With the Eyes Deep in the Mud

– The biennial format allows us to face globalisation head on, says Lars Bang Larsen, who is co-curator of the recently opened São Paulo biennial.

Rikke Luther, Overspill: Universal Map, 2016. Drawings printed on tiles, original tiles for the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, toxic mud from Mariana, slime mold with biotope, and found, borrowed, and modelled objects. Commissioned by the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo for the 32nd Bienal  2016. Photo: Tiago Baccarin / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.
Rikke Luther, Overspill: Universal Map, 2016. Commissioned for the 32nd Sao Paulo Biennial 2016. Photo: Tiago Baccarin.

Less than a week ago, the mega-city of São Paulo in Brazil flung open the doors of Oscar Niemeyer’s biennial pavilion, welcoming visitors to the 32nd incarnation of the São Paulo biennial – the world’s second-oldest after the Venice biennial.

This happened after a summer where TV spectators around the world have feasted their eyes on gymnast Simone Biles in a sequinned leotard, tautly athletic bodies making synchronised dives from ten-metre platforms, and beautiful aerial views of Rio as the city hosted the world’s leading global sports circus: the Olympic Games.

It also takes place in a country that is on its knees, politically speaking. The former president of Brazil, left-wing politician Dilma Rousseff, has just been removed from office after being convicted of having manipulated public budgets in an attempt at hiding the true size of the country’s growing budget deficit. Inflation lurks just around the corner, and unemployment statistics are looking grim. 

This means that in Brazil – as in much of the world – uncertainties are quite real and tangible. This is true in economic terms, in political terms, and also when the Zika virus suddenly spreads, making the country something of a microbiological bomb according to the media.

The Danish art historian and curator Lars Bang Larsen is co-curator of this year’s biennial, which is headed by Jochen Volz (Germany). Lars Bang Larsen joined an international team consisting of Gabi Ngcobo (South Africa), Júlia Rebouças (Brazil) and Sofía Olascoaga (Mexico) – and with the title Incerteza Viva (“Live Uncertainty”) it appears that the curators embed themselves firmly in the current climate, engaging with one of the most poignant aspects of the human condition today – what we might call the state of precariousness.

Kunstkritikk has asked Lars Bang Larsen a few questions about this year’s biennial and about the current state of the biennial format.

Lars Bang Larsen, curator of the 32. Bienal de São Paulo. © Sofia Colucci / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.
Lars Bang Larsen, co-curator of the 32. Bienal de São Paulo. © Sofia Colucci / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

The 32nd São Paulo biennial has the title Incerteza Viva. There is a strong tradition for considering art in a close connection to nature within this biennial’s settings, and perhaps specifically in a Brazilian context, whit concepts such as animism? What type of uncertainty can be traced and followed at this biennial, and how does it unfold the relationship between life, nature and art?     

We consider incerteza – uncertainty, lack of knowledge – as a possibility for art. In terms of themes, we have worked along four different lines: education, ecology, narratives, cosmology. These are concepts that can be used as the starting point of reflection and speculation, and they have aesthetic dimensions. At the same time they point towards objects of governance and hubs of social struggle and cultural tension. One example would be the issue of natural resources and how they are divided or exploited and commodified – food, water, energy, raw materials.

Among other things the exhibition addresses the concept of nature by considering the idea of a plurality of ecologies – natural ecologies, but also mental and social ones and so on (in the vein of Guattari’s “three ecologies”). If you in this way multiply ecologies, we can speak about how life appears in various assemblages. You can think your way through a range of different levels of being and maybe find ways of “scaling up what we can learn and know and feel”, to paraphrase the Chilean environmental activist Barbara Saavedra.

Obras de Cristiano Lenhardt. 32nd São Paulo Biennial, 2016. Photo: Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.
Cristiano Lenhardt, Betray the Species, 32nd São Paulo Biennial, 2016. Photo: Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

One of the things the exhibition sets out to do is to separate uncertainty from fear. The reason to talk about this right now is the fact that the collapse of the modern order has become palpable – in terms of the relation between human being and nature, of the ideas of what constitutes the human being and its presumed autonomy, or how democracy works in the 21st century.

The ambiguities of uncertainty can be summed up by the concept of precariousness: the fact that we live precarious lives, are vulnerable to the influence of others, that we cannot plan ahead, that we are transformed by unpredictable encounters, or that our survival isn’t a given. In her 2015 book, The Mushroom at the End of the World, anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes compellingly about the possibility of life in the capitalist ruin of Earth. Tsing’s narrative is neither alarmist nor concerned with loss. Instability and disruption is scary, but at the same time she points to how indeterminacy makes living possible: you notice things, you work with what you’ve got. She even says that “Precarious living is always an adventure.”

Cosmology may be the least transparent concept among our four sub-themes. Artists play with entire worlds, and according to artist Matt Mullican, cosmology is all that which exists around life. It is a concept that may sound anachronistic or remote, but it is interesting because it allows us to bring together ideas that Western thinking usually separates: religion and science both have narratives for how worlds begin and end, and these narratives encompass the natural and the cultural alike as well as the human and the non-human. At the same time the concept of cosmology doesn’t distinguish between them and us. That is, it does not exclude forms of knowledge that usually fall under the auspices of anthropology, such as the cosmovisions of indigenous peoples. To me, the concept of cosmology is very much about knowledge and about the limits of our certainty. From a Western perspective humanity is the knowing subject, and humankind disappears in cosmos. One might say that today one can no longer make certain distinctions between anthropological order and cosmological order.

Alicia Barney, Valle de Alicia, 2016. Installation composed of metal, wood, paper, PVC, acrylic emulsion. Yamile Velosa / Maria Belén Saes de Ibarra / Departamento Cultural Universidad Nacional de Colombia Collection. Commissioned by the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo for the 32nd Bienal, 2016.
Alicia Barney, Valle de Alicia, 2016. Installation composed of metal, wood, paper, PVC, acrylic emulsion. Yamile Velosa / Maria Belén Saes de Ibarra / Departamento Cultural Universidad Nacional de Colombia Collection. Commissioned by the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo for the 32nd Bienal, 2016.

The surprisingly programmatic, poetic and supportive statement made by the Brazilian minister for culture, Marcelo Caleros, in the preface of the biennial’s short guide makes a relatively clear distinction between digital interfaces and the physical world. For example, he says: “It is urgent to reflect on intolerance and discourses of hate. The dynamics of ’likes,’ ’emojis’ and ’selfies’ have a direct impact on one’s relationships with others and his or her own way of reading the world. At this time of extreme connectivity, we look to the analogue world of printed books, notebooks, painted canvases and other physical media for a sense of security and encouragement.” How does physical materiality offer “security and encouragement?” Do you agree with these observations?

After his takeover of power last week, the new president of Brazil, Michel Temer, said that this marked “an end to uncertainty”. By contrast, we wish to move away from the status quo and reaffirm uncertainly as a condition of specific historic relevance.

Charlotte Johannesson,  Drop Dead, c.1977. Tapestry. 190 × 100 cm. Malmö Konstmuseum/Malmö Art Museum Collection. Photo: Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.
Charlotte Johannesson, Drop Dead, 1977. Tapestry, 190 × 100 cm. Malmö Konstmuseum Collection. Photo: Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

Concerning physical materiality the exhibition has several contributions that are quite literally down to earth, such as Cristiano Lenhardt’s potato men, traditional architectures courtesy of Bené Fonteles and Pia Lindman, and fat wedges of stamped earth in Dineo Seshee Bopape’s work, which includes casts of a uterus. Clay and bamboo and tapestries. There’s something special about the elementary and the elemental.

On the other hand I don’t want to dismiss complexity in favour of security and physical presence, or of the analogue over the digital. The exhibition includes less certain contributions, such as Pierre Huyghe’s photograph of a dead man in the Atacama desert, Henrik Olesen’s installation about hell, Hito Steyerl’s Hell Yeah We Fuck Die, and Charlotte Johannesson’s cyber-feminist textile punk from the 1970s and 1980s.

To pick up where we left off earlier, cosmology has a science fiction aspect, too: is there a future at all, or are we facing “No Future”? How do we handle our own lack of knowledge? How can we envision new communities or a new body based on an awareness of the Other? I believe you will also find such explorations of technologies and cultural manuscripts in the exhibition.

This biennial features a lot of new commissions – what projects have you been particularly involved in?

Approximately half of the 81 artists and collaborations featured at the biennial have produced new works. The curatorial work has been carried out in collaboration, but I have been particularly closely involved in some of the new commissions: Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas’s Psychotropic House, a mycelium playground where visitors can create bio-technological artefacts; Rikke Luther’s Overspill. Universal Map, a large-scale diorama that maps out the global commons; the writer’s collective Till Mycha’s Afro-futuristic phasing out of Homer’s Odyssey; Kathy Barry’s choreographic and painted charting of more-than-human energies; Xabier Salaberria’s barricade that accumulates signs and materials from the history of the biennial and the biennial pavilion; Pia Lindman’s Nose Ears Eyes, a healing project for buildings and bodies; and also Henrik Olesen’s suite on inferno and confusion.

I have also worked on the presentation of Product Recall, Maryam Jafri’s installation from 2014, in which she has appropriated forgotten and unsellable fiasco products from the US food industry, and with historic presentations of the filmmaker and graphic artist Jordan Belson (1926–2011), Charlotte Johannesson’s punk tapestries and computer graphics from the 1970s and 1980s, and a series of works by Öyvind Fahlström (1928–1976), focusing on his concretism and his dialogue with South America.

Maryam Jafri, An Index of Innovation, 2014 - 2015. Framed photos, texts, plinths and objects. Photo: Phillip Hänger.
Maryam Jafri, Product Recall. An Index of Innovation, 2014-2015. Framed photos, texts, plinths and objects. Photo: Phillip Hänger.

How long have you stayed in Brazil, and what is it like? How do you see Brazil as a country?

In 1968 Fahlström answered a questionnaire from MoMA. When asked what aspects of his background he believed were relevant to understanding his art, he replied: “First ten years spent in Brazil.” I haven’t spent my childhood here – I’ll be here for a year, all told – but I understand why Fahlström made that response. Brazil makes an impression on you. It is a very real place.

Finally a more general question: is the biennial format still relevant today in an age when Art Basel and similar super-commercial trade fairs take on a biennial-like scope and weight? Or is swimming the muddy waters of biennials just as complicated, politically and financially? One of the sponsors of the São Paulo Biennial is Bloomberg Philantropies, the charity started by the eighth wealthiest person in the world. What is your take on the condition – or health, if you like – of the biennial format right now?

I think it’s right to compare the biennial and the art fair precisely because they are different entities, and because a shift in their roles has occurred. Since the 1990s the biennials have held an almost emblematic status for conveying the very idea of contemporary art and for the places where art took place. Now it appears as if the art fairs have taken over the function as vessels for contemporary art’s symbolic power and its redistribution. For example, Copenhagen seems very eager to get the art fair format working.

When such a shift occurs, this also changes how we view art. In its current form, the biennial is an exhibition format born out of globalisation: the biennial gives us opportunities for facing globalisation head on: this at least allows you to navigate the mud. But like other cultural institutions, biennials are under pressure these days, politically and financially. We’ll see what the audience makes of Incerteza Viva as an exhibition and as a statement at this crucial juncture for Brazil. It will also be interesting to see how Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset will activate the Istanbul biennial next year.

Pierre Huyghe, A Forest of Lines, 2006. Film and event,  7:32. Photo: Paul Green.
Pierre Huyghe, A Forest of Lines, 2006. Film and event, 7:32. Photo: Paul Green.