Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, site of the São Paulo Bienal. Des. Oscar Niemeyer and Hélio Uchôa, 1957

Two Perspectives on the São Paulo Bienal

By Deanna Sirlin and Christina Roiter

On November 7th, the São Paulo Bienal Foundation announced the appointment of Ivo Mesquita as curator of the 28th edition of its show, less than one year before its opening in October 2008. Mesquita’s proposal has fuelled an ongoing controversy and sharply divided the Brazilian art scene.

Instead of a traditional exhibition, the 28th São Paulo Bienal – to be titled ‘Em Vivo Contato’ (‘Live Contact’) – will not contain any art objects: the 2nd floor of Oscar Niemeyer’s Bienal pavilion will be completely empty; the basement will become a place for performances and film screenings, while the top floor will be turned into library. During the 42 days of the event, Mesquita will organize a cycle of conferences focusing on how to organize biennials in the future within the historical context of São Paulo Bienal and more than 100 biennials around the world.

--Fabio Cypriano, "A Void in São Paulo," Frieze Magazine

When I first was told that the 28th edition of the São Paulo Biennial would have an exhibition that would not have any artworks in it, I must admit I was indeed taken aback. I have asked Brazilian artist Christina Roiter for the hometown take on the curation and controversy (see below).

The title of this exhibition is ‘Em Vivo Contato’ (‘Live Contact’), and instead of works of art there will be discussions of the meaning of Biennials. There are so many Biennials of every shape and size that have proliferated all over the world--at last count, there were almost over 100 worldwide. Do we really need so much of this kind of curation?

Don’t get me wrong, I love to hate a good biennial as much as the next one and adore the world’s fair-cum-Olympics that flexes its muscles in Venice, but do we really need all these Biennials? However, proposing a series of symposiums for discussion of what biennials mean and why we do or do not need them ... well, that just seems so last century! This kind of discussion was presented in Atlanta in 1996 as part of a now defunct Arts Festival that had its crowning moments in conjunction with the Cultural Olympiad that hot and crowded summer. “Artway of Thinking,” a collaborative team from the Veneto Region of Italy, set up a series of dinners called Chow [Ciao] for Conversation for Culture. Curators Mary Jane Jacob and Michael Brenson invited the guests and session leaders and shaped the topics. I recall at the dinner someone asked, what kind of boat is this curatorship that everyone seemed to be on. Brenson later wrote ”To me, however, a program constructed around actual conversations in Atlanta between artists from outside the United States and individuals and communities not normally engaged by museum art is not a repudiation of Modernism but both a radical critique and an extension of it.”

All I can think of is that Oscar Niemeyer’s Bienal pavilion will be completely empty.

Deanna Sirlin

The recently nominated director of the São Paulo Biennialle, Ivo Mesquita, has decided to maintain the idea of the previously appointed director Camilo Osório, who resigned after an intense outbreak of criticism in response to his decision to keep the 2nd floor of the Pavilion, designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, empty.

As a Brazilian artist observing the current events concerning the upcoming internationally renowned art event, I can say it is raising a very interesting discussion in the art métier, concerning the purpose of the art movement being exhibited in the leading galleries and museums today. 

Are the directors of the event, Ivo Mesquita, and formerly Marcio Doctors, visionaries or just saving money??

Is what they are proposing a paradigm shift, or merely a consequence of financial mismanagement of the previous editions?

All these questions are arising and it seems appropriate to analyze carefully the issues involved.

The general public for art seems to be applauding the decision. After all, what is the sense of expending several million dollars on an exhibition that plays no role in the present age in a country and planet filled with hunger and poverty?

It makes all the sense to exhibit the emptied Pavilion….

Several discussions and complaints are coming from the Art Market, arguing that there is no reason to cut it, as they are commercially interested in the maintenance of this internationally very well respected institution.

The sincerity of the intention of Ivo Mesquita’s intention in organizing a Biennale with no works of Art in the 2nd floor of the Pavillion is being overshadowed by critique, but it should be respected and praised.

This could be a turning point at the end of a decade of incomprehensible, nonsensical, and foolish installations that will bring back some meaning and the essence of art.

Christina Roiter

Rio de Janeiro
February 2, 2008 

Christina Roiter is an artist who lives and works in Rio. 

Deanna Sirlin is an artist who lives and works outside of Atlanta, Georgia.