Domus OCTOBER 10, 2012 - by Gabi Scardi


At the thirtieth edition of the Bienal de São Paulo, a "motive" provides a pretext and a starting point for a number of questions, which are translated into a constellation of poetic worlds. An art report from São Paulo by Gabi Scardi.

There is one place of excellence on the now busy contemporary-art exhibition map. Established in 1951, the Bienal de São Paulo is the world's oldest and most enduring, except for Venice - which dates from 1895 and served as its model. The Bienal de São Paulo distanced itself from that model in 2006 when it abolished national pavilions, following a radical rethinking by curator Lisette Lagnado. Since then, each appointed curator has been responsible for the whole project and the regional focus has diminished, although the Bienal retains its role as a major opportunity to explore the Latin American scene.

That wasn't the only big decision of 2006. For the following exhibition, an entire floor of the magnificent Bienal venue, the MAM-SP built by Oscar Niemeyer and Hélio Uchôa in the Ibirapuera Park, was left completely empty. Once again, this was a targeted decision made by the curator Ivo Mesquita in an attempted response to the status quo of an art world placed under increasing pressure by budget cuts and emptied of its meaning.

By contrast, the previous Bienal, curated by Moacir dos Anjos and Agnaldo Farias, featured an extensive presence of trendy, large-format works and stood out as vividly spectacular. The clear curatorial intention of the recently inaugurated thirtieth Bienal goes in the opposite direction.

This edition's appointed curator Luis Pérez-Oramas is flanked by a curatorial team composed of André Severo and Tobi Maier. The exhibition is titled The Imminence of Poetics. It is not a "theme", stresses Pérez-Oramas, but simply a "motive", in the sense that a "theme" brings content and theory whereas a "motive" provides a pretext and a starting point for a number of questions. In other words, explains the curator, the artists were not asked to portray or illustrate a subject or idea but rather to bring works that stood alone. The idea is one of art that is always unique and exceptional, art that "happens" and catches us by surprise. This is why the exhibition develops via a number of niches, each containing large bodies of work by a single artist, like many micro-solo exhibitions succeeding each other to compose a constellation of poetic worlds. Indeed, "archipelago" and "constellation" are fundamental concepts pinpointed by the curators.

The artists invited come from very different spheres and generations - the international scenes's up-and-coming, such as Mexico's Iñaki Bonillas, who has produced an intense work that starts with photography and then denies it; Brazilian Thiago Rocha Pitta, who has a number of works in which art and nature interpenetrate; and Ali Kazma, a Turkish artist who will represent his country at the forthcoming Venice Biennale. Kazma has made a number of videos that explore our working condition and record human activities linked to craft or industrial production, as if to say that different occupations play a major role in defining a person and their relationship with reality. There are "outsiders", such as Arthur Bispo do Rosário, who spent most of his life in psychiatric hospitals in Rio, and artists whose lives and art become one, such as Tehching Hsieh and Bas Jan Ader.

There are figures who have written the history of photography, such as August Sander, and the still little-known pioneers of conceptual photography Alfredo Corbin and Roberto Obregón, whose moving work is like a contemporary vanitas expressing the fragile and wounded human reality, absence and death. Meris Angioletti's pictures always evoke something not present and Fernando Ortega has created a dreamily poetic work: he and Brian Eno composed music expressly for a boat that crosses a wide Mexican river every day. Different registers are represented by artists such as Kirsten Pieroth, who humorously decontextualises everyday objects, interprets them and reorganises them to fit alternative narrations.

This is an exhibition of solo artists, highlighting their unique creative process. By giving space to individual artists, the curators have shown uncommon respect for artistic research and allow visitors to gain a considerable amount of knowledge, something normally not possible with large exhibitions - and the discoveries really are many.

The downside of deciding not to establish visual links between the works is a general lack of tension in the exhibition's make up. By contrast, what the invited artists and the curators' vision share is a propensity for reiteration, cataloguing and creating archives. The whole Bienal is constructed around this, so constantly underscored that it becomes a leitmotiv. The result is an exhibition that is highly individualistic but not very sociable, even in the presence of artists who draw their very energy from their relationship with the cogent reality - perhaps the shortcoming of what is, overall, an interesting exhibition.