The Biennial Questionnaire: Charles Esche on the 31st São Paulo Bienal

6 September through 7 December 2014

By Oliver Basciano

Charles Esche. Photo: Sofia Colucci

ArtReviewYou are director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, a former cocurator of the Istanbul and Gwangju biennials and now part of only the second curatorial team from outside Latin America to curate the São Paulo Bienal. How much did you know about Brazilian art beforehand?

Charles Esche I had a superficial knowledge. I knew the history of Concretism and Neo-concretism. I think, though, that the Bienal Foundation’s idea was to question what someone from the outside could bring to the conversation. So we haven’t been travelling around the world looking at artists. Instead we brought our preexisting international knowledge to the exhibition, and then focused our research on what is going on here in Brazil. And that’s not just what’s going on in an artistic sense, but also in cultural, sociopolitical, economic senses too.

ARHow much responsibility do you think a biennial should have to its local setting?

CE I don’t even know if it’s a responsibility but more an inevitability that the local setting will affect one’s direction. I don’t think there should be a responsibility to represent anything. Certainly not to represent the locals or to feel like you’re on a diplomatic mission to show how strong the Brazilian culture is. I don’t think that at all, but I think a show becomes clearly shaped by the context. The context is architectural, is historical – São Paulo is the second oldest biennial, going back to 1951. It has a particular history, which we can talk about, that shapes everything that we’re doing. It’s institutional, so there are existing schemes, great schemes in education and production, which allow us to work a certain way. There’s a sociopolitical context too, which is this moment in Brazil, with the World Cup, with the elections, with everything that’s going to happen in the next few months. All of that matters, I mean it’s determining. In a sense, you have a given condition, and you’re reshaping, prodding that a little bit. There’s no blank canvas, or white space, or whatever we call it. It’s written all over or printed all over. Then you come and you add your little bit.

ARYou navigate through the gaps.

CE Exactly, yes, and try and push things in certain directions or see where the resistances are. You’re working within a given landscape, and that’s a given architectural landscape, it’s a given Brazilian landscape, it’s a given South American landscape, it’s a given global landscape.

ARWhat were your initial thoughts on the biennial’s direction?

CE We wanted to make it contemporary. If you look at some of the recent São Paulo Bienals, they’re a little more museological, looking at a certain history or trying to develop a trajec-tory. They have concentrated on art historical narratives. Instead we wanted to take the temperature of the moment. We didn’t feel we had to revisit Brazil’s modernist history or revisit the moves of Hélio Oiticica or Lygia Clark and people like that. That was a very early, important decision.

'a show becomes clearly shaped by the context. The context is architectural, is historical – São Paulo is the second oldest biennial, going back to 1951. It has a particular history, which we can talk about, that shapes everything that we’re doing'

ARWhy the avoidance of Modernism?

CE I’m not sure it’s so relevant to São Paulo any more. This is very much a contemporary city. The growth of it, the way that the informal communities developed is not really according to modernist structural thinking. Of course, there’s a modernist legacy, but there’s also a colonial legacy, and many other historical layers, of which Modernism is just one. Maybe it’s the one that’s blocked us from seeing the others or having a more nuanced understanding of history. Modernism doesn’t want to deal with religion, for instance. More generally I think we can say that the modern world is in the past. It’s fulfilled. Our direction has also been made possible of course only by what people have done in the past with the Bienal. The fact that the Bienal dates back to 1951 allows us to do things that would be unimaginable if you were curating the Curitiba Biennial, or the Biennale sul Lago Maggiore, which have less of a history.

You don’t have to start at the beginning; you can assume some kind of legacy. Previous curators have done the groundwork for us, in a way, and we’re really grateful for that. The last Bienal focused very much on the position of the artists, which means we don’t have to. If that hadn’t happened, then maybe we would have had to deal with the question of who is an artist and what is their position in society. You are standing on the shoulders of giants, in some sense. We’re adding a little bit to a process that has predated my birth and will hopefully succeed my death.

ARYou staged a series of open meetings around the country – in areas that have artists who are not perhaps represented within the commercial gallery system that drives São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. What were you looking for from these artists?

CE We had certain questions. For instance, one of the questions we started off with was, ‘What is the Brazilian national narrative?’ That’s what I was interested in, to think about what it means to be Brazilian at the moment. It’s a question shaped by 20 years of apparently social-democratic rule, apparently leftwing governments. It asks about the change to the country since the military dictatorship and the oppression that was going on up until the 1980s.

That question, however, would become less and less urgent as others would emerge, questions about the rights to a city, how the people negotiate themselves within the city. ‘What is the relationship between transport and rights? What is the relationship between identity and the city? How do artists negotiate those social and political questions? Which artists are thinking about this? What artists are thinking about some of the peripheral communities? What artists are thinking about the history of immigration?’ Whether it’s the Arab immigration here and how that’s been represented. Whether it’s the Portuguese colonial history. Whether it’s the African immigration through the ports, immigration through slavery. Our questions have changed and they’ve often been led by artists’ projects, or people who are working on the borderlands of art, performance or art becoming activism.

ARThough important, these seem quite specifically Brazilian concerns, though – how do the non-Brazilian artists fit into them?

CE The people we invited came from a particular history of work. Yochai Avrahami, who’s from Israel, has an interest in national narratives, so that fitted with our original question, so it made sense to bring him over for an extended period, to spend a couple of months in Brazil, to travel, to look at some of the museums and representations of the police, of the mining industry. We also tried to organise alliances between Brazilian artists and artists from elsewhere. Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal from Decolonising Architecture, for example, have been working with a group called Grupo Contrafilé. Together they’re developing a project at a quilombo in the state of Pernambuco, in the northeast. Originally quilombos were where the freed or escaped slaves set up their own communities. These historic settlements obviously have a relationship with some of the work that Decolonising Architecture has done with the Palestinian camps. They’re all going up there over the summer, and the results of that visit will be presented at the Bienal.

ARThis perhaps more engaged participation within the country – these ‘alliances’, as you refer to them, the open meetings – seem a reaction against the biennial as a format. The biennial as a site of spectacle: the size of these types of exhibitions, their internationalism and the temporariness of their curatorial structures. In the context of Brazil, dealing with the political and social fallout of other types of capitalist spectacle – the World Cup of course and the Olympics around the corner in 2016 – this seems particularly pertinent.

CE Exactly, and I think that’s a really interesting thing. But we don’t want to remake the biennial format. I have no interest in doing that. The Bienal is an event, it’s a big event, and although there are plenty of things going on behind the scenes, we have nonetheless really tried to make an exhibition here. I don’t think you should do anything else; you should fulfil people’s expectations that they can just walk around and they can see some amazing things. Then you try and perhaps give it some nuance, add to it. The biennial is a fixed structure that we just shift a tiny little bit. The curator’s agency is very small, but the job is to try and make use of that small space of agency as much as you can. 

The 31st São Paulo Bienal is on view from 6 September through 7 December 2014. This article was first published in the September issue of ArtReview and the Autumn & Winter 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia