32nd São Paulo Biennial: Declining Assertions

Fernanda Brenner

Installation view of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, Incerteza viva (Live Uncertainty), September 7–December 11, 2016. Photo: Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

Writing about the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo just over six months after its opening has reaffirmed its relevance. In September 2016, when the exhibition was launched, Trump was still an unlikely possibility. In Brazil, reactionary President Michel Temer had just taken office following a parliamentary maneuver that ousted elected President Dilma Rousseff. All of this took place a few months after the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the country: the collapse of an iron ore tailings dam that destroyed a river and entire communities in the state of Minas Gerais.
To see a biennial in your own city carries a different weight. As a resident of São Paulo, I was able to visit the exhibition numerous times, and take part in discussions about it both in its auditorium and at local bars. Having an affective interest in the event itself—which is the most important art exhibition in the country and plays a major role in forming an art audience in Brazil, though it is hosted by a questionable institution in many aspects—I am perhaps more forgiving of this biennial than I would be in other contexts.
At the time of the opening, the connection between the theme proposed by Jochen Volz and his team of co-curators—Live Uncertainty—and the contents of Brazilian news was even more evident. However, with hindsight, it is now possible to look at the show beyond this inevitable link that, in a certain way, has clouded the understanding of the curators’ proposal and permeated the great majority of reviews published shortly after the opening.
We now have sufficient proof that our current political systems have failed. Clearly, those who retain political power, not only in Brazil but around the world, are pushing the limits of the systems in which they operate. If a nuclear apocalypse, a change in paradigm, a new cosmology, or the collapse of our civilization awaits us, I remain in agreement with the curators when they argue that contemporary art can guide us to inhabit uncertainty rather than fear it.
And the Bienal de São Paulo’s uncertainty is propositional. It doesn’t shout at us but it is also not shy. Even though the exhibition included heavyweight names in the international art circuit such as Pierre Huyghe, Francis Alÿs, and Hito Steyerl, this was not a “greatest hits” type of show. The artist list was succinct and precise, while still covering the expected issues of a twenty-first-century international biennial: multiculturalism, gender politics, transdisciplinarity, artists from peripheral countries, generational exchanges. It even included a good dose of utopia and didacticism, which is not unfitting in a show where a considerable number of visitors are pupils from primary and secondary schools.

Installation view of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, Incerteza viva (Live Uncertainty), September 7–December 11, 2016, showing Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, Psychotropic House: Zooetics Pavilion of Ballardian Technologies (2015–16). Photo: Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

The exhibition exceeded the limits of its iconic building, a renowned modern architectural project by Oscar Niemeyer located in São Paulo’s largest park. Alvaro Razuk’s exhibition design relied on few walls and generous spaces that respected each work’s autonomy while encouraging the interlacing of ideas, and was successful in letting the park enter the site of the exhibition, which proposed opening up to different points of view and methodologies about living together, not only as humans but as members of an interspecies community. In fact, this edition was nicknamed the “Biennial of Mushrooms” in reference to artworks such as Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas’s “psychotropic house,” and the resin mushrooms scattered around the park by shaman-artist Alicia Barney. 
The curatorial proposal to articulate the show as a sort of garden or a rhizomatic structure was reinforced by the works that introduced subjects such as history, archaeology, and biology, and by others that operated in the margins between fiction and reality. Fitting examples are the works of the Colombian artist Carlos Motta, who staged fictitious homoerotic rituals of an invented pre-Columbian people who disappeared after the colonizing catechization process; and the outstanding works by Mariana Castillo Deball and Iza Tarasewicz. The films O Peixe (The Fish) (2016) by Jonathas de Andrade and You Are Seeing Things (2016) by Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca are also powerful examples of challenges to categorization that permeated the whole exhibition.
Because it is hosted in an unstable country, thick with oppression and with a cloudy future, a biennial that is filled with subtlety and only a few works offering spectacular aesthetic experiences or “explicit social claims” can be read by many as naive, or, as expressed by many Brazilian critics, excessively discursive and “lacking art.” On one hand, I believe that one of the most interesting curatorial propositions made by the biennial was precisely to detach the show from the rhetoric of crisis in order to reflect on daily and plausible actions through the artworks. On the other hand, how many of the exhibited works really have the strength—and offer the necessary tools—to reach a new perspective on reality?
Building an event of this magnitude on the feeling of hesitation is, to the say the least, bold. I hope that this exaltation of uncertainty and the curators’ flirtation with counterculture, psychedelia, new age, and other twentieth-century alternative movements contributes to an unleashing of contemporary art from the legacy of conceptualism and a strictly rational critical approach. We must be able to deal in depth with our existence and with art, and it is impossible to circumscribe art and life to absolute parameters and certainties.

Fernanda Brenner is the artistic director of PIVÔ, São Paulo.