Sao Paulo biennial

Sao Paolo XXIII Biennale: A Biennale in search of magicians, new, old and semi-old

Bringing together Picasso and Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois and Basquiat, Lam and the new Latin Americans, Jean-Hubert Martin and Achille Bonito Oliva

The XXIII Biennale in Sao Paolo is taking place 5 October to 8 December in the Cecilio Matarazzo Pavilion, designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the Ibirapuera Park. Nelson Aguilar, the curator, and his assistant Agnaldo Farias have continued with the theme of the previous exhibition, dedicated to the “end of support” in works of art and leading to “loss of materiality”, to quote a phrase coined by the American critic Lucy R. Lippard.

The exhibition is planned in three parts. The first is “Universalis”, a representative look at contemporary art throughout the world. The Western European section, curated by Achille Bonito Oliva, contains work by some of the artists represented in the Venice Biennale of 1993, including Shirazeh Houshiary, Ben Jakober and Panamarenko. Mr Bonito Oliva has invited the film director Wim Wenders to take part and, to complete the picture, Braco Dimitrijevic is there with Luciano Fabro and Enzo Cucchi. The Eastern European section is curated by Katalyn Neray from the Ludwig Museum, Budapest. She has chosen the Hungarian artist Péter Forgács, the Czech Milan Knizam, Zbigniew Liberra from Poland and Ojar Petersons from Lithuania.

Jean-Hubert Martin, director of the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, Paris and responsible for organising the first pan-continental exhibition of contemporary art in the 1980s, is curating the sections devoted to Africa and Oceania. Artists included come from Ethiopia, South Africa, Benin, Australia (the aboriginal artist John Mawurrndjul), New Zealand and Ivory Coast (Brouabré, whose work is already well-known). The Asian section, selected by Tadayasu Sakai from the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura, Japan, contains the work of two artists whose reputation is already established: Yukinori Yanagi, who, at the Venice Biennale in 1993, exhibited an installation covered in flags from all over the world, picked out in coloured earths and swarming with ants, and the Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang.

North America, directed by Paul Schimmel, curator of MoCa in Los Angeles, is represented by a batch of newcomers, including Tom Friedman whose work parodies the preoccupations of the late twentieth century in chewing-gum and bars of soap.

As usual, the Latin American section, assembled by Mari Carmen Ramirez, promises to be much more crowded. Ricardo Brey, from Cuba, demonstrates how, in his country, “artists use wretched materials because there is nothing new to be found there; everything has already been used or broken”; on the same wave-length is the Venezuelan, Luis Camnitzer, a practitioner of the “ready-made”, very different in this respect from his fellow-countryman José Antonio Hernandes-Díez, whose work is technology-based, with electronic monitors installed inside plastic animals. Nelson Felix, from Brazil, combines transparent and opaque materials, for instance graphite with diamond, to symbolise states of mind and emotions. Graphite is a material also favoured by another Brazilian artist, Georgia Kriakis, whose work lies somewhere between drawing, painting and sculpture: she works on transparent sheets, sometimes sensitised with resins, hanging them so that the light can pass through. A similar use of mixed media characterises the work of Flavia Ribeiro from Sao Paolo, with her combinations of encaustic, etching and painting. The idea of dematerialisation, the ephemeral and the transitory, recurs in the videos and performances of Roberto Evangelista from Manaus. From her corner, Maria Teresa Hincapié, the Colombian artist, declares that “A thing is a thing”; she constructs the work of art from objects collected during her journey (on foot) from Colombia to Sao Paolo.

The second section of the Biennale, organised by Per Hovdnnakk, director of the Henie-Onstad Art Center, Oslo focuses on the prophets and stars of the contemporary art scene. Basquiat, following his untimely death, has been awarded this honorific role, along with the ever-present Louise Bourgeois (creator of the logo of the Biennale, based on a spiral design), Andy Warhol and, in the role of young maestro, Anish Kapoor.

This section ends with a historical display of thirty-seven works (including two of the four versions of “The Scream”) by Edward Munch, in an overview organised by Arne Egum of the Munch Museum, Oslo. Jean-Hubert Martin has brought from Paris twenty-five paintings by Picasso dating from 1919-20, while Joseph Helfenstein, director of the Klee Foundation, Berne, has selected a small anthology of works by Klee, from his foundation.

There are three Brazilians in this section: Ruben Valentim (d. 1991), with his mixture of constructivism and Candomblé symbolism; Mestre Didi, a priest of the Xangò cult, is preparing a one-man show of thirty-three works dedicated to Mother Earth and Tomie Ihtake, a Japanese artist now living in Brazil, is showing a selection of metal sculptures.

The third section of the exhibition contains representatives from fifty-five countries. Brazil is focusing on Waltercio Caldaas, Venezuela on the geometrical abstraction of Jesus Soto, Argentina on the silk-screen prints on social themes by Graciela Sacco, Chile on Gonzalo Mezza, author of a project based on the Internet and virtual reality. The best known Western representatives include Sol LeWitt for the US, Alain Sechas for France and Gary Hume for Great Britain.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 63 October 1996