32nd São Paulo Biennial: Of Use and Memory

Oliver Basciano

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.

When teaching art criticism, I don’t forget the basics: take notes, and write your thoughts up as soon as possible. So hopefully no future students will read this: a review written months after the fact and without the scribbles that normally serve as guidance. While I am loath to set a bad example for my students, looking back on an exhibition with six months of distance does enable me to judge it in terms of its memorability and longevity.
There are a few things I remember from the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, curated by Jochen Volz. As I recall, the amount of space allocated per artist was pretty uniform, and no medium was favored above any other. I know I enjoyed walking through the show, winding my way up the ramps of the Oscar Niemeyer–designed pavilion, the biennial’s permanent home. It was sunny outside. I bought an ice cream in the park afterward.
In terms of specific works in the exhibition, select elements grip my memory. In Jonathas de Andrade’s film O Peixe (The Fish) (2016), a group of fishermen go about their daily business in their mangrove hunting waters. Interlaced with these quotidian activities are shots of the men embracing their large, freshly hooked and evidently still living catch. As the fish struggle and squirm, their mouths desperately gulping, the men caress them tenderly. It is their flapping, slurping gills that I remember most intensely. Maryam Jafri’s Product Recall: An Index of Innovation (2014–15) featured a series of consumer goods that had been pulled from the market. For each object exhibited, the artist displays a framed information sheet detailing the launch date, marketing budget, and other factual, statistical details. Some, such as the genetically modified soy meat substitute PlusMeat, failed as social mores changed. Others—the baby’s milk bottle sporting full Pepsi branding for example—are bewildering as to how anyone ever thought them a good idea. If I had posted a picture of the item on social media I might have captioned the picture “LOL.” Then there were Wilma Martins’s paintings. Rendered in pale hues, they hover between landscape and still life, mixing sci-fi with surrealism, and proved to be an exciting personal discovery. I emailed myself a note to try to arrange a studio visit with her when next in Rio de Janeiro.

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.

Those are the salient memories I have of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo. Maybe just enjoying an exhibition is fine. I remember liking more artworks in the show than those mentioned above. Yet the format of a biennial implies a greater role: it demands a show that might act as some sort of marker in time, a totem to its self-imposed epoch. Yet, let’s stretch our demands further: should not these exhibitions (given their proliferation) move beyond mere representation and be a tool to push the societies they are engaging with in different, better, directions? Shouldn’t biennials be both a mode of reflection and a call to action?
And consider the times that Volz’s show had to reflect upon. Live Uncertainty, the title, fails to quite convey the strangely positive and celebratory feeling ascribed to the idea of uncertainty by the show’s curator. But remember, Volz’s biennial was conceived before the politically motivated impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the victory of Donald Trump in the United States, and the UK’s Brexit vote. In the publicity materials, instability is positioned as radical in intent, though in the interim, history has affirmed that this “uncertainty” was, in reality, a political strategy for right-wing and nationalist agendas around the globe. I am not clear how this uncertainty was borne out in the works on show, anyway. There were nods toward the much-discussed anthropocentric condition (works by Ursula Biemann with Paulo Tavares, and by Jonathas de Andrade, serve as examples), mysticism and non-Western cosmologies (including Dineo Seshee Bopape’s cubes of packed mud carved into various symbols), and the food chain (most obviously in Jorge Menna Barreto’s working vegan café, in which all ingredients were sourced from suppliers working with the agroforestry method). While many of these artistic gestures were interesting, they were hardly revelatory in their concerns. In the aggregate, this was international biennial “business-as-usual” stuff.
Consequently, watching the tumultuous events of the past months slide by, I can’t say I’ve thought of Volz’s exhibition much. I didn’t find it useful. I do, however—as pictures of gross carnage, violent horror, and political stupidity scroll by on the screens I, like most, am forever glued to—often refer back to the 2014 edition of the biennial. If pressed, I’d only be able to recall a handful of specific works that appeared in How to (…) Things That Don’t Exist, curated by a five-person-strong collective led by Charles Esche, yet what I do think about often is the manner in which the curatorial structure brought the works together as a synergistic organism—one that reduced the impact of any individual contribution to a greater idea.
Packed as it was with video and film, and almost all the works dealing directly with social and political subject matter, to crawl around this 31st edition was a grueling experience. In one moment, Esche and his team were asking us to consider the often bleak future for the young, poor Kurdish and Roma men of Turkey (in Halil Altındere’s eight-minute “music video” Wonderland, 2013) and steps later, they asked us to consider the Guarani Amerindian people (in Armando Queiroz’s documentary Ymà Nhandehetama, 2009). Thiago Martins de Melo’s painting exposed the violence of the northern states of Brazil, while a whole section of the exhibition looked at expressions of queerness across Latin America. It went on. And on. The upshot was to leave drained (no appetite for ice cream back then) and weirdly hardened to the suffering and outrage that the exhibition contained. This is not said to criticize, however. I think of the effect of Esche’s biennial—the mindless heartache and political impotency of mediated horror—every time I flick idly through images of Yemen, or Syria, far-off political assassinations, and nearby terrorist attacks. Live Uncertainty? In this moment, I’d rather not.

Oliver Basciano is International Editor for ArtReview magazine and is a freelance curator.