9th Bienal do Mercosul

Various venues, Porto Alegre, 13 September – 10 November

By Claire Rigby

Takis, Télépeinture 1, 1972, acrylic on canvas, metal elements and magnets. Photo: Camila Cunha/Indicefoto. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Xippas, Paris & Geneva

Occupying four of Porto Alegre’s grandest exhibition spaces, the 9th Bienal do Mercosul is a festival of unforgettable artworks, brought together in a process of nuanced, multilayered curating that keeps the experience lingering and multiplying long after your visit to the southern Brazilian city has become just a memory.

It contains grand gestures, like Cinthia Marcelle’s vivid carpet of rust, laid thickly on the marble floor at Memorial do Rio Grande do Sul, which within days of its installation had received hundreds of unexpected interventions from nocturnal insects crisscrossing the fine powder, creating a topography of miniscule journeys. There are memorable collective experiences, including, on the opening weekend, a set of sunlit performances on the Astroturfed roof of the old gasworks building overlooking the estuary. In one of them, Signal Jammed Geographies (2013), the Lebanese artist Tarek Atoui mixed a radio signal from the nearby Ilha do Presídio island into a jarring techno soundscape, appearing to conjure the dissonant noises with his hands as he twitched and writhed over the mixing desk. And in among the 100 artworks, there is a multitude of opportunities for private contemplation: in Peruvian-born artist David Zink Yi’s giant squid, a hyperreal ceramic sculpture, oozing black ink onto the floor inside the Santander Cultural exhibition space; and in the inexplicably touching progress of a string of copper-coated iron beads, set rotating bumpily over a tray of sand in David Medalla’s Sand Machine (1964/2013). The recommissioned artwork was one of numerous historic pieces brought to Porto Alegre by the curator, Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, alongside dozens of new works, many commissioned specifically for the Bienal.

Another of the historic artworks was Robert Rauschenberg’s Mud Muse (1969­–71) – a bubbling, pustulous tank-cum-sound-sculpture of liquid mud created as part of the US artist’s participation in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art and Technology (A&T) programme, in which Rauschenberg worked alongside engineers from the Teledyne Corporation. The piece’s appearance in the Bienal is emblematic of a whole series of artworks created as a result of related methodologies, reflecting Hernández’s interest in projects like A&T and the UK’s Artist Placement Group (APG). An installation by George Levantis, Pieces of Sea Fall Through the Stars (1976/2013), recommissioned and shown inside the gasworks building at the Bienal, was the fruit of a 1974–5 APG placement in which Levantis made three long voyages aboard cargo ships in the capacity of ‘Incidental Person’ – a member of the ship’s crew given the job, as the curator’s essay describes it, of simply ‘being around’. Levantis later wrote about the experience in a book with the same name as the installation.

Under the heading ‘Imagination Machines’, the Bienal organised half a dozen modern-day artist placements, one of which gave rise to Marcelle’s striking installation, made following spells at the Gerdau mining and steelworks plants in her native state of Minas Gerais, where the soil, charged with iron ore, is as red as the rust in Marcelle’s artwork. In another industrial collaboration, the British artist Lucy Skaer worked with a Brazilian factory, Irani, which among other things produces blocks of natural resin for use in the manufacture of cosmetics, chewing gum and other products. Sculpting facets into the heavy slabs, Skaer turned them into beautiful, glowing amber gems just for a while, until their next phase: release back into the Fordist production chain to be sold on as usual. ‘The contemporary corporatization of culture’, writes Hernández in the catalogue notes, describing the process of negotiating and arranging the artist placements, ‘hung over our discussions like a phantom’.

In another intervention in the chain of production, Aleksandra Mir created a large-scale installation on Porto Alegre’s riverbank, half a mile from the gasworks building. A press release was issued claiming that the metal mass, crumpled in a crater of piled-up earth, was a fallen satellite, included in the Bienal as a kind of found artwork. It is only at close quarters that the sculpture created by the London-based artist is revealed to be a collection of immense, rusted machine parts, which have been seconded from a local scrap recycling company before, like Skaer’s resin slabs, continuing on their way to pulverisation and rebirth in new forms.

Mir’s satellite motif ties in with a series of themes orbiting the Bienal, including those derived from its title, Weather Permitting, which extends to ideas around climate and ‘atmospheric disturbances’. Conceptually, the Bienal ‘focuses on the interaction between nature and culture’, writes Hernández in her curatorial statement, ‘Promises’, ‘and the ways in which visual artists address unknown, unpredictable and seemingly uncontrollable phenomena’.

A second satellite, this time an exquisitely fine, complex and precise wire sculpture by Allora & Calzadilla, haunts the upstairs exhibition space at the MARGS museum, waiting, so it is claimed, for the International Space Station (ISS) to come into range and receive a ham radio transmission from the sculpture. But despite the ISS being in range at 90-minute intervals, the communication never takes place. Similarly, a pigeon was to have been sent from Alexandria to Cairo, recording the sounds of its flight en route as part of Malak Helmy’s artwork Music for Drifting (2013), which also contains tracks recorded in various parts of Egypt’s western desert. The pigeon’s journey was scuppered by July’s overthrow of President Morsi, making the flight, and that particular track, impossible. In other artworks, messages are dispatched with little weight of expectation attached to their being received: a telepathic message was sent from Buenos Aires by the artist Eduardo Navarro, to an auditorium of people at a preliminary Bienal event in Porto Alegre in May; and a message in a bottle – a long letter, beginning, ‘Hola amor…’– was placed into the water at the nearby island Ilha do Presídio by the artist Fernanda Laguna.

Backed up by a set of rewarding texts, including a collection of strange and wonderful essays, The Cloud, available on the Bienal website, and by a high-quality series of educational materials (the Bienal receives visits from hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren from the state of Rio Grande do Sul), the exhibition was suffused with the sense of messages being tapped out: of communications being emitted and important ideas transmitted; and sometimes, if not every time, received.

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue.