"There is always a cup of sea to sail in" is the theme of the 29th São Paulo Biennial, a line that lead curators Moacir dos Anjos and Agnaldo Farias excerpted from Brazilian poet Jorge de Lima. An accompanying guidebook is conceived as a nautical chart, and visitors are encouraged to navigate various paths through the Ciccillo Matarazzo pavilion's four floors and 100,000 square meandering feet, and works by over 150 participants. The curators have installed artist-designed "way stations," (terreiros) throughout the exhibition as sites for rest, reflection, and debate. The Lima citation suggests that utopian aspirations lie at the heart of contemporary artistic practice; yet the inseparability of art and socio-political life is a more pervasive conceptual frame in this iteration of the Biennial.





WILFREDO PRIETO, APOLITICAL, 2010.







Dora García's video, The Deviant Majority (from Basaglia to Brazil) (2010), exemplifies this broader agenda. The Spanish artist addresses revolutionary reforms in psychiatry that grew out of the political foment of the late 1960s, and alternative treatment programs practiced today. The piece is structured around three meetings: with the Psychiatric Hospital of Trieste's theater company Accademia della Follia (Academy of Madness), comprised of both patients and healthcare workers; Rio de Janeiro's Freaked on the Scene Theater of the Oppressed; and activist Carmen Roll, former member of the German Socialist Patients' Collective (SPC). In an interview, Roll expounds on the SPC's antagonism toward asylums in the early 1970s, rooted in the group's belief that the social relations initiated by capitalism were responsible for physical manifestations of madness. The contemporary theater programs use creative expression as therapy and revise divisions between normality and abnormality, attempting to erase the prejudice and social exclusion associated with mental illness. In this mesmerizing piece of cinema, radical thought that may seem far-flung is interlaced with practical programs achieving successful results.



Elsewhere, the distinction between quotidian news media and artworks that incorporate documentation of political events blurred, and became a point of curatorial confusion. One instance is a television interview with the Brazilian fiction writer and journalist Clarice Lispector, which appears on a monitor opposite the work of Cildo Meireles and Helio Oiticica. In the video, Lispector recounts the subject of one of her texts, a criminal named Mineirinho who was brutally killed by members of the Rio de Janeiro police force. This presentation of archival footage lists no named artist. Insertions of reportage in the midst of artworks can be read as a way to further negate the distinction between art and socio-political life, yet such inclusions are infrequent enough to obscure the curators' true intentions.

A more productive blurring between art and non-art unfolds in the work of Carlos Bunga. Viewers encounter his large-scale construction, Simultâneo, fragmentado, descontínuo (Simultaneous, fragmented, discontinuous) (2010), on a ramp leading up from the ground level of the pavilion. At first glance, the piece blends into the architecture entirely, masked as a set of columns and cross beams. Upon closer inspection, cracks are visible in the painted material, and the work's sides and hollow, unfinished back reveal the structure as a feeble giant, fashioned from packing tape and cardboard. At the opening reception, the Portuguese artist stated his intention to "show fragility and contradictions, reality and fiction... the building as both monumental and invisible." This slippage between art and architecture, real and unreal, puts the apparent heft of art institutions up for grabs.

Apolítico (Apolitical, 2001–2010) by Cuban-born and Barcelona-based Wilfredo Prieto is also somewhat camouflaged amidst its surroundings. One of the few selections sited outside of the exhibition hall, Prieto installed 70 flags aloft a semi-circle of masts, just adjacent to the pavilion entrance. The national symbols are presented according to protocol with one simple, significant alteration: they are all printed in grayscale. In an interview with the author, Prieto commented that the Biennial piece is "really a fragment of the whole installation, this edition is simply a random selection of flags. The entire work consists of all the official flags of the world, governed and appointed by the UN. [Since 2001], the piece has been constantly updated depending on international developments." To date, versions have been held in Dublin, Havana, Paris and Sienna. In spite of the work's title, the piece has obvious political implications. Prieto's chromatic removal equalizes the national symbols and enacts a visual balancing of global power. In this subtle yet nuanced work, institutional patterns appear to fade while the flags maintain cultural identities.

LEFT: CINTHIA MARCELLE, THIS SAME WORLD OVER, 2009–2010, DETAIL.

Spectators in search of intense visual pleasure will likely be disappointed at São Paulo, as many included works are light on formal elaboration. Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle's installation Sobre este mesmo mundo (This same world over, 2009–2010) stands out as an exception. Accumulations of white chalk dust gather on the floor, forming a soft, miniature mountain range beneath an elongated chalkboard, revealing the partially erased scrawl of many absent professors. Engaging with the pedagogical turn in artistic and curatorial practice in an elegant, albeit literal manner, the piece enacts the dissolution of past teachings. Just behind the wall where this work is installed, Marcelle presents the subsequent video Buraco negro (Black Hole, 2008, a collaboration with Tiago Mata Machado). Here chalk powder is shown blowing in different configurations. It is a portrait of dismantled meanings and knowledge reinterpreted.

How competent is the museum or gallery system as a space to effect political change? These inquiries remain unresolved, but the conceptual strength of the show lies in the many works that offer up radical reconsiderations of the possible.



The 29th São Paulo Biennial runs through December 12, 2010.


The author wishes to thank colleagues A.E. Benenson and Rebecca Siegel for their input, which contributed to perspectives outlined in this article.