To learn from uncertainties instead of dreading them is the leading message of the 32nd São Paulo Biennial, “Incerteza Viva” (Live Uncertainty), which opened on September 7 and runs until December 11, in Brazil. It is a timely sensibility since we certainly seem to be living in a world rife with instability—economic, political, climatic, and so forth. The show tackles that mission with broad, diverse strokes, borrowing from discourses on political ecology and climate change, cosmologies and new materialisms, grassroots environmental activism and decolonization.
Curator Jochen Volz and co-curators Gabi Ngcobo, Júlia Rebouças, Lars Bang Larsen, and Sofía Olascoaga used the metaphor and methodology of a garden to design the exhibition. “The exhibit’s design is an extension of the Ibirapuera Park, but there are no chapters in it, no hierarchies,” said Volz, who co-curated the 2009 Venice Biennale, participated in the 2006 São Paulo Biennial as a curator, and was director at Inhotim, the highly respected, big-budget outdoor art space deep within Brazil, which is known for integrating art and nature.
This biennial’s attempt to combine the outside and the inside materializes through vast circulation spaces and galleries distributed across the Oscar Niemeyer–designed pavilion’s three floors, which welcome natural light and green vistas from Ibirapuera; a few works can also be found along the park. Many temporary niches and installations are either in direct dialogue with the pavilion’s architecture or physically connected to the outdoors, such as Pia Lindman’s Nose Ears Eyes (2016), a shelter constructed with cane, straw, and clay that defies the pavilion’s modern architecture and is linked to some of the park’s trees through wooden “tentacles” or, as the artist calls them, sensory organs.
With a major number of commissioned works, “Incerteza Viva” opens up to a global debate on the Anthropocene—the term for our current geological era, in which human existence has demonstrably altered Earth’s ecosystem beyond reversal. Many works comment on environmental catastrophes, like Carolina Caycedo’s thorough documentary A Gente Rio (The People River, 2016), which tracks down made-in-Brazil tragedies, such as the collapse of the Bento Rodrigues Dam in Mariana in 2015, which released a sea of hazardous mud from mining into the city and rivers of the area. Others investigate transnational environmental policies, such as Rikke Luther’s Overspill: Universal Map (2016), a large four-panel mural with didactic and detailed drawings that depict worldwide conflicts and business interests related to the UN Global Commons agreements, which have shaped resource exploitation in the postwar era. With works such as those, curators respond to the call-to-arms made by writers and activists such as Naomi Klein, in her book and documentary, This Changes Everything.
But this biennial’s edition also comments on the political crisis in Brazil, which culminated, on the last day of August, with the impeachment of the country’s president, Dilma Roussef. With this fierce economic crisis, many supported the impeachment in exchange for a supposed “stability.” Considered a soft coup by a great number of intellectuals and activists, the process forcedly “elected” a coalition of politicians, led by Vice President Michel Temer, who are not exactly known for their aboveboard behavior. (Many have been accused of crimes ranging from tax evasion to bribery to, yes, even murder.)
Temer’s administration has already had a direct impact on arts and culture: it almost succeeded in dissolving the Ministry of Culture, abandoning the plan only in the face of intense protest. In the social realm, it has flirted with exploiters’ interests in the dispute over possession of indigenous lands: reports of indigenous people’s assassinations and conflicts have intensified. With the visibility given by social media, a few right-wing extremist groups have spoken in favor of a military dictatorship’s return. Conservative senators have taken advantage of this moment to disseminate radical agendas, like support for a forced “cure” for homosexuality, while dominant evangelical parties espouse intolerant views of Afro-Brazilian religions and indigenous peoples’ traditions.
‘Incerteza Viva” thus stands as a bulwark against this vicious conservatism and its propaganda. Many of its curatorial decisions, within this political context, take the form of resistance. Artworks across the show from the 1970s refer to the times of the dictatorships in Latin America, such as militant-filmmaker Leon Hirszman’s Cantos de Trabalho (Work Songs, 1975–76), a series of three films in which laborers sing while working on a joint construction project, and on plantations for cocoa and sugar cane in Brazil. Hirszman emphasizes the solidarity between the workers and their traditional way of life. Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson’s subversive tapestries comment on social struggles and feminism; her Chile Echoes in My Skull (1973/2016) makes direct reference to the nation’s 1973 military coup.
On the second floor, where many artists from the African continent appear, Anawana Haloba, born in Zambia and based in Norway, looks at postcolonial processes in the 1960s to 1980s. Her installation for the biennial, Close-Up (2016), is an intimate space covered by a black carpet in which candles are lit during the night. Hanging from the ceiling, close to visitors’ heads, are ten salt rocks, in different colors, each about 4 inches in diameter. The nylon nets that hold the rocks have the same colors as the salt so that one has the feeling the rocks are floating in the air. During the run of the show, the salt will liquefy, and dishes varying in style will collect the liquid that drops from the salt. Inside the dishes, contact microphones record the sound of drops and transmit them to speakers in the room. Mingling with this delicate symphony, poems spoken in a Brazilian indigenous language and in the artist’s mother’s dialect are uttered from time to time. There is more than sound here, there is also the subtle scent of the salt as it evaporates—as if remains of the cultures that whisper the poems.
Artworks that use collaboration between artists and participants, or that activate grassroots networks, present innovative ways of interacting with nonhuman realms. For Psychotropic House: Zooetics Pavilion of Ballardian Technologies (2015–16), Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas installed a lab on the ground floor, where they receive visitors in three transparent plastic rooms: there, they produce their own fungi vessels. The Lithuanian duo’s research is based on the idea that objects and buildings can be grown. During the process, visitors learn about fungi farming; later in the year, they can take their grown fungi vessels home. Brazilian artist Jorge Menna Barreto, instead, creates a restaurant with recipes based on forest plants. For Restauro (Restoration, 2016), the artist first organized conversations with a group of agroforestry farmers based in the countryside of São Paulo; later, these farmers became the suppliers for the restaurant, located on the pavilion’s mezzanine, in a collaboration that establishes and energizes networks of environmental activism.
In times of environmental collapse and social crises in Brazil, such as the construction of the Belo Monte mega-dam in the Amazon—which has impacted thousands of riverine and indigenous communities—images that speak of myths and spirituality and works that feed from an indigenous aesthetic can have a potent presence throughout the exhibition. Right at the biennial’s entrance, sculptures by Frans Krajcberg—a Polish-born artist who immigrated to Brazil to escape the Holocaust and now lives in Bahia—represent the latter approach. At the age of 95, he is presenting sets of vertical sculptures made from tree trunks that remained from destructive human activities. The sculptures’ shapes suggest anthropomorphism, while the designs on their surfaces could refer to indigenous people’s body paint patterns.
Also on the ground floor, Brazilian artist-activist Bené Fonteles’ Ágora: OcaTaperaTerreiro (2016) is similar to a large indigenous hut, made with rammed earth walls and straw ceiling. Inside, a syncretism of cultures and religions takes the walls, with a diversity of pictures and objects ranging from van Gogh’s only known photograph to Afro and Brazilian indigenous people’s objects and materials, such as manioc flour. For the next few months, Fonteles will receive intellectuals, artists, and musicians from various races and ethnicities in a series of conversations named “How to postpone the end of the world.” The artist juxtaposes different types of knowledge and Brazilian cultural matrices, in which multiple modalities of spiritual rituals are included. Aesthetically, other works dialogue with notions of cosmology, such as modernist Gilvan Samico’s (1928–2013) woodcut engravings: figurative, stylized, and eye-catching images that entangle biblical narratives and indigenous myths. And American Jordan Belson’s (1926–2011) hypnotizing film, Samadhi (1967), takes inspiration from Buddhism and astronomic theories to generate meditation states in spectators.
Numerous works also allude visually to bio or geological systems through, perhaps, a revived eco-aesthetics, such as Brazilian Erika Verzutti’s huge and exquisite polystyrene and papier-mâché panels that look like heavy stone blocks (though they’re light), and mix contemporary abstraction with geo-aesthetics. In his book Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, art historian T.J. Demos notes the remarkable lack of political engagement within the eco-aesthetics of the 1970s, such as American Land Art. In his view, “the most compelling current artistic models . . . join the aesthetic dimension . . . with the commitment to postcolonial ethico-political praxis, and do so with sustained attention to how local activities interact with global formations.” A prime example of this approach in the biennial is Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’ Forest Law (2014), an installation and two-channel documentary that depicts a legal battle organized by the people of Sarayaku against the Ecuadorian government, initiated in 2003, after ongoing exploitation of their territory in the Amazon, including the use of explosives for seismic tests in the Kichwa’s sacred soil by CGC, an Argentine-based oil company. In 2008, Ecuador rewrote its constitution based on the rights of nature, which proclaims, “nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” For that reason, the Sarayaku legal battle was the first in which a forest “made an appearance” in court and its rights as a living being had to be acknowledged. Although there are many other ongoing judicial struggles regarding the territory, in 2012, the people of Sarayaku won the international case presented to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, halting the detonation of the explosives.
Even while noting the show’s affectionate play between a revived eco-aesthetics and political-ethical knowledge, I wonder if “Incerteza Viva” ever falls into the old trap of exoticism, especially when it comes to the unspecialized public that will visit the venue, specifically the Brazilian middle class. While my expectation is that young students from public schools will empathize with the diversity depicted in many works, and that upper classes’ racial and ethnic prejudices can somehow be broken during the visit, I believe that this biennial partially contradicts some of the themes it so boldly aims to emit. How, for instance, are we to account for the fact that so few Brazilian indigenous artists have been selected? Or, how are we to address the lack of support or even racism by the art field in regards to indigenous artists in Brazil? In this year’s edition of the Brazilian PIPA Prize—which launches many artists’ international careers—two indigenous artists received a popular vote award: Jaider Esbell won and Arissana Pataxó took second place, but they are not included in the exhibition.
In this respect, at least two important projects in the biennial address those questions directly. The first is Vídeo nas Aldeias, one of the most respected Brazilian educational initiatives, in which members of indigenous communities are not only depicted in films but, often, are their filmmakers. On the second floor of the pavilion, the initiative’s Brazil of the Indians: An Open Archive (1911–2016) shows images from numerous indigenous communities on three huge screens, in which scenes toggle between footage from several indigenous authors. Some of the videos portray rituals within the intimacy of the villages; other films show indigenous movements in protests, demanding the protection of lands in cities across Brazil from development and expropriation, a combination that challenges the stereotypical image of the “Brazilian Indian” still perpetuated by society, in which indigenous peoples are recognized as archaic—or poor—figures who inhabit either a romantic or a retrograde past. These images, combined, show that when indigenous peoples demonstrate their identities they enact both their mythological narratives and their rights.
The second isA Possible Reversal of Missed Opportunities (2016) by Brazilian-born artist and activist Maria Thereza Alves, now based in Berlin. For her piece, Alves, whose grandmother was Guarani, held workshops with Brazilian indigenous students and teachers who created fictitious conferences in which they would like to participate, but to which they have never been invited, due to racism against indigenous peoples. She organized conversations with them, in which all read translated articles by indigenous scholars, such as Richard Hill and Linda Smith. These one-day workshops also acknowledged the indigenous presence in Brazilian art and academia, and presented contemporary indigenous artists. Alves produced three large posters with the conferences’ topics, fictional titles, fictional universities, and sponsors the students came up with—the posters were disseminated in the biennial and in the cities where the actions took place. “I’ve asked myself many times, how do we decolonize imagination? That’s how: through the exercise of fiction,” the artist told me. Alves decided not to document the meetings, explaining, “I didn’t want the ethnographic gaze in the work, so if the students wanted to photograph the meetings, they could, but I didn’t.” Alves’s decolonizing exercise goes beyond notions of eco-aesthetics that flood the rest of the biennial; they require extra attention from spectators and make a strong statement about the current condition of indigenous peoples in Brazil. “I wanted to use fiction because we don’t have to wait for things to happen, especially when reality is far from ideal,” she said.
During the press preview, Volz said, “When he took office, Michel Temer said that the times of uncertainties had come to an end, but we say, ‘No, we want to talk about uncertainties.’ ” The curator commiserated with anti-Temer artist protesters who wore black shirts with phrases such as “I want to vote for president!” and shouted, “Out Temer!” The exhibition’s notion of positive uncertainty suspends the idea of fear-driven crises, which capitalism has long used as a way to exploit resources and labor and to derail political engagement.
While only white men compose Temer’s administration, the exhibition featured more women artists than men (47 out of 81)—a breakthrough in its history. Against intolerance of gender and race, religion and culture, artworks either refer to or depict a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups, revealing to foreigners and Brazilian visitors that different modes of being and living are possible and necessary. With these overarching principles, the biennial mostly eschews Brazilian or Western histories of romanticizing indigenous peoples, or of patronizing Afro-Brazilians. It is a solid and timely platform against a worldwide wave of conservatism, capturing a moment in which some artists are asking, with concern but not despair, “How can we, humans and nonhumans, postpone the end of the world through imagination?”