How to capture a perpetually discontinuous world was clearly on the curators’ minds for the 34th São Paulo Biennial. The event opened this past September, after a year’s delay and a small prequel in November 2020. Since its inception, in 1951, the biennial has weathered military juntas and faced boycotts of its curation and criticism for smorgasbord shows, plus calls for more social accountability, particularly now that right-wing populism and its backlash against civic freedoms are again on the rise. It’s no wonder, then, that this year’s biennial highlighted discontinuity but also historical recurrence.
When, inspired by Édouard Glissant’s poetics of relation, the curators — Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, Francesco Stocchi, Paulo Miyada, Ruth Estévez, and artist Carla Zaccagnini — expressed in the press conference their wish for works to reverberate against each other, the idea sounded obvious enough. It wasn’t until I was physically in the space that I could appreciate this concept. In addition to works that took disruption and repetition as their theme — such as the doomsday monologue by the Norwegian artist Mette Edvardsen, the staggered steps of retired ballerinas conceived by the Danish artist Nina Beier, or the mesmerizingly twitchy 35mm experimental film by the Austrian artist Philipp Fleischmann — the same artists resurfaced in different sections of the sprawling modernist pavilion, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, creating multiple affinities.
Carmela Gross’s Hell’s Mouth (2020), a series of smoky drawings on silk and paper, opened the show alongside two artifacts that survived the 2018 fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, called “statements” in the Biennial: a meteor and an amethyst that changed color. (Other “statements,” ranging from objects to mentions of historical figures, were strategically placed throughout the Biennial.) Next to these “statement” stones, the volcanic evanescence of Gross’s work suggested menace but also drama and gravitas through repetition. On the same floor, Gross’s urban interventions from the 1960s spoke more directly to today’s troubled times, particularly when coupled with Hélio Oiticica’s letters, in which the Brazilian artist mourned those murdered by the military junta.
The pairings often underscored the idea that art drinks from multiple sources, sometimes all at once. The Romanian artist Anna-Bella Papp’s delicate clay reliefs channeled ancient art but also socialist realism. Some connections were transitory, such as Papp’s adjacency to the Brazilian painter Eleonore Koch, with her dreamy, maritime classicism, or Koch’s dusk-infused blues and ochres rhyming with the autumnal palettes in tapestries by the Israeli choreographer and artist Noa Eshkol.
When the reverberations ran deeper, they revealed modernism’s divergent roots, as happened when Giorgio Morandi’s spare still lifes were placed alongside folkish paintings by the Cypriot artist Christoforos Savva. Likewise, the pairing of Lygia Pape’s totemic sculptures with geometry-based sacred birds by Brazilian Indigenous painter Daiara Tukano drove home the point that Brazilian Concrete and Neo-Concrete art revamped abstraction partly by importing motifs from Amerindian civilizations.
Indigenous artists Jaider Esbell (Brazil) and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (United States) drew attention not only for their representation of animals imbued with an uncanny spiritual force, but also for striking figuration and robust coloring. Based on the Abakuá religion, the somber prints the Cuban artist Belkis Ayón bewitched, like Medieval sacral altars, conveying a sense of standstill ecstasy. This sense also fueled the photographs of crumbling Buddhist statues by the Korean artist Jungjin Lee and of Brazilian candomblé rituals by the French photographer Pierre Verger.
E. B. Itso’s short film, Carl August Lorentzen’s Escape (2014), in which the Danish artist reenacted an infamous burglar’s escape from jail, at first felt out of sync with the Glissantian ethos, but on second thought revealed itself to be an apt metaphor for defiance and subterfuge in adversity. Next to it, Claude Cahun’s gender-nonconforming self-portraits and Deana Lawson’s dramatic photographs of Black sitters reiterated the force of inventive stylization; a similar force emanated in another section, from the drama-infused self-portraits by the Brazilian Indigenous artist and drag queen Uyrá.
Cahun also proved an inspired companion for the Indian experimental animator Nalini Malani, in whose 16 mm film Onanism (1969) bodies tensed in sexual trances, and the Danish Indigenous artist Pia Arke, whose video, Arctic Hysteria (1996), combined ecology, ethnography, and feminism. All three artists addressed social taboos.
With Glissant as its patron sage, the Biennial kept a persistent spotlight on post-colonial artists, including Arke (whose mother was Greenlandic), Martinique’s Victor Anicet, represented by an entire room of lava-like porcelain receptacles and caracan (“handcuff”) paintings referencing slavery, and Guadeloupe’s Kelly Sinnapah Mary, with figurines depicting diasporic myths. Nativity Painting (Reggae Jam) (2018), by the Jamaican DJ and artist Lee “Scratch” Perry (1936-2021), partly consisting of typed notes, seemingly gibberish. Yet it unleashed neologisms — such as “undeadend,” “unweepted,” and “unwhipended” — whose avenging wit spelled out grief and trauma.
Meanwhile, Atlantic Complex (Ocean) (2021), by the Black Brazilian artist Arjan Martins, was in many ways the Biennial’s culmination — an expansive, majestic mural, with Black and Brown bodies, ships, and continents splintering into prismatic abstraction against permutations of aqua. Similar to Anicet’s molten sculptures or the “statement” stones, Martins’s art held out a promise that what destroys must also create, must be a force that not only renews artistic imagination but also bolsters an entire people. Like his entire oeuvre, Martins’s painting embodied perfectly Glissant’s idea that a new baroque art is possible, and must be born outside the West.
— Ela Bittencourt