Entitled Choreography of the Impossible, the historic 35th edition of the São Paulo Bienal challenges traditional concepts. Curated by Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, Hélio Menezes and Manuel Borja-Villel, the exhibition highlights a polyphony of artistic positions, addressing issues ranging from the architecture of the pavilion to the relationships between the artwork and the public.
Outres, Daniel Lie, 2023. Photo: Camila Gonzatto.
Rosana Paulino, from the series Mangrove, 2023. Graphite, acrylic and natural pigment on canvas. Photo: Levi Fanan
Inhabiting the color, Carlos Bunga, 2023. Photo: Levi Fanan.
Tadáskía. Photo: Levi Fanan.
São Paulo is currently host to the 35th edition of its long-awaited biennial, which began on September 6, 2023. Curated by Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, Hélio Menezes and Manuel Borja-Villel, and entitled Choreography of the Impossible, the exhibition has created space for important discussions, experiences, and visualities. With around 121 artists participating— including individuals, duos and/or collectives of various origins, not limited by national definitions—with creative processes that span different formats and movements that denaturalize hegemonic notions of life and the world, as well as a busy schedule of activations, the 35th Bienal de São Paulo has already established itself as a historic edition.
Asking the question “How are moving bodies capable of choreographing the possible within the impossible?”—a reference to thinker and professor Leda Maria Martins, who provokes the linearity of time and the effectiveness of breaking it through the spiraling movement of Afro-diasporic knowledge—the public has been invited, in the almost three months the exhibition has been on display, to actively engage with the works through public programming and educational interventions. We will highlight a few of these contributions here.
Vão. Press Photo
Challenging the Vão and Niemeyer’s architecture
Considered a major symbol of Brazilian modernism, the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, which houses the Fundação Bienal, was built in 1954 along with Ibirapuera Park and other buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer for the city of São Paulo’s fourth centenary celebrations. When not inhabited by the second-largest biennial in the world, the building hosts various types of events, from fashion shows to entertainment and technology. If you are aware of the building’s architectural and historical importance, the sight of the wide, empty, bare building, with its multiple levels, columns, curves, and glass walls is stirring, but also frightening.
Amid these grandiose modern narratives, it’s almost impossible not to feel the impact of the large columns that support the building, starting from the basement and climbing up to the top level, embraced by an open, empty space with its dancing, serpentine mezzanine. It’s possible to see the other end from any point, on every floor. From the ledge, you can see the floors below or above. The empty space created by the mezzanine on three floors, which invites you to discover the space, is known in Portuguese as the “vão”, or pit. While the straight, well-defined lines of the entire building bring stability, the transparency of the glass seems to integrate the concrete interior with the calming nature outside. Both the vão and the wide, open spaces give the impression that everything is always within reach, and it is here that decolonial perspectives equip the public to inhabit such a space in other ways.
A well-known feature throughout the history of the Bienal de São Paulo as an exhibition highlight, plans to enclose the mezzanine was the target of criticism and curiosity when the architectural project was first announced. With few gaps, the walls that close off the open space are connected conceptually to the perception that knowing everything is a modernist illusion and secrets are also part of the stages of knowledge, as shown in religions of African origin. Architecture that invites us to walk around, like in a capoeira circle, to pay attention to unpredictability, to get lost in labyrinths, take risks and see whether a path will take you even deeper inside or to an exit, looking for one room and discovering another, finding colors on the walls that were once all white. At Choreographies of the Impossible visitors encounter architecture that absorbs, elaborates, and updates the characteristics of the original pavilion and, at the same time, creates spaces that constantly challenge our paths and senses.
Sidney Amaral, The foreigner, 2011. Acrylic on canvas. Collection: Banco Itaú, São Paulo. Photo: Camila Gonzatto.
Amaral's presence in this exhibition is of special note because he is yet another Black artist who was only able to access such an emblematic space in the arts after his death. And in his case, he expressed his frustration in this painting.
Presences that redefine the arts and modern whiteness
The emphasis on architecture in this edition is proportional to the urgency of discussions about social structures, as shown by some works. In this sense, perhaps the most didactic are the works of artist and professor Sidney Amaral (1973-2017), whose painting O estrangeiro (The Foreigner, 2011) shows him rowing with a coat rack on a mattress inside the Fundação Bienal Foundation, identified in the background by its striking white columns. On the mattress floating in a dark sea, Duchamp’s urinal (1917) is carried by the person in a painting with a pessimistic tone. Amaral’s presence in this exhibition is of special note because he is yet another Black artist who was only able to access such an emblematic space in the arts after his death. And in his case, he expressed his frustration in this painting.
Closing off the vão prompts new ways of moving about the building, taking the public from the first to the third floor. Upon reaching the third floor, visitors come face-to-face with a wall of textile works by Edgar Calel, with Rosana Paulino’s Mulheres-Mangue (Mangrove-Women) paintings on the other side. The entire floor, previously visible in its entirety, is now permeated by rooms that create moments of closure, introspection, reticence, as well as spaces of openings, expansion, and dialogue. According to curator Hélio Menezes, it’s “a space that questions and confronts orthogonal, progressive, linear metrics”, with a conceptual reference to professor and essayist Leda Maria Martins’ spiral of time.
Some of these motions invite people to enter rooms with lighting suitable for viewing paintings, photographs, drawings and installations, such as Citra Sasmita’s project. They guide them through dark, intimate rooms with video projections, like Shakedown (2018), a film by director Leilah Weinraub about a strip club by and for lesbians in the USA, and spark delight at finding nature from the park outside in the middle of the transition between one room and another or, simply, at the opening to a new space bathed in daylight, as in Carlos Bunga’s installation, Habitar el color (2015-), which consists of a room whose floor is covered in a layer of pink paint.
Another notable feature of the relationship between the works and the architecture is the quantity of works that climb the building’s pillars, such as the installations Pulmão da mina (2023), by Luana Vitra, Outres (2023), by Daniel Lie, ZUMBI ZUMBI ETERNO, by Julien Creuzet, and ave preta mística (2022-), by Tadáskia.
The presence of Quilombo Cafundó and Cozinha da Ocupação 9 de Julho, groups whose presence at the exhibition is marked by their daily actions in defense of land and territory, helps us to reach a deeper understanding that architecture creates, shapes and reinvents not only the ways we inhabit spaces, from an emancipatory or limiting perspective, but that it can also be so unpredictable that it encourages us to imagine possibilities of worlds and spaces that are yet to be invented. A work of sound architecture with syncopated rhythms.
Publication as an expository extension: curatorial, critical and educational writings
A program of guided visits, discussions, and training sessions was planned in dialogue with the curator’s proposals, including the two educational publications, dançar é inscrever no tempo/aqui, numa coreografia de retornos, which was launched on April 14, and antes de estar em mim já esteve nelas/meu modo de pensar é um pensar coletivo, on August 16. Both publications were given out free-of-charge during the exhibition and made available online on the Bienal website. Texts written by the educational team, curators and guest artists lead us through multiple, open-ended propositions, without searching for conclusions or definitions, flowing into thoughts and purposeful action. A third publication is scheduled for 2024, to serve as a basis for the touring exhibition. The catalog for this edition features reference texts for the exhibition’s concept, from individual essays by curators and guest authors, such as Gladys Tzul Tzul, Hagar Kotef, Tiganá Santana, Ilenia Caleo, Rizvana Bradley and Denise Ferreira da Silva, to the republication of Performances da oralitura: corpo, lugar da memória, by Leda Maria Martins, originally published in 2003. Finally, critical biographies about each artist were written by over 40 guest authors. The editing and design of the catalog are, in themselves, an aesthetic and sensorial experience.
Tadáskia. Photo: Levi Fanan.
Art education as a platform for emancipation
The work of the Bienal de São Paulo educational team is another treasure people look forward to at each edition. The biennial’s educational work is historic and pioneering in museum art education in Brazil, since its very first editions. Teacher training, for example, is highlighted among professionals in the field, who are given the opportunity to update themselves on the various themes in contemporary art.
Despite the fundamental importance of the biennial’s educational actions, the struggle of its educators and professionals in the field is also historic. With each edition, new questions arise about the role of education in its artistic, political and labor structures. Since 2009, the Bienal de São Paulo has had a permanent team of education professionals of about 10 people, who work in dialogue with long-term actions and the specific dynamics of each edition. At each biennial, the group is reinforced with the hiring of temporary educators, which at this edition included approximately 44 trained professionals and 20 interns, responsible for welcoming the public and leading both scheduled and spontaneous visits, in addition to training activities.
On October 18, a group of workers, including some of these facilitators, published an open letter in response to working conditions at the 35th Bienal de São Paulo, reporting awkward situations and inappropriate conditions for positive working dynamics. Their demands include: “Maintain a favorable and appropriate workplace for the proposed activities; Provide appropriate physical and technological materials for the normal execution of the work; Prevent any injuries to employees; Promote a pleasant and stimulating work environment, free from any form of discrimination or prejudice.”
Amador e Jr. Patrimonial Security. Photo: Camila Gonzatto
After repercussion in the media, the Fundação Bienal responded to the letter, stating that it was unaware of the requests presented, questioning the fact that the group had not sought internal means of dialogue, but that it was committed to talking to them. As Jandir Jr., one of the artists in this edition, recalled in a post on his personal Instagram account, made on November 7: “if workers seek other means than those of the institution’s official channels to make themselves heard, maybe it is because our problems, that is, the problems of the working class, yearn for publicity, public life.” Jandir Jr. places himself within the collective because he is from the working class, an educator, and in his work he deals with issues relating to working conditions in artistic spaces. Together with Antonio Gonzaga Amador, they form the team Amador and Jr. Segurança Patrimonial, a performance project where the artists, dressed in security guard uniforms, perform probing, tongue-in-cheek actions, showing situations that confront the public and their expectations about the sector. In the same post, Jandir Jr. reminds us that, unfortunately, this reality doesn’t only concern the staff at this edition of the biennial, nor is it in the hands of the curators to change it. It is an old debate and affects educators at other museums and arts and cultural spaces in Brazil. Jandir Jr, recalls, for example, the struggle promoted by educators and arts workers in another open letter, written by the facilitators and supervisors of the 13th edition of the Mercosul Biennial, strikes at the 9th Mercosul Biennial, and the letter addressed to the Parque Lage School of Visual Arts (EAV Parque Lage), by artists participating in the school’s free “Formation and Deformation” training Program in 2022, and others.
Obviously, this does not diminish the importance of the workers’ struggle at the 35th Bienal de São Paulo. On the contrary, it adds strength to the urgency of affective actions inside institutions, reinforcing the need for internal and external improvements.
Denilson Baniwa - Kwema/Dawn, 2023. Foto: Eduardo Nasi.
The harvest marks the end of this stage, but leaves us with a warning that, if the Fundação Bienal wants to have new harvests, it must plant new seeds.
Keep the land fertile to obtain new crops
This edition of the Bienal de São Paulo is, without a doubt, impactful, and one which has promoted gestures of change to the format the exhibition used to take. It will be up to the Fundação Bienal to continue and expand upon these changes. Kwema/Amanhecer (2023), by Denilson Baniwa, is one of the few installations outside the pavilion. Composed of a subtle labyrinth of raised beds where corn seedlings were planted, the work puts into practice the counting of time from the emergence of the seedlings to their growth, and ending with harvest, scheduled for the last day of the exhibition. The harvest marks the end of this stage, but leaves us with a warning that, if the Fundação Bienal wants to have new harvests, it must plant new seeds. The 35th Bienal de São Paulo has opened new pathways. Now it will be up to the institution to decide what to do with that fertilized land.
Luciara Ribeiro is an educator, researcher and independent curator. She holds a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Salamanca (USAL, Spain, 2018) and from the Graduate Program in Art History at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP, Brazil, 2019). She has a degree in Art History from UNIFESP (2014) and completed a technical course in museology at the São Paulo State Technical School (ETEC/SP, 2015). She is a member of the Brazilian Association of Art Critics (ABCA) and a contributor for the magazine Contemporary And América Latina and the virtual platform Projeto Afro. She teaches at the Department of Visual Arts at Faculdade Santa Marcelina and Centro Universitário Armando Alvares Penteado.
Maria Luiza Meneses is an independent curator, educator and researcher. Currently an undergraduate student in Art History at UNIFESP, she is a member of the collectives RedLEHA, Nacional TROVOA, and Rede Graffiteiras Negras. She has carried out valorization projects at the Pinacoteca de Mauá since 2019. She was personal assistant to curator Diane Lima, working with an emphasis on research, production and curation during the 35th Bienal de São Paulo, Choreografias do Impossível (2022-2023). She has published texts on contemporary art, Afro-Brazilian artists, hip-hop culture, Freirean education, and culture wars.
Translation: Zoë Perry