Financial Times 

Environmental and political
crises provide an urgent backdrop
to provocative art at the world’s
second-largest biennial

by Maya Jaggi 

September 16, 2016

Midway across the parquet in Oscar Niemeyer’s Modernist pavilion in São Paulo — purposebuilt in the 1950s to house the world’s second-oldest art biennial — the solid floor gives way beneath your feet. A sinking feeling, as though venturing into a swamp, triggers disorientation and panic. Yet the wooden floor proves buoyant. After a few tentative steps, visitors are trampolining with gusto and grace.

“Chão” (Floor), a site-specific re installation of a 2004 work by the Brazilian artist José Bento, uses salvaged planks overlaid on springs to reveal the ambiguous possibilities of a mundane material. Like much in the 32nd São Paulo Biennial, entitled Incerteza Viva (Live Uncertainty), Bento’s work explores the liberating potential of destabilisation and doubt. “Art feeds off uncertainty, chance, improvisation and speculation,” says chief curator Jochen Volz, a German living in Brazil who was previously head of programmes at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

Volz had in mind long-term chaos and catastrophe when his curatorial team began work on the show, which is the largest in the southern hemisphere. This year it has 340 works by more than 80 artists from 33 countries — most born after 1970. The theme gained immediacy during the months of political instability that culminated in President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment only days before the biennial opened. 
The claim of Michel Temer, who assumed the office of president, that order was restored was belied by protests that erupted within the pavilion and on the streets.

Founded 65 years ago by industrialist Ciccillo Matarazzo, São Paulo’s art show was intended to recreate the Venice Biennale in Brazil. With a permanent home amid the tropical flora of Ibirapuera Park, the biennial is this year designed as a garden for visitors to find their own paths. The glass walls of the three-storey pavilion have been left uncovered to bring light and foliage inside.

The transition from park to pavilion is marked at the entrance by Frans Krajcberg’s sculptural forest, whittled from charred wood. The Polish-born artist, who moved to north-east Brazil in the 1970s, makes nature his theme, his material and his cause. In “Sound Mirror”, by the Argentine Eduardo Navarro, a delicate brass instrument resembling an ear trumpet is trained on an outdoor palm, bringing the tree’s “sound” to the listener’s ear at the other end of a pipe indoors.

This attention to the natural world gained catastrophic urgency after last November’s mine dam disaster in Minas Gerais, the worst environmental catastrophe in Brazil’s history. What looks like a giant abstract canvas in greens, mauves and rust-red on a prominent back wall turns out to be a satellite image of the affected area, by Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo. Her 2016 series “A Gente Rio — Be Dammed” includes photographic montage, drawings and video charting river peoples’ devastation by dams.

The Mariana disaster is also reflected in a triple-video installation edited from 8,000 hours of footage taken since 1986 by an indigenous collective, Video nas Aldeias, together with earlier material dating back to 1911. The archive earns its place in the way it disorientates the viewer, blurring — like much in the biennial — the line between documentary and fiction. What seems, for instance, like absurd theatre, is footage of a military police graduation parade, showing indigenous recruits miming torture techniques.

At the opening of the biennial, Volz invoked the Tupi Amerindians, who were the original cultivators of Ibirapuera Park. “There is a new emphasis on what’s gone missing,” he tells me, “the vast knowledge that’s been lost. We’re coming to understand that the only way for Brazil to survive, to protect the land and biodiversity, is to maintain the indigenous population, and learn from them.” Such sentiments have long found a place in Brazilian art. Yet he argues: “The real injustices are continuing on a daily basis, so the topic has been hidden.”

Lais Myrrha’s eloquent central installation, “Double Standard”, dominates every floor with its twin towers made of contrasting materials: the logs, vines and straw of indigenous construction versus bricks, steel and cement. “We need to change the idea we have of progress,” Myrrha tells me. “When you put the two towers together, you show the destruction involved in industrialconstruction; it takes a whole industry to make a brick.”

If the show is open to indigenous knowledge, it also reconfigures Brazil’s geographical place in the world. Ties with Lebanon (Brazil has a large Lebanese diaspora) are revealed to bizarre effect in the Kuwaiti Alia Farid’s film “The Exhibition of Tripoli”, showing a sensuous white Niemeyer construction in the northern Lebanese city that — in contract to Ibirapuera — fell to ruin when civil war broke out in 1975. In “Tobacco Route”, the Brazilian artist Dalton Paula revisits a tobacco triangle between Brazil and Cuba where enslaved Africans were put to work. He has recovered African and Afro-Brazilian history by painting on the covers of the encyclopedias that omit it. Here, he omits the business of tobacco to paint scenes of black life in the margins of the trade, from jazz musicians to religious rituals, on clay bowls used for food and candomblé offerings. With a subdued palette of black, white and brown, these understated objects are both conceptually sophisticated and exquisite.

In Jonathas de Andrade’s 40-minute film “The Fish”, a highlight of the show, a succession of mangrove fishermen catch and hold a large fish in a tender embrace, caressing it in its death throes. According to the artist, the mysterious ritual, which held visitors spellbound, is an “invented myth”, but the performers are real north-eastern fishermen. He used 16mm film to allude to ethnographic portrayals. “The image touches the romantic idea of the perfect balance of a community with nature,” De Andrade tells me. “That caress helps the fish on its passage to death, and puts men back in the position of species. But they’re dominant; it’s a morbid embrace.” Yet even as it cautions against romanticism, the film is extraordinarily moving. Each dying fish becomes, for a time, the centre of our world.

Bienal de São Paulo, to December 11,

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