Missive from São Paulo

Introspection and thoughts on the south at the city's museums

By Oliver Basciano

Akram Zaatari, The End of Time, 2012, film. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg & Beirut Akram Zaatari, The End of Time, 2012, film. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg & Beirut William Kentridge, History of the Main Complaint, 1996, 35mm film, 5 min 50 sec. Courtesy the artist César Baldaccini, Expansão Controlada, 1967. Courtesy USP-MAC, São Paulo SPBR Arquitetos, proposal for Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, 2013. Courtesy the architect

When you visit SESC Pompéia, you are as likely to find adult literacy classes or netball matches as you are the 18th edition of Videobrasil, the reason for my visit to the Lina Bo Bardi-designed culture and sports complex. SESC, a private, not-for-profit foundation with 30 centres across Brazil, is financed through a national payroll tax and hosts myriad activities from public sports and health initiatives to art. Through February at SESC Pompéia the art component is dominated by film and video.

There are a hundred works in the festival – both installed in the SESC Pompéia exhibition and screening across town at the organisation’s cinema on Rua Augusta – which have been sifted from an international open invitation. A guiding focus was to favour artists from the Global South. Consequently there is strong presence of work made in Mali, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and a few more northerly countries – Lebanon, Israel and Lithuania included – a relief from most international survey shows, which frequently offer only a token representation of diverse global art scenes. One highlight in the exhibition was Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari’s The End of Time (2012), a stilted, silent romantic drama between two men as they undress. At the cinema, Chilean Enrique Ramirez’s sensual, opaque film Brisas (2008), which saw the suited artist, soaking wet, walk through the streets of Santiago to the country’s government seat, La Moneda, was oddly, manipulatively, affecting.

Another artist from the Southern hemisphere, albeit one who is super-established, is centre stage at Pinacoteca, downtown. I had thought that it didn’t really need to see a William Kentridge retrospective, his hand-drawn stop-frame animations seemingly ubiquitous. Never take things for granted: the show is a tour de force, featuring dozens of films shown successively in numerous screening rooms, interspersed with original drawings from the South African artist’s politically and emotionally charged moving-image works, dioramas, kaleidoscopes and kinetic sculptural assemblages. Wooden Kinetic Megaphone and Steel Rotating Megaphone (both 2013), for example, visually reference motifs from the films, including megaphones and bicycle wheels. A practice that is concerned with growing older, of history and conflation of the personal and public, comes to the fore, both beautifully and dramatically.

At the Ciccillo Matarazzo pavilion in Ibirapuera Park, history of another sort is being surveyed. 30 x Bienal presents an institutional retrospective of the Bienal de São Paulo, situated in the festival’s Oscar Niemeyer-designed home, through key works from past exhibitions. In terms of the installation, it’s a slightly scrappy affair – I'm not sure the exhibition lays out or analyses the story of what is one of the oldest art biennials in the world (established in 1951 and second only to Venice) – but no matter, it’s still a total pleasure to be confronted with so much canonical art. Stuff I have has read about in books and had contextualised in terms of the emergence of Brazil’s avant-garde – such as Cildo Meireles’s Espelho Cego (1970), a framed ‘blind mirror’ of putty (that can be read as a dig at the country’s then dictatorship, which outlawed all political and social reflection) or César Baldaccini’s hulking, grossly fun 1967 sculpture Expansão Controlada – are laid out, up close and personal.

There is more institutional self-reflection next door, at the Museu de Arte Moderna, which hosts the 32nd Panorama da Arte Brasileira. An annual exhibition since 1969, its remit is to survey production by younger artists in Brazil, accessioning pieces into the museum’s collection. With 5,400 artworks collected and only finite space in Niemeyer’s corridorlike ‘temporary’ building that the museum is based in, the curator this year, Lisette Lagnado, instead called for new architectural propositions for the institution – such as practice SPBR’s proposal for a highline structure suspended over Ibirapuera Park, offering more space and views of São Paulo’s leafy enclave – together with a more radical general rethink on the very idea of museums and museum collections.

Recent Guggenheim appointee Pablo León de la Barra’s Novo Museu Tropical project is a case in point. León de la Barra’s vision of the art institution dispenses with buildings and collections, making the persuasive argument, through a slideshow presentation, that they merely implement traditional social, racial and gender hierarchies. Instead the work suggests the institution as a thing that can be transported and installed in accessible locations, demonstrated by an offsite installation by the curator at a bookshop in the local downtown neighbourhood.

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