The curatorial team for the 31st Bienal de São Paulo is touring some key cities throughout Brazil in order to discuss their ideas and get to know people involved in art in different regions of the country. The initiative is new for the Bienal, but perfectly natural, seeing as it has become standard practice on biennial and other major exhibitions the world over to assemble multinational curatorial teams. In a sense, we’ve experienced something analogous in Bahia over the last year, as many of those involved in creating the 3rd Bienal da Bahia, ‘It’s all Northeast’, were eager to hear from, and actively sought out, representatives from the local art scene.
What made the Salvador meeting so interesting was the fact that the theme – ‘How to talk about things that don’t exist’ – and the visual identity were released that same day on the social networks, giving most of those present their first taste of the 31st Bienal de São Paulo. It would seem that what the curators had in mind when they came up with this theme was non-existence seen from a purely empirical standpoint, and this did not strike the audience as odd. Nobody seemed uncomfortable with this definition of existence, or question why we ought to accept that ideas, feelings, hopes, concepts or dreams, among other things, don’t exist. Yet curatorship is enunciatory by nature, and perhaps people fail to realize that. Very often, visitors to biennials prefer to be seduced by the works than to mull over the curatorial rhetoric, but that rhetoric is there. One way or another, at the 31st Bienal, the curators are going to talk about things they think don’t exist.
However, pretty soon we are told that the verb ‘talk’ will be replaced by others over the course of the 31st Bienal: the theme could switch to ‘how to think about things that don’t exist’, or ‘how to believe in things that don’t exist’, and so on, which relativizes any debate on the theme, which becomes transitory and hard to pin down; something that avoids questioning, that shapeshifts before any rejection (or empathy) we may feel towards it.
In a sense, the curators of the 31st Bienal have taken up an issue raised by the previous edition, whose curator, Luis Pérez-Oramas, was also trying to figure out how something should be said. The question niggling at Oramas concerned the poetic dimension to art: he wanted to investigate ‘the need to structure a discursive and enunciatory operation capable of expressing something through the artistic apparatus of today’ , a difficulty he saw stemming from the fact that the contemporary visual arts align with commentary and criticism to the detriment of what Merleau-Ponty called ‘the voices of silence’, and counter to the type of poetic proposed by modernism (its contemporary).
Like language in Merleau-Ponty, modern art does not presuppose a table of correspondence, whether with what exists or does not exist: ‘its opaqueness, its obstinate reference to itself and its turning and folding back upon itself are precisely what make it a spiritual power; for it in turn becomes something like a universe, in which it is capable of lodging things themselves – after it has transformed them into their meaning’ . And the curators do not expect to cultivate modernist autonomy, nor the pioneers of our contemporaneity.
The home of the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia (MAM-BA), with its iconic staircase, is much more interesting than Niemeyer’s obvious building, which resembles too closely pretty much any museum anywhere, just as the bigwigs Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape are no longer ‘exotic’. It is important that the 31st Bienal show what is being done now, and that’s why the curators want to understand the country’s context, because they want to know the ground they’re treading on; they want to draw a map. We suppose the curators, as foreigners, will cast a fresher gaze upon the local scene, but, at the same time, we identify them with the little men in Prabhakar Pachpute’s drawing, who have to totter on, unable to see their surroundings.
On the poster for the forthcoming Bienal the phrase ‘How to talk about things that don’t exist’ appears in just text along the rim, with an image redolent of the Tower of Babel in the middle. Is the dialogue it suggests actually possible? How do the curators dialogue amongst themselves, given their different origins? How do they dialogue with Brazil and Brazilian art? With an ethnographic sort of curiosity, the curators want to know how art is made in a place so different to what they know, hence the discussion—always thorny, occasionally amusing—about Brazilian identity. A discussion that churns out all the usual clichés: the Brazilian’s malleability in accepting the strange, in embracing what does not exist (here)…Thoughts of anthropophagy are inevitable, but that Bienal has been done before.
Without knowing to what extent the information will reflect on the 31st Bienal de São Paulo’s curatorial project, the encounter got underway with talk of the near-impossibility of being an artist in a city that has no art market. The lack of a market would seem to be a far more serious problem than the fact that Salvador, one of the largest cities in the country, has so few exhibition spaces, almost no decent libraries or bookstores specializing in art, and practically zero publications devoted to art and art criticism – in short, a city low on the resources it takes to deepen and strengthen artistic production and reflection on it. However, despite all manner of insufficiency, it’s the lack of an art market that most disturbs our artists.
Perhaps, as a counterweight, we might discuss the University. Yes, Salvador is a city in which the relationship between artists and the University – a public university – is much closer than in places like São Paulo. We don’t have the institution market, but we do have the institution university, a space apparently capable of using its selection processes for post-graduate and teaching posts to attribute some value to artists and art researchers. The university is, at least, a place that gives art some thought.
The discussion gives way to a succession of personal depositions, and the tension lifts. What’s left are the now traditional ‘tales’, perhaps as an antidote to the sterility that threatens to descend upon São Paulo’s modernist pavilion every two years.