32nd São Paulo Biennial: Open Plan
Uncertainties are as alive in the present as they have been in nearly every other moment in the past. Their names sometimes change, while the threat of a disaster endures, and is at times fulfilled. The uneasiness that characterizes the contemporary world has been familiar to many generations before us, and the suspicion that we are approaching an inevitable end—whether grounded on faith or on facts—is something equally ancient. Thus the choice to address such anxieties at the present, to “separate uncertainty from fear,” as chief curator Jochen Volz framed the ethos behind Live Uncertainty in his catalogue essay, is both topical and inevitably timeless.
In an attempt to dig deeper into our current fears, the curators organized a series of Study Days: events that started six months prior to the biennial’s opening. During these encounters the curators visited communities and individuals to learn about the challenges they face. The choice of various locations in Latin America and Africa underlined this biennial’s stated aim to be a salon for underrepresented voices, environmental causes, and injustices of all sorts. Some of the artists invited for the exhibition would occasionally take part in these events, and were later commissioned (alongside other attendees) to share their recollections in a catalogue that was launched toward the end of the show. Though certainly interesting, these encounters were restricted to a small(ish) audience, serving primarily to inform the curatorial team and a group of participating artists on how pressing issues elsewhere could be acknowledged within the context of the exhibition.
Yet to reach a broader audience was perhaps the most remarkable feat of this biennial. This was achieved largely by enabling three—rather than one or two—ways to access the building, a welcoming gesture further enhanced by the absence of both turnstiles and bag inspections at the entrances, allowing for the integration of Niemeyer’s iconic pavilion with the surrounding Ibirapuera Park. This sort of unification had been attempted by several of the previous curators who, as Volz and his team did, often commissioned a number of outdoor artworks to be located across the park. Niemeyer’s architecture, with its glass facade, hints toward blurred notions of inside and outside, but this effortless fusion was only fully accomplished once walls and security checkpoints were excluded. Arguably, this was logistically possible because Brazil is reasonably sheltered from terrorist threats—which without doubt are one of the biggest uncertainties to haunt the contemporary world.
There are certainly other well-known security concerns in Brazil, however. The biennial exhibition itself has been subject to unpleasant surprises on more than one occasion: artworks went missing during both the 30th and 31st editions; the 28th had some of its walls painted with graffiti by an uninvited group of artists (and the organizers’ response to this event shaped its reputation as one of the most unpopular editions to date). The fact that none of the artworks within the pavilion were stolen or damaged by the more than nine hundred thousand visitors to Live Uncertainty undermines the claims that surveillance prevents the unexpected.22. A couple of artworks in the park were subject to vandalism, but that’s a liability that all public works are subject to. It was, of course, a risk that the curators took, but then again, taking risks seems to be in line with a curatorial premise that asks us to embrace uncertainty.
The multiple entrances to Niemeyer’s pavilion enabled a decentralized approach to the narrative of the show, as visitors could walk different paths depending on their starting points. It also paved the way to breaks and artless moments of introspection—both of which are often needed in exhibitions of this scale. The Bienal de São Paulo pavilion is notorious for its monumentality, and anyone who has ever strolled through that building knows it can be tiresome to traverse it and to find your way out. As the very format of biennials has been heavily scrutinized in recent years, gestures such as this—however small—are welcome, and refresh and reinvigorate the format.
Maria do Carmo M. P. de Pontes is a Brazilian writer and curator based in London.