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.
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.
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.
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.
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.