Springtime for art biennales


Art is not only big business worldwide, it is big everything today, including city branding. Huge art festivals are taking place throughout the world.

At Heathrow in London, I was singled out by security personnel for an “interview” after X-ray clearance. When told that I was simply stopping over in London on the way home after attending the World Biennale Forum II (WBF, November 25-30, 2014) in Brazil, one of them demanded to know what a “biennale” is.

A timely question, and one I have never been as equipped to answer as I had at that moment. In fact, in the forum, which coincided with the Sao Paulo Art Biennale (September 6-December 7, 2014), participants and stakeholders discussed, excogitated and argued at length over three days to arrive at a defining if not definitive model, among other issues. But we were no nearer to it.

Still, how to put a complex animal such as an art “biennale” in a nutshell, nuances et al, to these officials? To anyone, for that matter.

Biennials are a global phenomenon. They come as an art-tourism product, as city branding and art-mediated resource-research besides being multidimensional, multi-pronged encounters and usually very public-friendly and publicly engaged, while curators with international profiles have become increasingly nomadic with some being deemed as art-world rock stars.

There are now at least 150 art biennales and counting, found across five continents.

A dedicated exhibition of the works of Brazilian architect-ecologist-artist Robert Burle Marx (1909-1994) at the Pinacoteca in Sao Paulo. The exhibition ends on March 22.

Among the newbies are the ones to be organised by KL (2016), Asuncion (Paraguay, 2015) and Copenhagen (private initiative, 2015). I was sent by the Malaysian National Visual Arts Gallery Development Board, together with its curator Intan Rafizah Abu Bakar, on a fact-finding and networking mission, to this 31st edition in Sao Paulo, and specifically to attend the WBF2, which had the theme, “How To Make Biennials In Contemporary Times (subtext: the Global South).”

It was the second WBF after the one organised in conjunction with the 2012 Gwangju Biennale, which is Asia’s longest (since 1995), and which had the theme, “Shifting Gravity.” Tellingly, two of the Gwangju Biennale directors, Massimiliano Gioni and Okwui Enwezor, were headhunted to helm the Venice Biennale in 2013 and 2015 respectively.

The front of the Ibirapuera Auditorium, venue of the World Biennale Forum 2 in Sao Paulo.

Incepted in 1951, the Sao Paulo Biennale is the second oldest in the world after the Venice Biennale (1895), and has since 1957 been held at the three-storey Oscar Niemeyer-designed Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion in the sprawling 221ha Ibirapuera Park. Other art museums in the park are the Museum of Modern Art (MAM), the Afro- Brazilian Museum and the whitedomed Oca Pavilion (which houses the Air Force Museum and the Folk Museum). Thirty monumental works also dot the Sculpture Garden. Just outside the Ibirapuera periphery is the Contemporary Art Museum (MAC).

The 2014 edition with the Zen-like theme, “How to … about things that don’t exist,” involved 250 artworks by 100 participants from 82 projects. The salient features of this biennale were the heralding of the virtual death of Painting, a breaking-off from the nationalities mode of presentation, a non-conventional curatorial approach and a lack of big names, except for Asger John (of the Cobra group) and Argentinian Leon Ferrari, who died in 2013. Well-known participants in previous biennales included Imants Tiller (Australia), Blinky Palermo (Germany), Anthony Gormly, Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg (Britain) and Edward Hopper (the US)

There was also a bias towards strong collectives (like the Bolivian anarchistfeminist collective Mujeres Creando, with its giant mock uterus contraption), as compared to autonomous individual artists.

The title probably evoked Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present (The Hardest Thing Is To Do Something Which Is Close To Nothing)”, and was described as a “poetic invocation of art's capacities, of its ability to reflect and act upon on life, power and belief.”

The approach may also be pivotal to the peculiar culture and demographics of location, for example, the audience of Sao Paulo, as the world’s third largest city with a population of 20.1 million compared to say, KL with only six million (2012 census).

Mask II (2001/2002), a work by Australian Hyper-Realist sculptor Ron Mueck at Pinacoteca, Sao Paulo.

Over the years, the biennale now organised by the Sao Paulo Biennale Foundation (previously MAM) has established Sao Paulo as an international art hub in Latin America, attracting a total of more than seven million visitors from 160 countries, and with nearly 60,000 works involving more than 13,000 artists.

This year’s biennale had a budget of US$10.5mil. An unprecedented brief rebellion by some of the participating artists, which was supported by the curatorial team, against funding by Israel nearly threatened to derail it.

The more confrontational approach in the thematic focus might have been influenced somewhat, too, by the mass protest rallies all over Brazil in June 2013.

Radical, even revolutionary, approaches, prodding at some of the socio-political even cultural fault lines are common in biennales and in the Sao Paulo case, the issues covered included the Amazon ethnic cleansing and displacement of the Guaranis, conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans, deforestation, indigenous and mixed-race privations (like the profiling in street artist Eder Olivera’s portraits of the “coboclo” (white, black and Indian), and bugbears of gender (feminism).

In an informal post-mortem at the WBF2, the curators concluded with a mite of self-preening that the “chaos of randomisation in the end looks universal and have good content.”

Even as most biennales shift from nation-state agendas with constant re-inventions from Western paradigms, recent years have also seen disciplinebased alternatives such as the Suitcase (Emergency Biennial in Czechnya), Land Art, Postcard From The World, Photo (Chobi Mela, Bangladesh) and Street biennials.

But with no power to influence, regulate or even inspire, the WBF at best is a talkshop and a database of typologies, with a loose notion of solidarity of sharing or commonalty, in support of one another.

The premise of the forum was to question and provoke the concept of the biennale vis-à-vis constructing new exhibition (hi)stories – a search for new configurations, reflections, propositions. It also embraced the forward-looking task of having a central-system archival database to be available online like Wikipedia, and the way about it in a post-biennale scenario, in order to create a platform for reinvention, continuity and change, with the poser if such autocritical introspective-retrospective would have its desired effects.

Couple Under An Umbrella (2013), a life-sized verisimilitude work by Australian Hyper-Realist sculptor Ron Mueck. The exhibition at Pinacoteca, which is drawing large crowds, ends on February 22.

Brazilian Conceptual artist Rivane Neuenschwander’s Edible Alphabets (Portuguese Scrabble) at Sao Paulo’s Museum of Modern Art, which is also hosting a retrospective of Paulo Bruscky.

The forum also looked into what biennale chief curator Charles Esche termed the “different degrees of unfreedom,” especially with restrictions and even censorships imposed by certain institutional museums, and tensions between artistic expressions and political will. A delegate from Tehran, Iran provided glimpses of such problematic engagements.

Apart from Sao Paulo in Brazil, there is also the Mercosul Biennale in Rio Grande do Sul, which started in 1996, while in Rio de Janeiro the RioArt fair – the fourth – had just ended (September).

Sao Paulo also boasts a high concentration of art museums apart from those at Ibirapuera. They include the Pinacoteca (founded in 1905, the oldest in Sao Paulo), which is drawing amazing crowds for the exhibition of Australian Hyper-Realist sculptor Ron Mueck. The Sao Paulo Art Museum (MASP), noted as the “Ugly Duckling” of art-museum architecture on the main Paulista Avenue, boasts of a splendid European art collection. The Naïve Art International Museum (MIAN), which boasts of the world’s largest collection of Naïve Art, is just next to the Corcovado station of the rarefied Christ The Redeemer statue.

Amazonian street artist Eder Oliveira’s Untitled in the Sao Paulo Biennale venue looks into the plight of the mixed race “coboclo” (white, black and Indian), who are profiled and often stigmatised.

Danish artist Asger John (1914-1973) with his work, 10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art, in the Sao Paulo Biennale venue.

Apart from these, there are also the independent spaces such as Aurora, Pivo, Red Bull Station, Phosphorus, Itau Cultural Centre, Bank of Brazil Cultural Centre, Tomie Othake Institute, Pacos das Artes and Kunsthalle.

In essence, the Biennale has come to symbolise an art laboratory for sociocultural and even political discourses and engagements, if not interventions.

Various contemporary art strategies are invariably mapped out while often factoring in the host countries’ needs and agenda apart from the audience, culture and lifestyle, if not infrastructure.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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