28th Bienal de São Paulo


“in living contact”

In 1951, in the introduction to his essay of the catalogue for the inaugural Bienal do Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, the artistic director, Lourival Gomes Machado, wrote:

By definition, the Bienal should fulfill two major tasks: it should place Brazilian modern art, not in simple confrontation, but in living contact with the art of the world, and at the same time the Bienal should strive to position São Paulo as a world artistic center. (page 14).

The optimistic tone, the rhetoric filled with hope, the engagement with the age of reconstruction after the traumatic events of the Second World War, sound today like a prophecy, the setting out of an utopia, which after fifty-eight years has been realized: São Paulo has become an international artistic center, a cosmopolitan city, a reference in the globalized art scene, Brazil in turn has become a point of attraction for artists, curators, gallery owners, and international collectors. Brazilian artists occupy important positions within the history and discourse of post-war modernity and in the production of contemporary visuality. The objectives of 1951 have been accomplished.

The question that could be posed now is whether this is the moment for the Bienal de São Paulo to evaluate and to perhaps consider the possibility of transforming or replacing itself within a city which has six art museums, as well as a range of diverse and active cultural centers, spaces which all have a systematic program of local and international contemporary art (many with proportionally bigger budgets than the Bienal). Bearing in mind too the scope and depth of the private collections within the country and the robustness of the Brazilian art market at home and abroad, which the Bienal has helped to establish, what role does it therefore have today, as a leading institution within the country and the continent, given that each of these sectors of the Brazilian art world have become self-sustaining and professionalized, and contribute to a globalized cultural system? A pause to allow for a process of self-reflection and criticism could point the way to a coherent set of solutions for an institution which is becoming redundant in its local context and yet is unable to critique the globalized age in which it is inscribed. It should be noted, however, that this is not solely a phenomenon and prerogative endemic to the Bienal de São Paulo. The conditions are apparent in many other Biennales.

The 19th century model of the Biennale has since the late 1980s become a commonly used strategy for cities and their political and economical elites to gain visibility within a global village. National representation is no longer the standard model within Biennales but cultural policy based on national identity remains even in a time when the function and significance of national borders are being questioned. There are almost one hundred Biennales around the world, all of which pose more or less the same questions, and circulate diverse artistic practice in a normative form. It is evident that within this context the Biennale model has limited possibilities for local engagement and critical capacity, because it operates within a mechanism that feeds and reproduces itself like mushrooms, unceasingly. How can the Bienal de São Paulo re.evaluate this phenomenon, which propagates itself equally in historical centers (for example Venice) as well as cities which until recently were perceived as being marginalized (for example Shanghai)? What critical role can the Bienal de São Paulo play in the age of cultural tourism and consumption? In what ways can it make a productive contribution to framing this debate, taking into account its history and experience as the first institution of this kind outside the traditional hegemonic centers? To attempt a formal reflection on Biennales today, reevaluating their qualities and objectives, rethinking its own agenda and function, represents an opportunity for the Bienal de São Paulo to reclaim a role within the many and diverse periodic visual art shows that populate the world in the 21st century.

Recently, a newer phenomenon, in the form of a global circuit of art fairs, has started to compete with Biennales. Artists participate in both events, while curators have started to treat fairs as a new space for research and as an alternative to studio visits. But they are not the same thing: while the art fair is first and foremost a commercial space, of sales, the Biennale wants to be a space of free exchange and confrontation between artists, curators, critics and the art public. What exists now is a blurring of this fundamental difference, some art fairs present serious programs of lectures and curated shows, while Biennales have become increasingly reliant on the discrete support of galleries in the financing of artists participation. After all, it should be noted that many of the important projects developed by artists and presented on Biennales, were only possible because they were financed by galleries. And that is not bad in itself. The problem lays with the Biennales who, as traditional legitimizers of contemporary art, are now at risk of becoming only agents of a market avid for fresh meat and a shelter for the insolence of rebel artists, whose works, stuck together with masking tape, immediately become sophisticated merchandise. Worse still, if one considers the perspective of the local immersed in a global circuit, Biennales can become purveyors of exoticism for the consumption of cultural, racial and economic diversity, and a political and social alibi for transnational capitalism.

Maybe, at this juncture, all Biennales could benefit from a pause for reflection, to systemize knowledge and experience, and to look for specificity and relevance at a time when the model seems critically exhausted and trivial (this is not new, there have been discussions on the subject since the late 1960’s, when there were a little more than 12 Biennales). Despite the unstoppable flow of images, representations and diverse artistic practices, and the voracious economies that feed the circuit, perhaps Biennales can recuperate valid positions if they are grounded in the singularities of their places of origin, located in the immediate demands of the region in which they are in. Rather than producing a complete and representative vision of art, the process would therefore be concerned with redirecting and defining specificities, to produce detailed cartographies, setting in place an investigative and critical methodology, formal and systematic, which interrogates, in a productive way, the movements and transformations perceived in a pre-determined circuit, including its reverberations and echoes.

The 28th Bienal de São Paulo will be articulated in four parts:

I – The Square

The space on the ground and first floor will take on a different appearance and function to its traditional use as an exhibitory space. The building will be opened up to a new disposition, proposing a new relationship between the Bienal and its surroundings, the park, the other museums, and the city. The first floor (immediately in front of the ramp leading to the second floor) will house the exhibition services (ticket office, reception, bookshop, information and meeting points, bathrooms, guide services, snack bar, lifts, etc) and lounge areas for internet and video monitors with an extension of the library in the third floor.

The glass windows and doors enclosing the ground floor and the first floor areas from the ramp onwards will be removed so that the area opens up to the park like the shaded public square envisaged in the original plans by Oscar Niemeyer. The vases that once were originally installed there will be restored to the space and the area rehabilitated (renovated). A program of events will take place during the 42 days of the exhibition. Articulated with stage areas, seating and furniture, the space will be set up to accommodate areas for discussion, theatre, performances, music, cinema and conversations with artists, curators, critics, musicians, writers, architects.

The public square seeks to be a democratic space, the agora in the tradition of the polis, a territory for encounters, confrontation, friction. An energy generating space, allowing air into the building and the programs of the institution. Aside from the symbolic significance of opening the Bienal de São Paulo to a rethinking and a reaffirmation of its place in the city, the opening of this part of the building will retrieve the original project of the pavilion, conceived as a square for the display of large scale industrial equipment, which could be viewed from the mezzanine balconies.

II – The Void

The exhibition of empty space on the second floor of the pavilion will be a radical gesture affirming the act of suspension, elaborating analysis of the Biennale model, and its role in the contemporary world. This symbolic gesture posits emptiness as a place of potential, full and active, the opposite of a nihilistic manifestation, where things cease to be and lose meaning. It is a source of generation, a territory yet to be formed, with multiple possibilities and paths.

The theatrical presentation seeks to accentuate the symbolic character of the gesture of suspending the exhibition, to start a moment of reflection, the empty space brings forward the evaluation of a process, of verification of its state and quality, and, secondly, suspends some of the intense artistic activity that takes over the city during the Bienal.

III – Library: Conferences, Documents, Archive

On the third floor, in a climate controlled space, a library will be installed with a collection of catalogues of all the Biennales of the world today, besides an archive, generated by invited artists, an auditorium, an arena, a reading room, and access to the internet. In the same spirit as the public square on the ground floor, this section has the function of being the generating centre of systematic knowledge about the Bienal itself, the model of Biennales, what they represent, to think through the kind of future we could foresee for them. If the public square is the space for encounters, of epidermic energy, under the guidance of intuition and the senses, the assembly on the third floor is the territory of reason, the time and space for recording experience, for collecting and systematizing knowledge, and to engender formalized thought. This segment will be articulated by the Wanda Svevo Historical Archive, the one and only valuable legacy of the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, its memory. It is the archive which tells the story of the significant work done by FBSP in the formation of the Brazilian artistic scene, since the inauguration of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo in 1949.

If this Bienal proposes a moment of reflection about the role of the institution and its project for contemporary art, taking into account new realities locally and internationally, it needs a historical revision of the Bienal de São Paulo, the role and place of the Bienal among Brazilian art institutions, as well as a fundamental discussion about the multiplying global model in which it operates. The library will contain documents, books, and statements (by artists, critics, intellectuals and former curators) selected and organized in collaboration with invited artists, and presented to the public as an entry point to the history of Bienal de São Paulo, as well as other Biennales, and the economies and cultures they represent. It will be a space for research and reflection, open to the public, providing supplementary knowledge towards understanding the institution and the cultural model which it represents.

As with the other components of the show, the furniture and equipment for the library complex will be developed by invited artists, designers and architects. We are also working with artists who operate within the framework of institutional critique and who will make use of documentation, representation, language and reading, history and fiction from the existing material in the archive of the FBSP. This may produce other readings of the material, through the production of works and interventions that will be later incorporated into the Wanda Svevo Archive.

The series of conferences will be organized around four primary points of entry: 1) The Bienal de São Paulo and the Brazilian art scene; 2) Official and private financial agents, i.e. governmental agencies, NGOs, public and private foundations, organizations which are fundamental within the structure and strategies of biennales; 3) The model and system of Biennales, gathering as many former and current directors and curators of these organizations as possible; 4) A conference or panel, with a more theoretical and philosophical approach, reflecting on the concepts and parameters entailed by the curatorial project of the 28BSP. The proceedings of the conference will be recorded in specific publications aimed at producing a current document about the Biennale system, its economies, achievements and potential in the 21st century.

IV – Publications, Website

Considering the model proposed for the 28thBSP, publications are a major component. It should be clear from the beginning however, that they can only be produced after the whole program has finished, when the activities in the Square and in the Library ends. For the opening we will have a guide to the exhibition, detailing the program of the conferences and activities in the square, as well as artistic and curatorial statements.

It is also clear that within this working proposal the website of the 28th Bienal de São Paulo will be of fundamental importance in creating a space for the diffusion of the event locally and internationally, as well as a means within which a broader audience can follow the process of reflection and production, a tool for contributing, accessing and exchanging ideas with people around the world, who share an interest in the debate.


One of the major challenges of the 28BSP is its educational program. Considering that the theme of the conference is the Bienal itself and that what is to be presented on the 2nd floor is an empty space between two fields of intense energy (the public square – intuition and the senses; the library – systematic reason), this may allow the development of a series of activities around the experience of emptiness as a territory for creativity. In other words, the empty territory is the place where intuition and reason find fertile soil for the growth of the inventive potential of art. Another important path is the recuperation of the public memory of past editions of the Bienal de São Paulo. A series of activities will be developed which will record the contribution these shows have made in the formation of the Brazilian artistic scene and Brazilian art history.

Ivo Mesquita, Chief curator
Ana Paula Cohen, Guest Curator

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