View of Frederick Douglass portraits at 34th Bienial of São Paulo. © Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

Notes on the 34th São Paulo Bienal, by Luiz Camillo Osorio

Notes on the 34th São Paulo Bienal, by Luiz Camillo Osorio

Traslated by Rebecca Atkinson

“Though it’s dark, still I sing.” Appropriating this verse by Thiago de Mello, the team of curators of the São Paulo Bienial – Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, Paulo Miyada, Carla Zaccagnini, Francesco Stocchi and Ruth Estévez – have attempted to translate the time in which we live, under the threat of an explosive combination of pandemic, social isolation, democratic regression, climate crisis and political intolerance. To hold a Bienal at such a dark time is no easy task if the aim is for some light is to radiate from it. But I begin with a brief appraisal: I left it in a better state of mind than when I entered it. Indeed, I was surprised by its felicitous combination of political punch and poetic release. The curatorial project managed to take a stance without being partisan and without forfeiting complexity, showcasing multiple voices, some lacunae and countless challenges.

Visiting a Biennale is never straightforward. The scale defies our body and what we are capable of seeing and apprehending. As announced in the work by the Portuguese artist Luisa Cunha at the entrance, a visit around the empty space by a medium-height woman walking non-stop would take 37 minutes. A visit to the exhibition while stopping to look, she concludes, could take an indefinite amount of time. I visited the Biennale twice. The first time I walked around everything slowly, but did not manage to watch the videos properly or give all the works due attention. It took about six hours. The second time, a few days later, I stopped to watch the videos that had attracted my attention all the way through and to take a closer look at some of the works and documents that had resonated with me. Six more hours. With a break for coffee. I think that ideally I would have had about two more visits.

When you go to an exhibition, the idea is to see everything in one go. We read a short story in one sitting, but not a novel. Visiting the Biennale is more like reading a novel – you have to get into the plot, the voice and the pace of the narrative. If you rush through it, which you can, you’ll miss a lot. Inevitably. Though it’s dark, still I sing is an exhibition that calls for several visits, more leisurely time to absorb not just the information contained in it, but the experiences it offers – what gradually takes shape in the indeterminate connections between what we see, what we read, what we think and what we feel. It’s an experience that takes time to mature. But it’s still worth a visit even if you don’t have so much time available provided you just choose some specific works to focus on. I think it’s better to see a few works than rush around the whole thing. 

The exhibition design is very good. It does justice to the curatorial proposal of working with exhibition archipelagos or constellations, which form multiple micro-exhibitions within the overall exhibition arc. The way through the pavilion is dictated by the pace of these pauses and by the integrated circuit of the whole. It is sparingly furnished, guaranteeing enough room within each exhibition hub while also spatially articulating their internal structure. It isn’t visually overloaded, nor does it feel overly expansive or empty, which can be a problem in big exhibition spaces, making it hard for visitors to connect with the works.

Poetics of Relation, by Édouard Glissant, was a crucial book for the curatorial project for several reasons. A thinker and poet from the African Diaspora who divided his time between his native Martinique and Paris, Glissant simultaneously thought about the pain and purges associated with enforced slavery, the proliferation of cultural differences and their transformative intersections. The idea of opacity, often evoked in defence of the poetic thrust of this curatorship, is what enables difference to resist being assimilated by the requirement for transparency inherent to the dominant form of reason. The ability to resist and flourish at cultural intersections relies on protecting the core of incomprehensibility specific to the different world views that make up an ecosystem in a constant state of negotiation, disruption and transformation. Opacity is what maintains diversity. Therein lies Glissant’s – and the curators’ – emphasis on transposing the urge for universality inherent to Western reason into an as yet unrealised pluriversality, expanding globalisation in a less centralised, more horizontal manner. 

Local references are a starting point for the discussion of the global, and the first curatorial archipelago is very eloquent in this respect. The fire at the National Museum (Museu Nacional), the burning foretold of our most fragile of legacies, producing interesting symbolic metamorphoses by an interplay of poetic gestures and heterogeneous temporalities. Placed in relation to one another, we see a rock whose mineral composition has been altered by heat (changing its colour), a small doll donated by an indigenous girl to help reconstitute the cindered collection, and, no less impactful, a meteorite, named Santa Luzia, which was brought forth unscathed from the embers having survived far higher temperatures on its journey through the universe. This interplay of gestures, stones and metamorphoses is intensified by Carmela Gross’s monotypes displayed along the side wall, entitled Boca do Inferno [Mouth of Hell] (2020). Perhaps this mouth is speaking to us all in the midst of adversity and darkness. In powerful, opaque speech.

Picture: Lela Beltrão

As Paulo Miyada writes in the catalogue, the curatorial strategy aimed to “organise the works and the themes of this Bienal around what we call statements: objects, images, documents that do not fit specifically into the category of artworks and which are impregnated with history. Pointing both to events from centuries or decades past and to recent events, these statements are the materialisation, in the exhibition space of the 34th Bienal, of what I have called a prospective mnemonic engine. The way each of them connects with history is made clear in the accompanying texts, but the most important thing is what cannot be put into words: the relationship between the narrative of the statements and the artists’ works arranged around them”.

Each statement forms the kernel of an exhibition hub, connecting artworks, historical documents and material fragments from diverse cultures. This temporal mosaic prompts us to question the idea that an exhibition offers an experience of art that fits into a broader cultural narrative, inviting the viewer to poetically and politically operate new meanings. This articulation of art and culture could demote art to merely illustrating previously constituted discourses, but it also has the power to produce imaginative connections, expand our ways of seeing and thinking about the world beyond the specificities of art history. It is important here to point out the critical and poetic role of the catalogue, which not only documents the works and artists and presents the curatorial proposal, but suggests a freer articulation around these statements, connecting correspondence written throughout the pandemic by the curators – with all its uncertainty and perplexity – with some commissioned texts and a set of images and visual suggestions, forming hubs around which different aspects of the exhibition are developed. At the end it offers the necessary references, but it seems to me that making the catalogue and, indeed, the online networked activities part of the exhibition platform is consistent with this project’s intended exploratory and investigative nature. Two exhibition statements translated very well to the catalogue context: Letters to my Son, by Joel Rufino dos Santos, containing harrowing material from the time when he was incarcerated during the military dictatorship; and the poetic associations proposed by Ana Kiefer in Cut/Connection: Antonin Artaud and Édouard Glissant. Not to mention Brandon LaBelle’s unnerving Interview with a Clown.

Back to the exhibition itself. The presence of indigenous contemporary artists, under the curatorship of Jaider Esbell, of the Makuxi ethnic group, from the Amazonian state of Roraima, shows this more wide-ranging gaze which seeks to build up heterogeneous modes of symbolic production marked by the same need to cast lines between past and future. They are works that are included in a broader context of productive hybridisation which shifts between production processes and modes of perceiving and apprehending what is seen. Throughout the exhibition, better-known works are juxtaposed with more recent output, like Lothar Baumgarten, Leon Ferrari, Lygia Pape, Antonio Dias, Uýra, Jota Mombaça, Melvin Moti and Daiara Tukano. There was no shortage of surprise, coming across works by Jungjin Lee, Frida Orupabo Claude Cahun, Nalini Malani and Tony Colkes. Each from a specific historical and cultural context which is reconfigured into the curatorial narratives. To say nothing of the work of familiar but always instigating artists like Eleonora Fabião, Arjan Martins and Eric Baudelaire. 

I could speak of each of these works, but for the constraints of space I shall concentrate on just three artists, whose interconnectedness, I feel, distils the spirit of this Bienal: Frederick Douglass, Vincent Meessen and Manthia Diawara. The set of portraits of Douglass, an enslaved American who fled to Massachusetts and became a symbol of the abolition movement, is incredibly forceful. From 1841, when his first portrait was commissioned, to his death in 1895, dozens of images were produced which bear witness to the proud construction of a free subjectivity mindful of his political significance. As noted in the curators’ text that appears on the wall alongside them, “for more than five decades he became the most photographed person in the United States in the twentieth century, showing great control of his bearing, attire, appearance and framing. This unique corpus of portraits is shown here almost in its entirety for the first time in the context of an art exhibition.” 

An appropriate choice, given that this was one of the earliest cases of somebody who was the object of the colonial gaze – enslaved – taking ownership of his own image. It is a significant symbol of “decolonising the camera”, to borrow Mark Sealy’s expression, which branched out into many other processes of subjective affirmation, infringing the norms of visibility and producing new symbolic partitions. A movement that was defining for the construction of an actual democracy, not one just on paper. For these photographs of Frederick Douglass to be anchored to the giant painting by Arjan Martins, on the other side of the same floor, is a fitting metaphor for how the struggle between different countries and realities is not over, how decolonisation and democracy-building are still in progress, bringing in historically excluded voices, bodies and knowledge. In fact, what we see at the junctures between these different poetic and political moments in the Bienal is how far the exercise in building a self-image, taking ownership of their own voice, has enabled these invisibilised groupings to develop new ways of seeing and thinking of themselves as vital life-force, not pacified victim. Democracy is noisy and disruptive and involves vying forces who collectively agree to live together in difference. 

Juste un Mouvement, a video-installation by the Belgian artist and filmmaker Vincent Meessen, is one of those fascinating experiments that straddles documentary and fiction. Its starting point is the story of the young black Senegalese philosopher Omar Blondin Diop, who acted in Jean-Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise (1967), giving a lesson in Marxism-Leninism to youth who expected the revolution to be televised. The story of this young man who “committed suicide” in a Senegalese prison during the government of Léopold Senghor is the backdrop for a complex discussion of decolonial struggles from Africa. The appropriation of scenes from Godard’s ground-breaking film, the activist roots of the young black intellectual, who knew he was excluded from the French university scene, even though he did not agree with Senegal’s post-colonial policies, ended up driving him to radicalisation, with consequences that could only be tragic. It is precisely this tragic dimension that is foregrounded in this film, where the means of producing a fairer society cannot be achieved without a profound transformation of the geopolitical alliances and pacts in the contemporary world. Just as the characters’ voices spin fiction and reality, the future achievable by societies scarred by colonialism can only come about from a movement that combines reparations, displacements and inventiveness. The potential for a tragic fate does not fade from the horizon. Which is why we need art and the symbolic: to make us imagine different possibilities.

In this respect, Manthia Diawara’s film Towards the New Baroque of Voices seems to me a great curatorial synthesis of this Bienal. This Malian artist-filmmaker, who works as a university professor at New York University, has two major formative references, Jean Rouch and Édouard Glissant, both of whom echo in this film. It is constructed as a curated selection of African and Diasporic African voices, who speak from a broad range of different experiences but all bear the wound of colonial histories, as well as the hope of forging new forms of social organisation from them. This mosaic of scholars’, poets’ and activists’ voices, all interconnected by Glissant himself, puts us before a surprising polyphony that indicates ways forward rather than giving directions, provoking thought without any intention of reducing complex issues to simple formulas. 

The presence of the ocean between the words evokes the memory of the surface-space of enforced circulation of ideas and bodies, which forged modernity and globalisation and now propagates the challenge of imagining new horizons beyond a unidirectional universalising project. It is not about turning our backs on modernity, but about making it more plural, broader, more committed to tout-monde (Glissant). We began with a meteorite and we end with the ocean. Natural elements are part of the equation; everything can potentially speak in an exhibition. Though it’s dark, still I sing is a curatorial project that confronts Brazil at a critical time in its history, making a commitment to the many Brazils we are made up of and pointing to other worlds to come. The urgency is palpable, but if we do not “experience the experimental”, harnessing the many times coexisting in ours, the chasm will only grow wider.

Luiz Camillo Osorio

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