Rejecting spectacle, which so often permeates international art exhibitions, “On the Imminence of Poetics,” the 30th São Paulo Biennial, embraced quiet contemplation. While Documenta 13, on view this summer, addressed the notion of a contemporary collapse, presenting works that dealt with political engagement and fictional narratives, this biennial focused on the creative process itself. According to the artistic director, Venezuela-born Luis Pérez-Oramas (curator of Latin American art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), the meaning of an artwork is enhanced through its contact with other artworks. Thus, by displaying multiple pieces by various artists organized into thematic “constellations,” the curator enabled viewers to connect with the works in an intimate and deliberate way.
The Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, at Ibirapuera Park, an iconic building of Brazilian modernism designed by Oscar Niemeyer, is not an easy place to view art because of its monumentality and historical significance. But the exhibition design, conceived by the young architect Martin Corullon, allowed for an organic rhythm through the open spaces and specially constructed viewing rooms.
Accumulation, repetition, obsession and the notion of the archive were recurrent themes in the biennial, which gathered 3,000 works by 111 artists from 33 countries. Over 600 photographs from August Sander’s “People of the 20th Century” gave the Brazilian public the first opportunity to see these well-known portraits in a formal installation. Sander’s historical and anthropological approach gained more meaning in dialogue with Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom’s recent photographs of people from the 21st century in streets all over the world. Eijkelboom highlights recurring instances of gestures, or graphics on clothing.
Large constructed objects appeared throughout the show. The influence of Constructivism could be found in pieces by the German-Venezuelan Gego (1912-1994). Other standouts were Brazilian Alexandre da Cunha’s ironic abstract sculptures made from household materials, and the colorful textile works of American Sheila Hicks.
An intelligent consideration of the 1970s was evident, with examples of Land art and early performance. Impressively installed rooms were dedicated to Allan Kaprow (1927-2006), represented by documentary videos of his Happenings, and to Bas Jan Ader (1942-1975), represented by his melancholic video performances. Works by Tehching Hsieh and Simone Forti were noteworthy in this context. The exhibition also spread through the city, with showings dedicated to artists including Robert Smithson (1938-1973) and Bruno Munari (1907-1998) in other institutions.
Intuition (a forbidden term in contemporary art) and madness (understood as a form of intelligence) emerged as topics through the inclusion of a large selection of elaborate objects made by Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário (1909-1989), who spent 50 years in a psychiatric hospital. Other works outside the mainstream were drawings created by children with autism, gathered by Fernand Deligny (France, 1913-1996), and a large wall densely hung with the poetic pictographic characters invented by Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (b. 1923, Ivory Coast) and based on the language, folklore and beliefs of the Bété people.
An ample number of Latin American artists were represented, many with vibrant and strong works, including the black-and-white drawings of Argentinian Eduardo Stupía. His airy compositions featuring a myriad of mark-making techniques demand close contemplation to discern shadows, landscapes and partial figures. Eduardo Gil from Venezuela attracted attention with his wry political works. His installation Cinejornal do Ditador ou Hematoma (Dictator’s Newsreel or Hematoma, 2012) filled a large wall with 200 mechanized colored rectangles in constant rotation. Each bears the scarcely visible portrait of an ex-dictator. The Colombian Icaro Zorbar deserves special mention for the room-size installation Sympathy for the Devil (2012). In a darkened space, small starlike spots of light filled one side of the room, while projected images of jellyfish covered another wall.
The biennial offered a strong argument for facilitating poetic and intimate experiences in a time characterized by disconnection and superficiality. It allowed the public to recognize themselves in the works-not a small accomplishment in a country where art education is still in its infancy. When we take into consideration the consistency of the curatorial concept, it becomes clear that this edition was the most important São Paulo Biennial since the late 1990s, equal to any other major exhibition on the international calendar.
Photo: Eduardo Stupía: Untitled, 2010, mixed mediums on canvas, 76¾ by 118 inches; at the São Paulo Biennial.