Lira has registered photographic images of billboards for the forthcoming elections, as they decay and fade in the sun.

In Salvador, the artist Arthur Scovino welcomed members of the team into his tiny apartment: “It was a magical, charmed encounter,” says Esche. “Brazil and its history look so different depending whether you’re standing in Salvador or in São Paulo. If you can experience that with an artist or a writer—particularly with someone who is sensitive—in that particular place, then you have a much more three-dimensional sense of what that means.” For his artwork, The House of Caboclo, Scovino will be at the Bienal for three months, says Esche, where he will be “working out a relationship with the public, in a sense performing all the time, but in quite an intimate way, through exchanges and discussions with people.”

With equal say in the process of selection, and no final authority to appeal to on which artists are selected and which are not, how has the team managed to reach a consensus? “Well, we argue,” says Esche. “It’s a long and occasionally very fraught process of discussion, in which we’re constantly testing our ideas against one another. It’s not about consensus.” It sounds like a difficult process. Difficult, but rewarding and important, says Esche. “Conflicts are productive,” he says. “The plurality of society can only be represented through a process of conflict—the art of democracy is in managing that conflict without turning to violence. You do that by talking. It’s important that it happens, and also that it feels like there’s a conclusion.”

How does that pan out in Brazil, where harmony through the avoidance of conflict is one of the keys to getting along? “It’s true, our approach is different,” says Esche. “But I find that if you’re quite conflictual, then people will be conflictual back. You can start the ball rolling,” he adds, laughing. “It takes two to avoid conflict.”

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