Magazine article Art Monthly

29th Sao Paulo Bienal

Magazine article Art Monthly

29th Sao Paulo Bienal

Article excerpt

29th Sao Paulo Bienal

various venues 25 September to 12 December

The biennale is perhaps the most instrumental of exhibition forms, often appearing to be harnessed to agendas other than those of the artists, curators and even audiences with which it works. At least 60 of these events (or more than 100, depending on how they are counted) have now been established at various locations around the globe, and each is required to contribute to the wealth or social health of its location by delivering some measure of education, social cohesion, urban regeneration, cultural tourism, international profile or regional rebranding.

Founded in 1951, the Sao Paulo Bienal is the second oldest biennale in the world. Housed in an iconic Oscar Niemeyer building (the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, completed in 1957) in the Ibirapuera Park, it has always had a strong educational mission and a commitment to connect Brazil to international art and to leading institutions in Europe and North America. In its early years it combined shows of contemporary art with exhibitions of European masters and of modern greats such as Picasso and Matisse, but in recent decades its finest editions have been deeply rooted in Brazilian culture. In 1998 Paulo Herkenhoffs curatorial project for the 24th Bienal attracted international attention with its profoundly imaginative examination of the concept of cultural cannibalism, antropofagia, and in 2006 Lisette Lagnado's 27th Bienal, presented under the title 'How to Live Together', took Helio Oiticica's work as its starting point, exploring social engagement, performativity and relational practices. Both exhibitions exemplified a deep political engagement and sense of social responsibility.

The 28th Bienal, presented in 2008, grew out of a crisis in the funding and constitution of the Bienal organisation--debts remaining from the 2006 edition and controversy surrounding the activities of the then president of the Bienal Foundation, Francisco Pires da Costa. Ivo Mesquita undertook to address this crisis by proposing a project that would reflect on current conditions; it would include no art objects, being composed entirely of performances and film screenings, with conferences investigating the Sao Paulo Bienal's history and operations, a library made up of biennale catalogues from around the world, and one floor of the Niemeyer pavilion left completely empty. Although the clarity of this gesture became somewhat blurred as events unfolded, the timeliness of Mesquita's proposition was immediately recognised, understood internationally as reflecting not only on specific problems in Brazil, but more generally on the sustainability and viability of the biennale model.

Since the crisis of 2008, the Bienal Foundation in Sao Paulo has had a total makeover, with the appointment of a new chairman, Heitor Martins of global management consulting firm McKinsey in Brazil, a new board, with several new members coming from the corporate world, and a financial rescue plan that has put together a purse of R$45m (just under 17111 [pounds sterling]) to clear past debts, contribute to the ongoing refurbishment of the Niemeyer pavilion and provide a budget of R$30m (11.3111 [pounds sterling]) for the current edition of the Bienal. The question that now emerges is how this newly reformed institution sees its mission, how the debates of the past few years have translated into the current edition.

The Sao Paulo Bienal is big; Oscar Niemeyer's 30,000sqm pavilion, organised on three floors, offers the same amount of exhibition floor space as all the national pavilions in the Giardini in Venice, the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale put together. Its propositions are expected to register globally and it sees itself positioned somewhere between the Venice Biennale--with its hectic round-up of national presentations and curatorial propositions--and Documenta which, at five-year intervals, promises the possibility of a considered curatorial reflection on issues currently most relevant to contemporary art and artists. …

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