Redefining the Museum: Artists Take Control at the Bienal de São Paulo

By Jane Morris
There is a long history of artists curating shows; from the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, to Marcel Duchamp’s 1938 Jean Cocteau show and Damien Hirst’s 1988 Freeze. The 33rd Bienal de São Paulo , which closes this week on December 9th, takes the idea a step further.
S even international artists were given carte blanche to create group exhibitions in its famous Oscar Niemeyer-designed pavilion. Meanwhile, 12 Latin American artists were revealed in separate solo shows. Curator Gabriel Pérez Barreiro says the idea is to help a general audience “slow down the process” and enjoy the art: the São Paulo biennial is not “some kind of test that you either pass or fail”.
Oscar Niemeyer
THE BIENNALE PAVILION © Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

The Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, built by Niemeyer in 1954 as the Palace of Industries, is spectacular but vast. At 25,000 sq m, it has more than double the gallery space at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and is roughly the size of eight Tate Modern Turbine Halls. Around 900,000 visitors came to the 2016 edition, but it is clear that some of them find it too much. “This massive building is exhausting, it is overwhelming physically, and also in terms of how much information [art] a human being can absorb,” says Pérez-Barreiro. He wants to put artists, “the diversity of artistic expression” and the pleasure of looking back at the heart of the biennial experience.
Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, Curator of the Bienal de São Paulo. © Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

Variety, Pérez-Barreiro believes, is key. The pavilion has been broken into separate galleries, with rest areas and cafés in between. Seven artists – Alejandro Cesarco, Antonio Ballester Moreno, Claudia Fontes, Mamma Andersson, Sofia Borges, Waltércio Caldas and Wura-Natasha Ogunji – have made group exhibitions. The only rule is their own work must be included. “It’s a way of visitors seeing an artist’s work in a different context,” Pérez-Barreiro says. “It’s an imaginary museum, the artists who inspired you, or informed you, or raised questions you are interested in. It’s a multi-dimensional idea of who these artists are.”
Mamma Andersson, Glömd (Forgotten) (2016), Courtesy of Galleri Magnus Karlsson. Photo: Per-Erik Adamsson.

Each artist’s approach is different. The veteran Neo-Concrete artist Waltércio Caldas presents a “museum-style” show, placing themes in his work in historical context. Swedish painter Mamma Andersson, whose work embraces traditional figurative subjects – eerie interiors, landscapes, group portraits – draws on an eclectic range of works from 15th-century Russian icons to Outsider artists, such as the late American recluse, Henry Darger, and the occasionally troubling work of the self-taught Swedish artist Dick Bengtsson.
Feliciano Centurión, Luz divina del alma (Divine Light of the Soul) (c. 1996) Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art (purchased with funds provided by Donald R. Mullins, Jr, 2004). Photo: Rick Hall.

The Bienal de São Paulo had a profound impact on Latin American art, a fact this biennial acknowledges. In the 1950s and 1960s Brazilian artists such as Hélio Oiticica emerged on to the international scene, while Beatriz Milhazes, Rivane Neuenschwander and Adriana Varejão command major museum shows and high prices today. Pérez-Barreiro, a Latin American art specialist, has chosen to place a spotlight on some lesser-known names such as installation artist Maria Laet and figurative painter Vânia Mignone.

Aníbal López, A still from Testimonio (Sicario), (2012). Courtesy of Prometeo Gallery, Milan. Photo: Aníbal López.

Three artists of the 1990s, all of whom died prematurely, receive retrospectives. Political performance artist Aníbal López, whose work addressed violence in Latin America, famously interviewed an assassin at Documenta 13. Feliciano Centurion’s work upended gender stereotypes by using craft: dying of Aids-related illness in 1996, his final works were delicately embroidered pillows. Sculptor Lucia Nogueira, a well-known sculptor in the 1990s who lived in London and often used found objects, receives her first exhibition in the country of her birth.


33rd Bienal de São Paulo, Afinidades Afetivas, Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, Ibirapuera Park, Brazil closes on 9 December

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