Throughout the construction process of the 34th Bienal de São Paulo, its curatorial team will send out letters with open dialogues that directly and indirectly reflect the development of the exhibition. This eighth letter was written by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti (chief curator), Paulo Miyada (adjunct curator) and by the guest curators, Carla Zaccagnini, Francesco Stocchi and Ruth Estévez.
More than three months ago we began to write our first letter together, as we felt it was the right time for a collective statement. We started that letter with the sentence: “The word ‘uncertain’ falls short of describing the state of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.” We didn’t know where the pandemic would lead us, and we still don’t. In the following weeks, though, it became clear that uncertainty was preferable to the certain tragedy that is being shaped by the health and political crisis in Brazil. We strongly believe in the role that art can and must play in society, especially in moments like this, when the experiences we face lack a name, making other languages necessary to deal with them. But we are also aware that right now all efforts need to be made in order to control the epidemic and curb its most direful consequences.
We normally think of an exhibition as the months in which a space is open for the encounter between people and artworks, but the encounters actually start much earlier. Some artists need to travel in advance, to visit the place, walk the streets and meet with people; producers and other professionals have to search for materials, compare services, hire providers; carpenters have to build walls and paint them; couriers have to travel with the artworks that don’t leave their collections unaccompanied; journalists and critics have to see things with their own eyes and raise questions. There are also the people who open the crates, who handle the works with white gloves, who put them into place; there are the people who fix the lights, who install and adjust the equipment; the people who translate; the people who clean up the space; the ones who pay invoices and distribute per diems. In order to open the 34th Bienal de São Paulo in October, this whole choreography would have to be put into motion now. And this cannot be done; it is a matter of public responsibility.
Joining in the global effort for safety and care in regard to the health recommendations, the staff and collaborators of the 34th Bienal (architects, archivists, artists, carpenters, clothesmakers, curators, dancers, designers, educators, writers, photographers, poets, producers, writers and many other professionals) are working remotely. We continue to develop the details of an event that we believe is of utmost importance especially at this time, insofar as it affirms art as a public sphere, with the unique capacity of giving form to contents that are fundamental for our societies. This is how it was on the day the 34th Bienal de São Paulo began in February 2020 with Neo Muyanga’s performance A Maze in Grace, and the opening of Ximena Garrido-Lecca’s exhibition. It was a beautiful day, an encounter of a sort that people seemed to be waiting for. The pavilion was filled with strength, with desire, with rage and hope. In this hiatus in which we are now living, we should not forget that when people get together, things happen.
The final exhibition of the 34th Bienal will take place in September 2021, one year later than initially planned. From now until then, slowly, at different paces and in different tones, we will continue to conceive and build the exhibition. Things will happen in the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion and outside of it, through publications, dialogues and research. Solo exhibitions by some of the artists taking part in the show will light on and off in partner institutions throughout the city. Originally planned to take place simultaneously, creating a choir, these will now weave a symphony made of silences and which can only be completed in the memory of each of us. A Maze in Grace became the first line of this symphony, of this collective poem that will take almost two years to be completed. From the outset, the idea of rehearsal has been central in the conception of the 34th Bienal, as it allows for the construction of the show to be an open, public moment, where things are presented without any aim of being definitive and crystallized. The need to rethink the project as a consequence of the current situation is, therefore, consistent with an attitude that was already guiding us – an attitude that is embodied in the question that we have been constantly and recurrently posing to ourselves during these months of work: What are the songs (the forms of art and ways of being in the world) that become both possible and necessary in dark times?
This question is central in the conception of the 34th Bienal since its title, Faz escuro mas eu canto [Though it’s dark, still I sing]. This line from a poem by Thiago de Mello has accompanied us through the apparently endless state of emergency we have experienced throughout recent years. It gained new meaning in the baleful light of the Amazonian fires, a tragic and premonitory backdrop to the protests that have spread around the world against the still lingering structural forms of racism and prejudice, of inequality, of unsustainable practices and the planned destruction of the planet as we know it. It seems even more fitting now, in light of the new coronavirus that makes this reality more evident and extreme. Now, more than ever, we must not shy away from taking a close look at the darkness of our times. But even passing through it with our eyes wide open might not be enough. We want to turn this crossing into a song – one that can be solitary or collective, murmured or shouted. And let us not be fooled; it requires courage and strength to sing now, in and despite a world that seems to place so little value on the lives of so many, which continues to obscenely disregard the common good for the sake of maintaining individual privileges.
We are still rehearsing our songs. New adjustments will be necessary, new ideas will arise, be developed and modified, and, perhaps, grow into something different that could not have been conceived before all of this. This can – and should – be a learning moment. To face the economic crisis that is foreseen due to the pandemic and which will certainly impact the system for the financing of art and culture, we must rethink and transform operational models and practices that rely on large expenditures of natural and human resources. No matter how big the challenges that lie ahead, we are committed to creating a space for the exercise of freedom, for the reopening of meanings once presumed to be understood, and for resistance to any imperative which says that it has somehow become prohibited or impossible to sing.