Sao Paulo is Burning: The Spectre of Politics at the Biennial
“The 29th Sao Paulo Biennial is anchored in the idea that it is impossible to separate art and politics.” In view of the events of the past 48 hours, there are serious reasons to doubt the honesty of this statement.
The work that is shaping up to become the most interesting at the Sao Paulo Biennial has not been made by any artist, but by the institution itself, when it issued the order to cover some imposing panels with plain paper, to prevent visitors from seeing two large photographs: the friendly, attractive face of Dilma Rousseff opposite the sour expression of José Serra, her Social Democratic rival in Brazil’s presidential elections.
The Argentinean artist Roberto Jacoby’s work for the biennial consisted of socialising his space and allowing it to be managed by the Argentinean Brigade for Dilma, which openly proceeded to spread propaganda in favour of the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate as Lula’s successor, choosing to be part of an exceptional historic moment of unity, solidarity, redistribution and democracy that is opening up in Latin America.
According to the – not very convincing – justification that has been issued by the Sao Paulo Biennial Foundation, a report by the Electoral Attorney General’s office has decreed that the work qualifies as an “electoral offense” in that breaks the law that prohibits the “transmission of propaganda of any nature” in spaces that are run by public authorities. However, the Biennial itself had contacted the legal authorities in the first place to report the work that they had invited.
In a statement to the press, one of the curators of the Biennial, Agnaldo Farias, declared that “we can not contest the court ruling, because we even run the risk of going to jail. If we had known in advance that the work dealt with Dilma, we would have warned the artist, because we’d have known there would be problems.” The curators’ arguments that they had been “taken unawares” by the evolution of the work does not stand up to scrutiny, given that the censured photograph is included in the Biennial’s catalogue and web site.
The only possible response to this cowardly statement is a question: what does an established art curator think he is asking for when he invokes the word “politics”? Aside from this specific case, it is not unusual to see curatorial projects that use the link between “art and politics” to exhibit documentary cemeteries or portraits of faraway strange or poor people. Jacoby’s political artwork at this Biennial effectively opposes the disempowerment of political art that is currently exercised in the institutional mainstream.
So what happens when an artist is serious about the need to turn an artistic space into a public space, in order to generate political confrontation – rather than false consensus – in real time, and in the very belly of the art system? El alma nunca piensa sin imagen / The soul never thinks without images – which is the title of the work – does not just consist of electoral propaganda in favour of Dilma: the section of the exhibition allocated to Jacoby was also transformed into a machine for producing antagonism between different opinions, taking sides and forcing the art establishment to become involved in a discussion on the verifiable fact that, today, in a geopolitical space like Latin America, there is more experimentation, more creativity and – ultimately – more hope in the realm of politics – from institutions to social movements – than in the contemporary art system.
Jacoby is participating in the Biennial on two counts, given that he is also part of the collective of artists, sociologists and militants from several Argentinean cities who produced the historic exhibition Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is Burning) in 1968, a project that is mistakenly documented on the Biennial web site – and this is a serious and telling symptom – as a work by the Grupo de Arte de Vanguardia of the city of Rosario. Tucumán Arde was closed down at the labour union headquarters in Buenos Aires, due to pressure from the army during the dictatorship of General Onganía: its provocation consisted in overflowing the art system in order to embrace the social protest against the existing system. The other way round, El alma nunca piensa sin imagen seems to have been censured for having brought into the centre of the art system an activity in favour of a non-artistic process that takes place in the political institution. The Argentinean Brigade for Dilma exhibits it as something much more real – in that it is more imperfect and ultimately complex – than the immaculate halo that usually surrounds the word “politics” in curatorial texts.
Buenos Aires / Sao Paulo, September 23rd , 2010
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Members of the Argentinean Brigade for Dilma:
Adriana Minoliti, Alejandro Ros, Ana Longoni, Alina Perkins, Cecilia Sainz, Cecilia Szalkowicz, Daniel Joglar, Fernanda Laguna, Francisco Garamona, Florencia Hipolitti, Paula Bugni, Hernán Paganini, Javier Barilaro, José Fernández Vega, Julia Ramírez, Kiwi Sainz, Laura Escobar, Lidia Aufgang, Lucas Rubinich, Mariano Andrade, Mariela Scafati, Mariela Bond, María Granillo, Nacho Marciano, Roberto Jacoby, Santiago Villanueva, Syd Krochmalny, Tomás Espina, Víctor Florido, Victoria Colmegna.
Supporting this declaration (updated: 25/9/2010)
Marcelo Expósito (Barcelona/Buenos Aires), Gachi Hasper (Buenos Aires), Diana Aisenberg (Buenos Aires), Cecilia Sainz (Buenos Aires), Federico Geller (Buenos Aires), Helena Chávez (México), Fernanda Nogueira (Sao Paulo), Miguel López (Lima), Francisco Reyes Palma (México), Marina de Caro (Buenos Aires), Octaviano Moniz Barreto (Bahia), Damián Ríos, Inés Patricio (Rio de Janeiro), Hugo Salas, Guadalupe Maradei (Buenos Aires), Federico Brollo (Buenos Aires), Hugo Vidal (Buenos Aires), Leo Ramos (Resistencia), Ramiro Larraín (Buenos Aires), Inés Martino (Rosario), Compartiendo Capital (Rosario), David Gutiérrez Castañeda (México/Bogotá), Hernán Rodolfo Ulm (Argentina), Beba Eguía (Buenos Aires), Ricardo Piglia (Buenos Aires), Mariana Serbent (Mendoza), Laura García Hernàndez, Magdalena Jitrik (Buenos Aires), José Curia, Leandro Katz (Buenos Aires), Adrián Pérez (Buenos Aires), Eduardo Grüner (Buenos Aires), Carolina Senmartín (Còrdoba), Mariana Botey (México), Carlos Aranda (México), Daniel Duchowney (Argentina), Aldo Ambrozio (Brasil), Carlos Banzi (Argentina), José Luis Meirás (Buenos Aires), Gabriela Nouzeilles (Princeton), Lía Colombino (Asunción), Museo del Barro (Asunción), Taller Crìtica (Asunción), Fernando Davis (Buenos Aires), William López (Bogotá), José Ignacio Otero (Buenos Aires), Leonardo Retamoso Palma (Santa María), Emilio Tarazona (Lima), Ricardo Resende (Sao Paulo), María Cristina Pérez (Rosario), Gustavo López (Bahía Blanca), Marcelo Diaz (Argentina), José Luis Tuñón (Comodoro Rivadavia), Carlos Dias (Brasil), Claudia del Río (Argentina), Juan Manuel Burgos (Còrdoba), Marcos Ferreira de Paula (Sao Paulo), Amalia Gieschen (Argentina), Suely Rolnik (Sao Paulo), Cristina Ribas (Rio de Janeiro), André Mesquita (Sao Paulo).