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New Attempts to Bridge Gaps
Report on 31st Bienal Open Meeting held in Recife, on 13 November 2013, by Olívia Mindêlo.

As a paradigm, contemporary art feeds off utopias and discourses. Ideas of free access and the dissolution of boundaries between art and life, between the public and the work of art, have historically been staples of its diet. Seen from this perspective, and for other reasons as well, it is hardly surprising that accessibility to all has been a constant aspiration of the Bienal de São Paulo since its creation in 1951 – a yearning as recurrent as the grand event itself, even if its history is an intersection between modern and contemporary art.

According to the critic Mário Pedrosa1, one of the main enthusiasts and organizers of the Bienal de São Paulo, there existed a dream from the outset: to place the Bienal, and the art it presented, at the epicenter of the São Paulo (and therefore Brazilian) scene, in line with with its project of modernity. In other words, the plan was to make the event superlative—in terms of artworks, visitors and sheer size. Roughly ten years later, the Bienal had not only ripened these ideas, but had assimilated the tenets of the artistic neo-vanguard of 1960s Brazil, led by such figures as Hélio Oiticica, Ferreira Gullar and Pedrosa himself. Largely, these were the concerns that would pave the way toward Brazilian contemporary art. The guiding utopia of this generation? An art for the people, one that was collective, participative and involved, with neither pomp nor pedestal.

For Artur Danto2, the “contemporary” or “post-historical moment of art” is defined by a “profound pluralism and total tolerance” in which “nothing is excluded.” As ran the slogan for the 29th São Paulo Bienal in 20103: “Art doesn’t exclude, it only includes.” Similar catchcries echo through the Ibirapuera Pavilion every two years, whether as a way of attracting visitors, justifying the event’s continuance, or cobbling curatorial projects out of a wide and diverse spectrum of art. Even with its constant chameleonic shifting, not a single edition of the Bienal has gone by without resorting to some verb of inclusion—from Mário Pedrosa’s initial ideas to the decision to stop charging admission in 2004. More than a deep-rooted ideal, this has been the very purpose of its execution; an institutional north star, to the extent that speculation on visitor numbers has become a prime concern, a veritable gauge of each edition’s “success” (or “failure”).

With preparations already well underway, the 31st edition also follows this same path. It aims to meet people, the city and the environs up close, expanding the borders imposed by the very logic of the field of the arts. It intends to tear down symbolic walls and rendezvous with life itself – as in the paradigm of contemporary art. As they seek to get their bearings, the curators of the forthcoming edition have taken this as their guiding thread. Nevertheless, it seems something new is being cooked up, even if under an already familiar discourse. During the Bienal’s Open Meeting at Espaço Fonte in Recife, with two of the five curators – Charles Esche and Pablo Lafuente – in attendance, we were left with the feeling that this would be one of the more experimental versions of the Bienal, in the risky, unpredictable sense of the word, questioning the very meaning of the art institution and, as such, the relationship it maintains with its public and “non-public,” given that the idea is to make the very notion of the Bienal and its possibilities more elastic.

Indeed. For now, we do not know where this will lead, nor do the curators themselves. What we do know is the path they plan to follow. This dose of unpredictability strikes me as interesting, as it is the very soul of a real research project, the duty of which, as I see it, is to blaze hitherto inaccessible trails rather than stick to mapped-out roads. In other words, it is up to research to navigate by the unexpected, accept the wealth of the unforeseen. This was a desire the curators returned to again and again, and was further reinforced by the fact that they have dispensed with a curatorial project based on the “museum model” so commonly adopted by biennial exhibitions, such as Venice and Istanbul. Here, for the time being, there is no expographic plan, prior theme, framework or shortlist. At this time, the method consists of experimenting with the process, delving into the everyday life of the city (São Paulo and other cities, especially Latin American ones) in search of something they see as likely to be able to shape the Bienal itself.

This process implies being open to the unknown; a sort of “go-with-the-flow” or, as Pablo Lafuente said, taking the expression on loan from Mário de Andrade, the application of the concept of the “apprentice tourist.” Otherwise put: immersion in a displacement that is not only spatial, but symbolic, capable of stripping away stereotypes in order to train a (literally) foreign — and even innocent — regard, clothing the event in new experiences and encounters. In Recife, they let themselves be guided by the contemporary art curator and critic Cristiana Tejo, who is in charge of Espaço Fonte. To use Pablo’s analogy, Tejo was their threshold into the unknown, and they were willing to cross it. The itinerary, initially a five-day stay (they intend to return), was not limited to the traditional visits to artists and studios, but included people and places with other organizational references beyond the exclusively artistic. “We want to talk to people, not just artists and curators”, said Pablo at the Open Meeting, and this has been a fundamental feature of all the city visits the curators of the 31st Bienal have made so far.

Indeed, the format of the meeting dialogued with the “research method” employed throughout these visits: a round table in which the curators, like it or not figures of power in the art field, were more interested in listening and dialoguing than in lecturing or relaying some pre-established truth. The process seemed more horizontal, as far as that is possible, involving not just visual artists and specialists (though these were the majority), but “fresh faces” too, including musicians, cultural producers, architects, social scientists and professionals from other fields. These people were very participative and posed a series of challenges to the curators, such as how to think about the Brazilian context in 2014, the year of the World Cup and the presidential elections, set against a backdrop of “widespread disillusionment,” not to mention Brazil’s geopolitical and cultural situation, in all its manifestations and representations. Besides the debates, the “apprentice tourists” took to the city to visit such spaces as the São José Market (an very popular tourist attraction in Recife) and to meet with social movements, such as the Urban Rights group, one of the main political counterpoints to the type of urban development that dominates the city today (read real-estate speculation, verticalization, etc.).

According to the curators, although an exhibition solution in synch with this experimental course of action has yet to be drafted, the idea is to develop other projects beyond merely filling the pavilion with hundreds of ready works, and it does not matter if these projects are devised by a celebrated visual artist, a choreographer or a popcorn seller. For the curatorial team, the big issue is to break with the museum idea tied up with the staging of exhibitions like the Bienal—even if Francisco Alambert and Polyana Canhête4 define the “museum era” as a chapter firmly rooted in the São Paulo event. “We don’t want to work with memory. That’s a museum’s job. We want the here-and-now, chaotic and short on control, just like the contemporary world itself,” said curator Charles Esche at the meeting in Recife.

There’s no denying that all of this triggers a heady dose of curiosity, as well as eagerness for discussion. Firstly, it is important to reiterate that the desire for innovation is an intrinsic part of the history of the Bienal de São Paulo, especially since the figure of the curator took on a prominent role. There is nothing new about this. In their historical analysis, Alambert and Canhête5 themselves outline the transformations the Bienal has undergone – sometimes shrinking, mostly due to crises, and sometimes swelling to gigantic proportions. In fact, between the 1,800 paintings hung on the walls at the first edition of the event and the dynamic proposal behind the 30th edition, The Imminence of Poetics (2012), there lies a world of difference. Even so, what were these changes? Could it be that the Bienal, as an art institution, continues to cater to the demands of modernity to which contemporary art is paradigmatically opposed? Has the event been, in practice, true to the precepts of contemporary art – which it claims to represent – in the sense of de-sacralizing art and its relationship to life? For the curators of the coming edition, the answer is no, it has not: the format of the Bienal de São Paulo does not suit the contemporary world and its artistic, political and everyday experiences.

They are not talking through their hats: they are well familiar with the abyss that yawns between the work of art, its discourses and the strategies of an artistic field erected upon sacralizing, hierarchical and exclusive pillars, with the museum, even if under a new guise, as its main temple, its stronghold. If this rings false with the contemporary project, there can be nothing more paradoxical (or symptomatic?) than to note that 86% of the walk-in visitors to the 2010 edition of the Bienal either were university students or held at least bachelor’s-level degress6.

Art as the preserve of the educated few is a trend socio-historically constructed out of the notion of an essentialist art, precisely what the contemporary paradigm is sworn to oppose. Furthermore, the statistics show that the connoisseurs of so-called contemporary output are an even more cultured minority (14%), while the motivations behind most of the walk-in visits had little to do with free admission or the event’s inclusive discourse. Most of the visitors were people with a background in art, the kind who would have visited an exhibition like this anyway. The walls still stand.

So, on this note, I cannot help but agree with the curators of the 31st edition: the Bienal stands upon the founding symbol of the “museum,” that modern paradigm - so much so that “the ‘mass’ that circulated around the Bienal was not that of which Mário Pedrosa spoke [...], but a privileged ‘mass’ 7,” something also identified in the visitor surveys conducted by Bourdieu and Darbel8 in the 1960s; Canclini9 in the 80s; and Cristina Freire10 in the 90s. It would therefore seem that while contemporary art cultivates liberating and democratizing utopias on paper and earnestly desires to throw its doors wide open, it still submits its legitimacy to institutional apparatuses that continue to resemble the sacred citadel of the modern project of art. And at the same time as it seeks to be accessible, it yearns for the rubber stamp of recognition. In the history of art, such an attempt is doomed, as the aura of that recognition immediately implies a divide between those who can and cannot achieve it.

The curators want to shatter that paradox. They want to bridge these distances through a new form of organization. They do not want to see the world represented in the Bienal, but a Bienal that takes its place in the world, as a part of it. To this end they have elected dialogue with the outskirts of São Paulo as part of the project, and are trying to come up with ways to draw visitors to Ibirapuera Park into the pavilion, which may not be the event’s sole venue. That’s not exactly something new. Other initiatives have employed similar strategies. However, for a Bienal that teeters between daring and playing it safe, a project that tries to find new possibilities is already something worthy of attention. Moreover, it is significant insofar as it goes straight to the crux of the matter: the institutional model of which contemporary art is a part –in this case, one with all the weight of a Bienal de São Paulo.

The meetings are a sign that there is, at this time, not only a desire for change, but a plotted course that has taken the veers away from a standard. For now, we can only wait and see whether the process itself proves richer than the “end result” the curators will inevitably have to present later on this year.

text: Olívia Mindêlo



1 APUD COUTO, Maria de Fátima Morethy. Por uma vanguarda nacional: a crítica brasileira em busca de uma identidade artística (1940-1960). Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 2004.

2 DANTO, Artur. Após o fim da arte: a arte contemporânea e os limites da história. Tradução de Saulo Krieger. São Paulo: Odysseus editora e Edusp, 2006, p. XVI.

3 Folha de S. Paulo. São Paulo, 21 set. 2010. Bienal das Artes.

4 ALAMBERT, Francisco; CANHÊTE, Polyana. Bienais de São Paulo: da era do Museu à era dos curadores (1951-2001). São Paulo: Boitempo, 2004.

5 Idem.

6 MINDÊLO, Maria Olívia Medeiros. “A arte não exclui, só inclui”: a relação do público com a arte contemporânea na 29ª Bienal de São Paulo. Recife: o autor, 2011.

7 Idem, p. 146.

8 Em países europeus. BOURDIEU, Pierre; DARBEL, Alain. O amor pela arte: os museus de arte na Europa e seu público. Tradução de Guilherme J. F. Teixeira. 2. ed. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo; Porto Alegre: Zouk, 2007.

9 No México. CANCLINI, Néstor García. Culturas híbridas: estratégias para entrar e sair da modernidade. Tradução de Heloísa P. Cintrão; Ana Regina Lessa. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo; Porto Alegre: Zouk, 1997 (Ensaios latino-americanos, 1).

10 No Brasil, em São Paulo. FREIRE, Cristina. “Museu. Público. Arte contemporânea. Um triângulo nem sempre amoroso”. ARTEunesp, São Paulo, n. 9, p. 131-146, 1993.

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