The 31st Biennial de São Paulo opens this month in Ibirapuera Park, where the event has been held since its fourth edition in 1957. It is organized by the Fundação Biennial de São Paulo, which took over responsibility from the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art in 1962 and has run it ever since.
São Paulo was, of course, only the second biennial to be established, in 1951—56 years after Venice, on which it was explicitly modelled. The event was championed by European-oriented industrialists such as Assis Chateaubriand and the Italian immigrant Ciccillo Matarazzo, after whom the unforgiving, 30,000 sq. m., Niemeyer-designed pavilion in the park is named. It was effectively the first large-scale exhibition of Modern art outside Europe and North America, with 1,800 works from 23 countries.
The biennial has had a volatile history since then, with two bankruptcies and a long chapter of isolation and partial boycott between 1965 and 1973, during the military dictatorship. It really only got back its mojo and its international standing with its 16th edition in 1981, when the pioneering and highly regarded Brazilian critic and curator Walter Zanini corralled Brazilian and international contemporary artists into a critically acclaimed thematic exhibition around visual analogies for language.
Hopes for this year are high: the biennial has been organized by an international team led by Charles Esche, the director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and a veteran of biennials in Gwangju (2002), Istanbul (2005), Riwaq, Palestine (2007 and 2009) and Ljubljana (2010). That is an intimidating list of credits. This year’s event has an overall budget of around $11m, supported by the extraordinarily generous tax regime that Brazil has for corporate sponsorship, although the budget for art is obviously significantly less, as Esche has noted.
Esche and his team (Galit Eilat, Pablo Lafuente, Nuria Enguita Mayo and Oren Sagiv) have given a series of interviews that offer fascinating and occasionally prurient insights into the process of grappling with the biennial beast in general and the Bienal beast in particular—the recruitment process, the unforgiving character of the space and their ambitions to broaden the social base of the artists who participate and the visitors who attend (visit YouTube, or scroll to the bottom of this article, for a talk organized with the Israeli Center for Digital Art). The reflections and commentaries of Esche and his team make compelling YouTube viewing.
The growth trajectory of the biennial is, of course, similar to that of the contemporary art museum and the commercial art fair, and accompanied by similar commentaries about their links to globalization, to imminent saturation of the market and to “instrumental” motives that are only tangentially related to cultural production but umbilically related to tourism, economic development and urban regeneration.
The format of large-scale temporary exhibitions of contemporary work, often ephemeral or site-specific and drawn from and aimed at an international audience, has become an integral part of the art world. Some, like Havana and Istanbul’s initiatives in the 1990s, have been highly idealistic in their informing motives, seeking to create an artistic center of gravity outside the pull of the West.
Like the 250-odd biennials around the world that have followed São Paulo in the 63 years since it was founded, the motives for the creation of the Brazilian event were as much about cultural diplomacy and economic development as they were about the visual arts. As the founding committee put it: “We have to put Modern Brazilian art in active contact with the rest of the world, and try to establish the city of São Paulo as an international art center.”
Today, Esche is promoting a less instrumental agenda. “I don’t think we need to once again announce that we’re going to reinvent the idea of the Bienal. We need to make a really good Biennial. We need to make an event, an exhibition, an experience that touches people,” he told Time Out magazine in São Paulo.
The challenge of developing and executing a coherent artistic agenda—a show that succeeds on its own terms—in the rickety, transitory, financially and organizationally opaque world of biennials is the default theme of the hardy breed of curators whose line of work this is. Many try it and are driven away by frustration with the primacy of spectacle and Vernissage, and by the sheer intractability of getting things done, even when the event is well established and ostensibly well-funded.
Esche and his veteran team, in contrast, give the impression that the challenge of navigating these straits is a large part of what stimulates their creativity; that the task of developing a concept and then grappling with a client who has only partially overlapping goals is what motivates them. “I need to question traditions and ways of working – the way the building works, the way the commissioning system works – and see whether it needs to be done differently,” Esche told Time Out.