28th São Paulo Biennial 'In Living Contact'
Aigars Bikše, Artist
26.10.-06.12.2008. Ciccillo Matarazzo
I visited the São Paulo exhibition hall; the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park - designed by the world-famous architect Oscar Niemeyer three times. The first time, having been firmly convinced that the exhibition is open on Mondays at the Tourist Office, I got to enjoy the impressive building from outside. Due to the absence of any indications and my own stubbornness I walked the full circle around the building, and tried to enter it through some openings which seemed to be good enough for getting inside. Unfortunately the exhibition was closed on a Monday. So, this first time, I abandoned the intention of enjoying high art and decided to seek refuge in the comforting city of St. Paul.

Critical of the concept of amanhã and feeling a little miffed about my first unsuccessful try I got into the biennial exhibition on the following day. I quickly walked through the exhibition hall in order to get some idea of the total dimensions and ambience of the exhibition. I was astonished to see that the exhibition itself occupied only a small part of the 30 000 m2 large, open exhibition building, only one floor, and it left a somewhat poor impression. The first floor is a vast and empty foyer with many security guards wandering around, the second floor - spacious rooms with yet more security people again and demonstrations and exhibitions of video, social and education projects and children's drawings. The third floor yet again hosted that good old large space (and a good number of guards). It's great architecture, which the curators of the exhibition have obviously wanted to highlight by not filling it up with different sorts of "junk". If I were to evaluate this kind of move from the aspect of art, then I would be inclined to use indecent words, which I cannot afford to do in this respectful magazine. If I am writing this review as a person who found himself in a building designed by a famous architect and enjoying the way it is arranged - a truly splendid, empty inner space, it would not be appropriate to jump for joy in such a respectful magazine either.

Finally I entered the fourth floor, where the soul and body of the biennial was housed - the exhibition, that is, the works of art. They were scattered around the room and seemed tiny without creating a common harmonious entity, serving as proof to that dark chaos out of which someone could make something within six days. What I saw there made me think of the role of high art in society, of its capacity to be useful, to obtain support, funding, and nutrients for its spiritual body in order to physically manifest itself. Art, unlike philosophy and rhetoric, is normally materialised, its physicality or anaemia, or any other image-making physical feature moves, invites, excites our immaterial mind. Visual art is probably an atavism, which has taken its marginal role in society and is truly important only to the corporative subculture of art curators and artists. I noticed apocalyptic thoughts of this (or similar) kind going through my mind while observing the building of the biennial and its exhibition on the second day of my visit. Unable to get rid of my critical mood, I decided to enjoy the works of art some other day.
Alan McCollum. Drawings
It is warm in the city of St. Paul, night falls soon, and I returned to the exhibition hall once again after having digested my first impressions of the building and the exhibition. The pieces for this exhibition were picked by the organisers - the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art and curator Ivo Mesquita - as opposed to previous years, when the nucleus of the exhibition was made up of works of art presented by individual countries. I was also surprised to see many relatively old works, which I had already previously seen myself. These include, for instance, the installations titled "The House" and "Crystal Eye" (both 2002), which were the main video works of an exhibition by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila, or the installation Valerio (1998) by Carsten Höller, which was for a long time exhibited in Berlin. The works mentioned above, together with many others (more than half), do not reflect the most recent developments in art, or even the developments of last two years, which in my opinion should be the main mission of the biennial - in order to make it different from any other contemporary art exhibition. If you order a good old Bloody Mary in a bar, and they serve plum juice as Bloody Mary this year, you'll still be disappointed, even if the plum juice was good. The organisers have totally ignored painting and have got carried away with works which imitate research instead. For instance, the piece "The World Explained" by the Mexican artist Erick Beltrán residing in Barcelona. There are many wall charts showing various diagrams, people, and machines. Descriptions of explanations (in Spanish) are covered with bigger symbols, impeding the reading of the text or seeing the pictures, thus clearly implying that the author of the information does not want to create an illusion of how important that information is, and it seems that the idea of message is to ridicule the rational interpreters of the inexplicable world (is it impossible to explain the world?).

The installation by the Chilean artist Carlos Navarrete "Personal Archive I" (2008) comprises photos and notes under a glass cover on specially designed wooden tables. The pictures are of houses, cars and buses - nothing special. The author's notes on his trip around Brazil. It is a message of how insignificant the significance of private experience becomes when it is shown in public. In order to attract a stranger, the message should be presented with more intense means, like a mountainous landscape beautifully covered with snow or an emotionally charged picture of a Palestinian fighter whose arm has been injured by bomb shrapnel. The coquettish design of the tables and chairs was probably constructed in order to entice visitors to explore this "uncompetitive" offer.
Peter Friedl. Playgrounds
A work named "MIT Project" (1990) by Matt Mullican is a comparatively voluminous installation, with low walls installed in the room, and there are boards located within these walls containing pictures, various monochrome and coloured graphic compositions integrated into their surface (I used to produce similar graphic compositions when learning to work with drawing-pen and ink at the Riga College of Applied Arts). Another part of the installation displays bones and stuffed birds. I would describe this installation as a fabrication of the scientific process, or the placing of the process of mystification into a scientific category. Maybe this installation could serve as the interior for a modern shaman in the case where some-body wanted to shoot a film based on the novel "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco. The principle of usefulness, already relevant at the dawn of Renaissance, has possibly encouraged the artists and curators to unintentionally play at a pretend usefulness.  

The work titled "Playgrounds" (2007) by Peter Friedl, an Austrian artist residing in Berlin, offers a useful study. Four wall projectors show photos of various playgrounds. The pictures seem to have been taken on the clean beaches, the blocks of houses and kindergartens of Western Europe. After watching the photos I still did not feel any catharsis, I was just overwhelmed with a sad feeling that everything being so nice and polished can be too much sometimes, there is nothing personal there.

Another group of works is not as visually united or commonly grouped in its presentation as the abovementioned "group of scientists". These are works where the play with different techniques is not the subject of a work of art. To me the most remarkable works, for example, are the video installations "Art Must be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful" (1975-2007) by Marina Abramović. This installation is a series of videos of 15 different thematic self-portraits the artist has filmed over many years. Screens located in a line show all the portraits simultaneously. Sometimes make-up or aging changes the impression that it is a collection of portraits of one and the same person. This work is very personal; it reveals the development of the artist, her performances over a longer period of time, as well as growing old. It seems that she is asking herself what happens to an "old" work of art, what changes are brought to its message and idea when this work is located in a new setting and lives a new life, as well as if artist has any rights to use his or her past in this way.

The work "Drawings" (1988-1993) by Allan McCollum, an American artist, occupied the biggest space in the exhibition. The installation consisted of frames in various dimensions put on tables with pictures of black regular shapes on a white background drawn symmetrically against the vertical central axis. Each "drawing" is unique, and over several years the artist has developed a special system of how to get many hundreds of hand-made distinct drawings using specially designed templates, which he organized in groups and categories, giving an identification number to each of them. The drawings resemble various silhouettes of coats of arms. They as if present mass heraldry in which each black shape is unique, however the view in total is as depressing as the landscape in any town cemetery, where every tombstone has its own unique message, but common traditions and taste present a general view of unmitigated dullness.

The work named "About Airplanes and Angels" (2008) by Mircea Cantor, a Rumanian artist residing in New York, is a hand-woven wool carpet hung from the ceiling of the exhibition room, with shapes of angels and airplanes as decorative motifs. Western culture created the image of the angel and has known it for centuries, and in a similar way the contemporary Western world has come to recognise the image of an airplane as a symbol of danger and loss. This work tests and provokes the culture of dualism nurtured by Western Christianity: the culture of recognising good/evil, black/white, by covering the heads of visitors with a semantic cover - a carpet. Airplanes fly off to bomb Baghdad or any other centre of the axis of evil, airplanes crash into the unprotected glass facade of the World Trade Centre. The Western world has learnt about new weapons of mass destruction, which once upon a time were doves of peace in the sky. Why are we, the Western world, so unlovable? We are pure angels, surely. An Oriental carpet/flying carpet and a symbol of Western culture combined with signs of danger - the whole set makes us think of global contexts and processes, and the exchange of these symbols creates yet more symbols.
Matt Mullican. MIT Project
One of my favourite works of this biennial was the installation "Book Bounded Manually" by João Modé, a Brazilian artist, and specially created for this exhibition. The installation consisted of set of irregularly shaped platforms attached to a glass facade. A loop of rope was tied around one of the columns in the room encircled by a platform, and the other end of the rope reached out through the window to the foliage of a tree growing 150 metres away. A small screen was set up on the vast and empty surface of the platform (more on its right side) projecting nature close-ups, such as the moving surface of water and moving foliage. According to the catalogue, the artist decides on form, materiality and structure of his work in the process of creation. The installation is created on site in the exhibition room, taking into consideration the factors of the room, and often the process of creating is continued after the opening of the exhibition. The artist managed to put the "real" world into the "ideal" world of construction. Most works of art require attention from the audience, they create their own world, a segment of opinions and images the viewers are supposed to swallow, absorb, inhale, but I was so much moved by the work of this Brazilian artist because of its openness: like the tree outside, I was playing a part in this installation, yet was an independent part of the construction.

I found the piece "Model #3 For Propaganda Stand, Screen and Loud-speaker Platform Celebrating a Post-Independence Utopia" (2008) by Angela Ferreira, a Mozambique artist residing in Lisbon, of great significance. The artist has accurately realized the project of Gustavs Klucis: "Workers of the World - Unite!" which is a sketch for a propaganda kiosk made in 1922 (Latvian National Museum of Art, Z-7842). Klucis believed in the possibility of a better world, he believed that through propaganda work you can create a new society. The Afro European artist most probably does not believe in the mission of her message, she cuts open and studies her own incredulity. Utopia has long been experienced and celebrated, and only a post-party hangover is left for mourning, reminiscing, analysing. The destiny of this artist from Mozambique living in Europe differs greatly from that of Gustavs Klucis: she cannot help her poor people, nor is she likely to make the same mistake twice, as Gustavs Klucis.

It would not be possible to describe all the works of the biennial, even if enough space were to be allowed by my editor. Just one more work I would like to mention: the installation "Anonymous Drawing Made With Altered Typewriter" (2005) by Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander. In the exhibition room there were tables with type-writers. Visitors could type their wishes or needs, but on paper the letters were changed into dots, only dots. To me this serves as a nice reminder of our different, special and peculiar human wishes, dreams and needs which, once translated into energy, become of equal value.  

I am not sure if the 28th São Paulo Biennial can be described as ambitious. Nevertheless, the scope of the city of São Paulo is itself grand enough.

/Translator into English: Laura Zandersone/
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