São Paulo Bienal

So Paulo

at Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion

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A long brass pipe extends through a window in a second-floor gallery of the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion into the park outside, where it widens into a large flared bell. The giant ear trumpet is trained on the leafy top of a palm. Created by Argentinian artist Eduardo Navarro, Sound Mirror (2016) asks gallery visitors to listen to the tree. I perched on a stool and cocked my head toward the earpiece, which delivered a faint rumble. Was it the stirring of sap in the trunk? The crawling of bugs? Occasionally I’d hear something like the murmur of a distant conversation, as if Navarro’s instrument were picking up the tinny back-and-forth of security guards on their walkie-talkies. 

Curated by Jochen Volz with Gabi Ngcobo, Júlia Rebouças, Lars Bang Larsen, and Sofia Olascoaga, the thirty-second edition of the São Paulo Bienal is called “Incerteza Viva.” The English translation of the title is “Live Uncertainty,” which evokes an uncertainty that’s alive. It also sounds like a prompt urging people to endure amid epistemological instability, or like a cheer—“Long live uncertainty!”—celebrating unknowable otherness. In another vitalist facet of the curators’ approach, the show treats the pavilion’s park location as a link to the mysteries of nature. Navarro’s site-specific sculpture, for instance, encourages deep listening to life itself, the slow growth and constant changes of a living thing. 

An assembly of works at the ground-floor entrance to the pavilion tease out the trope of the garden as a model for politics, where different forms of life coexist in an environment coaxed into harmony by human intervention. Frans Krajcberg, a Polish artist who emigrated to Brazil in the 1970s, shows a gathering of slender tree trunks whose bark has been stripped, wholly or partially, and occasionally replaced with painted bands in hues of fire or charred wood. Here and there, the trunks have actually been scorched or allowed to decompose. They stand on bases hewn from logs in various shapes, some resembling networks of branches or roots. Behind Krajcberg’s sculptures, in the installation Back to the Fields (2015–16), the young Scottish artist Ruth Ewan has arranged flowers, plants, gourds, animal skulls, and other natural objects in a clocklike circle that evokes cyclical time enveloping the staggered life spans of the things she’s gathered. Opavivará!—a Rio de Janeiro artist-activist collective that, at the opening, organized protests against Brazil’s right-wing president, Michel Temer, who had the week before seized power in a soft coup—shows Transnomad (2016), a collection of mobile, interactive items (cabin, bed, library, karaoke machine) based on the carts used by vendors and workers in São Paulo to navigate the city, and life. 

On the pavilion’s third floor, notebooks frequently appear, recalling the naturalist’s process of accumulating information through consistent observation. Lyle Ashton Harris’s installation “Once, Once” (2016) comprises large-format scans from the artist’s journals, diaristic videos, and blown-up Ektachromes intertwining his personal narrative in the years 1986–98 with selected public events (e.g., the Black Popular Culture Conference in New York in 1991). Playing with scale and site in the series “Cotidiano” (Everyday), 1975–84, Brazil’s Wilma Martins offers surreal drawings of her domestic surroundings disrupted by wild animals. Other projects evoke the atmosphere of a laboratory. In the late Argentinian artist Victor Grippo’s Analogía I (1970), mounds of potatoes are wired to a device that measures the electrical output of their decomposition. Grippo conceived of the work as an analogy for the collective production of human consciousness. Nearby is “Hydragrammas” (1978–93), a series of sculptures by Sonia Andrade, known in her native Brazil primarily as a video artist, consisting of object manipulations like an unfurling roll of paper installed in a frame and a bandaged canvas that represent her experimental pursuit of the way things go. 

Incompatibilities are inevitable in an exhibition of eighty-one artists from thirty-three countries. Some artists seem to be included as a nod to current tastes and trends of the biennial circuit, rather than an expression of a particular curatorial vision. This is true for good work (like Hito Steyerl’s video installation, debuting here, juxtaposing robotics research in the US with the destruction of a museum of medieval automata in Turkish Kurdistan) as well as bad (like British artist Heather Phillipson’s theatrical arrangements of large-print emojis that have nothing to offer but a cheap and ephemeral sense of relevance).

But the random-seeming insertions aren’t the only false notes struck. In principle the São Paulo Bienal should be a good platform for art from or about indigenous communities of Brazil and Latin America. But given the overall theme, the inclusion of such work here puts viewers—if not the curators—in the embarrassing position of uninformed ethnographers, with a lack of knowledge being exploited as an appealing “uncertainty.” Most baffling is the presence of three documentaries by Leon Hirszman (1937–1987), a Rio de Janeiro–born filmmaker who went into the rainforest to record disappearing ways of working. The members of tribes he focuses on sing songs ennobling labor and hymns of praise to the cacao trees. As the documentaries are meant to preserve knowledge of traditional practices and make them available to outsiders, I wondered what room remains for uncertainty. The works’ positioning under such a curatorial rubric seems to exoticize the subjects, casting them as inhuman others. Happily, Jonathas de Andrade’s video The Fish (2016) functions as an internal critique of the paternalism suggested by the inclusion of Hirszman. It appears to be a documentary about traditional fishing practices in the mangroves of northeastern Brazil, but de Andrade parodies the genre by asking the fishermen to perform bogus rituals that most memorably involve tenderly embracing and kissing fresh catches. 

The presence of Hirszman’s documentaries serves as a microcosm of a bigger problem of conflicting agendas. International surveys need to present themselves to funders as projects of enlightenment, which puts the burden on their curators and education teams to contextualize geographically and historically disparate works. I know it’s hopeless to complain about wall texts, but at “Incerteza Viva” the mysteries evoked in the works are immediately foreclosed by sheer curatorial cant: this work “exposes the way in which practices and discourses of violence affected the bodies and the subjectivities in these peoples,” while that one “challenges imaginaries of the feminine.” It all makes “uncertainty” sound like an alibi for international curators who look at too much of everything to really believe in anything. The fate of Navarro’s Sound Mirror offers a model of how habits of overcoming difference can thwart an intent to embrace it. The artist wants his audience to listen to the palm, but I saw several people walk up to the earpiece and use it as a mouthpiece. Instead of trying to empathize with another species, they talked at it.