SÃO PAULO, Brazil — 32nd Bienal de São Paulo is underway through Dec. 11 in a country currently going through much political turmoil. The theme, however, embraces the doubt that comes with such times, Incerteza Viva (Live Uncertainty), the curators state, invites artists to create work that inhabits such a space. The theme rises above concerns with Brazil and enters the global space.
Above image: Lais Myrrha, Dois pesos, duas medidas, 2016. Photographs by Elisa Wouk Almino.
INCERTEZA VIVA recognizes uncertainties as a generative guiding system and is built on the conviction that in order to confront the big questions of our time objectively, such as global warming and its impact on our habitats, the extinction of species and the loss of biological and cultural diversity, rising economic and political instability, injustice in the distribution of the Earth’s natural resources, global migration and the frightening spread of xenophobia, it is necessary to detach uncertainty from fear. INCERTEZA VIVA is clearly connected to notions endemic to the body and the earth, with a viral quality in organisms and ecosystems. Though it is commonly associated with the word crisis, it is not equivalent to it. Uncertainty is, above all, a psychological and affective condition linked to individual or collective decision-making processes, describing the varying levels of understanding and doubt in a given situation.
Discussing uncertainty also includes processes of unlearning and requires an understanding of the boundless nature of knowledge. Describing the unknown always implies interrogating what we take for granted as known, an openness to learn from indigenous and local knowledge systems, and valuing scientific and symbolic codes as complementary rather than exclusionary. Art promotes an active exchange between people, recognizing uncertainties as guiding generative and constructive systems. Art appropriates a transdisciplinary approach to research and education. But how can art’s numerous methods of reasoning be applied to other fields of public life?
According to Hyperallergic’s Elisa Wouk Almino, newspapers and punditry in the country have been complaining that the show is “too politically correct,” which is vague enough. That’s usually a term used to silence political discussion rather than address it, so the artists have to be doing something right. According to Almino’s writeup, the exhibition can become vague in its handling of the theme. We suppose that fits in the theme, though. The troubles we face across the planet are snarled around so many aspects of life. If they were easily untangled we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
We dug up some of the more clay-oriented works on display and accompanied them with the viewers thoughts, but we encourage you to read Almino’s full review.
We’ll start with the featured image that kicks off this post. From Almino:
One of the outstanding works is Lais Myrrha’s dominating installation that rises to the third floor and is symbolic of the exhibition as a whole: two pillars, one neatly layered with native materials (woody vines, straw, and logs) and the other with construction materials typical of Brazil’s buildings (bricks, cement, iron, tubes, and glass), delineate two ways of life. But both are impenetrable structures, titled “Dois pesos, duas medidas,” or “Two weights, two measures.” As I came across them upon each loop of the Oscar Niemeyer building, the two pillars seemed to say that both our past and present have become inhabitable. I was left in an uncertain place, caught between time periods and worlds, no longer sure of where I stood.
There are also artists here who attempt to rescue or make visible a past that has been altogether obliterated, altered, or betrayed. In “Rota do tabaco” (2016), Dalton Paula visits cities in Brazil and Cuba with colonial histories in the tobacco industry and where many of the inhabitants are the descendants of African slaves. Paula registers the inheritance of this past in his ceramic plates, which are generally used for food or in Afro-Brazilian rituals, and paints black figures in white clothing going to school, playing music, and socializing. The bodies climb out from the depths of the bowls, which one needs to bend over to see, as their lives zoom into focus.
In Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas’s “Psychotropic House: Zooetics Pavilion of Ballardian Technologies” (2015–16), a man appeared to be fashioning a clay bowl in a plastic tent that warned, “Do not enter.” A label told me the artwork had something to do with mycology, as the objects were partly made from fungus. The idea intrigued me, but I struggled to connect with and parse what was happening, standing on the outside of a series of tents filled with similarly gray, unfinished bowls and vases, until a group of curious girls unabashedly tried reaching the man through the plastic, asking, “What are you doing?” The man eventually emerged and explained, “The idea is to make a live object.” I like the idea, but, like a number of artists featured here, I was left feeling that there was a basic lack of skill in or concern for storytelling.
I admit that just because art probes virtuous or overlooked subject matter doesn’t make it good. There are, as critics outside of Brazil have also noted, works that bore and disappoint in their psychedelic or familiar spiritual attitudes, including two huts, one inhabited by sculptures and manifestoes associated with the idea of “being Brazilian” by Bené Fonteles and another by Pia Lindman that is intended to transmit the healing practices of a Finnish community from the European Middle Ages. When I was told that the latter artist would give me “a treatment focused on joints and bones” I perhaps naively expected to undergo some kind of therapy in the mud hut, but instead was confronted with an empty bamboo medical table and cluster of plants. This is not the first time an indigenous hut has been transplanted into the biennial space. In 1975, a man from the Aritana indigenous community along the Xingu River built a hut where, once inside, the visitor heard the daily sounds of the Xingu tribes.
Do you love or loathe these works of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.