A voice from another world resounded through the Casa de los Arcos, a rambling structure perched above the Tomebamba River in Cuenca, Ecuador. The elegantly dilapidated cultural center, built in the early 20th century, was one of six venues hosting the 12th Bienal de Cuenca. The works on view there were so formally understated and so well installed that they could have been mistaken for permanent fixtures and not temporary manifestations of the global contemporary art system’s arrival in the small city in the southern Andes. Each of the five pieces at the Casa de los Arcos employed rationalist systems to explore supernatural forces, an appropriate theme for a setting where creaky floors and peeling paint signaled the possibility of an actual haunting.
A palletized stack of leather-bound books stood alone in the center of one gallery. Daniel Gustav Kramer, a German artist known for his ultra-minimalist publications listing numbers and dates, had compiled an encyclopedic compendium of ghost sightings in Britain. In a separate room, the Brussels-based collective Agency had assembled a research archive of literature on spiritualism and psychic phenomena, providing the tools necessary to pursue a systematic understanding of the “other-than-human.”
The voice belonged to Saskia Calderón, a Quito-based artist (and gifted soprano) who performed during the opening weekend and otherwise left her score on view. One might have imagined Euridice serenading Orfeo except that the notes Calderón hit with the most intensity were often the most eerily discordant. The music was based on shamanic rituals that Calderón had witnessed in the Amazon. Her virtuoso performance in the most rarefied mode of Western vocalization felt like the climax of a séance.
The Cuenca biennial was until recently an exhibition limited to Latin American painting. The 12th edition, organized by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti and Manuela Moscoso, epitomized what could be called an international curatorial style, as it is now rehearsed from Sharjah to Gwangju. Older artists were paired with young discoveries, and the overall program balanced local, regional and global representation, with 42 artists and collectives, 19 of whom are based in Latin America, including six in Ecuador. Per international style conventions, the show had an evocative but essentially meaningless title, “Ir para volver” (Leaving to Return). Also per convention, the opening coincided with a “discursive program” featuring academics and intellectuals who mused on sweeping topics and lent scholarly authority to matters of curatorial taste.
The periphrastic curatorial literature raised fears of a Fitzcarraldo effect, a quixotic attempt to transplant overheated Documenta-style discourse to the Andes. Fortunately, instead of fever dreams of full opera in the jungle, visitors were treated to the likes of Calderón’s unaccompanied performance. The attentiveness to scale apparent throughout was a product of integrating the exhibition with institutions that already underwrite Cuenca’s cultural life: the Casa de los Arcos, a small museum of modern art, a medical museum, a high school and a few art galleries.
At the Colegio Benigno Malo, visitors wandered he halls while uniformed students rushed to classes. A series of old outbuildings adjacent to a soccer field hosted work that resembled eccentric experiments in pedagogy. In addition to the lush photographs documenting his expedition to an active volcano, Eduardo Navarro completed his natural history museum-style display with a mannequin dressed in the metallic protective suit he wore in the caldera. Daniel Steegman’s diagrammatic wall drawing appeared like a visual aid for questioning the mechanics of representation in the sciences. The school’s baroque cupolas offered sweeping views of the city and hosted a kind of recess space featuring Brazilian artist Martha Araújo’s wearable Neo-Concrete garments of the 1970s, which drew swarms of teenagers eager to photograph themselves in the wild sartorial offerings. In the Colegio, “art” was staged as a normal fixture of a learning environment, one among many tools of knowledge.
Several of the works by Ecuadorian artists throughout the biennial addressed the scars left by the country’s 1970s oil boom. Most subtly, Adrián Balseca obtained an Andino, a stripped-down vehicle—little more than a covered dune buggy—that was assembled in Ecuador to facilitate oil development. A video documented how, with the Andino gas tank removed and strapped to the roof, the artist essentially hitchhiked from Quito to Cuenca, as everything from 18-wheelers and horse-drawn carriages towed the vehicle.
When international artists responded to the specificities of the context, they did so most successfully by exploring the poetics of the simple exhibition spaces. New York-based artist Sara VanDerBeek’s photos and sculptures had never looked better than in one of the small, cell-like galleries of Cuenca’s Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno. Blue-toned images of geometric Incan ceramics she encountered in a Quito museum were paired with abstract sculptures that subtly echoed the ancient pottery. Conversely, the main disappointment was found at a downtown Cuenca gallery that most closely resembled a standard white cube. A ponderous video by Adrian Paci dominated the space. The epic production documented a giant column of marble being carved by Chinese craftsmen aboard a ship at sea. At once minimalist and overwrought, the piece epitomized the excesses of biennial art—it raised enough “issues” and “questions” to spawn a thousand panel discussions on labor and temporality, but thankfully it was out of step with this particular exhibition.