“Sofia Borges: curatorship as poetics or the artist-curator?”, critical text by Luiz Camillo Osorio

In this exclusive text, PIPA Institute curator writes about Sofia Borges’ curatorial project for the 33 São Paulo Biennale. “What interested me in the specific case of Sofia Borges, was how she appropriated other works, set them in motion through her own poetics, and constructed a visual and spatial experience of unquestionable plastic intensity: intensity and discomfort”. Here, Camillo reflects on the role of curatorship and the possibilities of poetic criation and intervention of the “artist-curator” when setting an exhibition and elaborting its narrative.

Sofia Borges: curatorship as poetics or the artist-curator?


This is not a critical text about the São Paulo Biennale. I simply want to talk about the curatorial project of Sofia Borges – The Infinite History of Things or the End of the Tragedy of One (A infinita história das coisas ou o fim da tragédia do um) – prompted by an invitation from the curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro for this edition of the Biennale. As everybody knows, one of its innovations was his having contacted seven artists and asked them to undertake curatorships. The idea is interesting and had already been one of the proposals made by the same curator when he staged the Mercosul Biennale. There are several kinds of artist-curator. What interested me in the specific case of Sofia Borges, was how she appropriated other works, set them in motion through her own poetics, and constructed a visual and spatial experience of unquestionable plastic intensity: intensity and discomfort.

What do the works of Sarah Lucas, Antonio Malta Campos and Adelina Gomes have in common? Or those of Sara Ramos, Sônia Catarina and Leda Catunda? Sofia Borges’ curatorial gesture and her deliberate approach to things seemed very different; a risky gesture that included the nullification of Niemeyer’s architecture and the introduction of a muted and labyrinthine scenography.

I say scenography and not museography because the curatorial gesture was assembled from little scenes, as if they were plastic-poetic sketches which unfold during the course of our wanderings. There is a provocation of good taste in the same way that there is a clear focus on what escapes meaning. Tunga, an artist central to this exhibition, used to say that we always have to rise to the level of our dreams, seeking to respond to what presents itself unexpectedly.

Curatorship has always faced the challenge of either assuming the status of creation or stepping back in order to let the works occupy centre stage. This seems to be a false dichotomy to me. It’s worth considering how much of allowing the works to take centre stage is also an act of creation. For this to occur, one has to assume that there is no single way of seeing the works or that they are always being transformed by the infinite relationships which are created at the times and in the contexts in which they are seen. Curatorship is, above all, construction.

I would like here to cite the film “Goodbye to Language” by Jean-Luc Godard. Not for the purposes of comparison, but to note similar procedures and anxieties. Right at the beginning of the film, two references appear which I would like to use here, namely: “all those who lack imagination seek refuge in reality” and “the question remains as to whether non-thought contaminates thought”. Reality as a refuge and the imagination as a deviation. More than a deviation, a disturbance of the order. All the artists and works brought into an exhibition are interesting inasmuch as they suggest some normative discord – they escape representation. The staging here is fundamental in order to extract from the image any subordination to representation, to the referent and, consequently, to identity.

Exploring the exhaustion of language by language, visually experiencing what escapes visual meaning, bringing together unconnected images, saturated colours, experiencing the undefined territory between the real and the fictional, the image and the thing, bringing us into the scene and pushing the scene to the limit of the (un)recognizable. All these procedures explored by Godard have some resonance in this exhibition of Sofia Borges. What remains to be seen? What still moves us visually? How does sensation escape the exaggerated appeals of entertainment and spectacle? How can we transform bad taste into what Walter Benjamin called positive barbarity?

The non-thought which provokes thought is the surprise that does not ask permission to enter the stage; it perturbs, installs itself and mobilizes our attention. The sculptures / installations of Tunga’s final phase, distributed throughout various scenes of the curation, with their fragments of bodies, mixing raw and artificial materials, and faded, almost unreal colours, suggests something strange and unfamiliar, peaceful monstrosities strewn across the floor without accommodating themselves. Photographing the works, details of them, and joining them together and putting them with the originals, demonstrates how separating the parts from the whole is irrelevant to the gaze, that to see is to go beyond what we are able to recognize. A brushstroke is often sufficient to seduce our eye. I would even say that to work in the field of expression is to continuously explore this open field through what escapes the recognizable, the sayable, and expands our inner signifying pulse.

We enter the space of this exhibition and are drawn into a labyrinth where the images shift between the delirious and the astonishing, between mythological remains, raw concrete walls, shiny curtains from decadent hotels or popular dance halls, and small fragments of text, at times banal, at times poetic. We are led by small dramatic nuclei or what I prefer to call curatorial scenes. Niemeyer’s architecture, with its vastness and formal impetuosity, is subdued, isolated and deconstructed. On the day of the opening, the works were arranged without labels, removing the power of immediate identification, leaving the better known to the specialist eye. Bearing in mind that Sofia Borges herself has photographed many details of these works and that the paintings of the museum of the unconscious reorganize the meanings of authorship, it seems that this was a deliberate gesture of appropriation, a rejection of authorship and an affirmation of curatorial authority/creation.

As the curation of an artist, it seemed to be a provocative gesture, another “death of the author”, bearing in mind the presentation of the exhibition as a work of art. On a second visit, the labels were already in place. If, on the one hand, this respected expositional norms, on the other, it allowed for experimentation and the logic of her poetics itself which destabilizes the categories of representation. It seemed to me more radical, this gesture of making the works part of the installation as a whole, of making the works parts of a desire for expression that moves from poetics to poetics, without allowing itself to be fixed other than in the unfinished movement of the expositional labyrinth where we are sometimes lost, sometimes surprised and sometimes unsettled.

Clearly this is not a recurrent curatorial practice; it does not serve as a model to be reproduced, but in its artistic exceptionality it makes us think about less assimilated meanings of curatorship. It indicates, above all, that there is always, in curatorship, in the staging of an exhibition, a desire for experience more than narrative, at least, that there is some legitimacy in thinking about curatorship as a poetic gesture.


Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015.

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