Following the removal of former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff from office and her replacement with new president Michel Temer, uncertainty in Brazil abounds. It drives both art and politics, and so the collision of the two at the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo (the theme of which this year was ‘Incerteza Viva’, or ‘Live Uncertainty’) was inevitable.
Protestors, including Brazilian biennial artists Jonathas de Andrade and Bárbara Wagner, shouted ‘Fora Temer’ (or ‘Out with Temer’) over the press conference opening remarks last week. Their chanting, however, seemed less an interruption of the biennial than an integral part of it; black ‘Fora Temer’ t-shirts could be seen throughout the biennial as protestors peacefully remained to explore the show.
Although Rousseff was dismissed on the eve of the opening, the roiling political tumult that had been building in Brazil reverberates throughout the works, which, across 81 participating artists or collectives, explore a gamut of themes: the urban fabric of São Paulo; the tenuous existence of indigenous culture in the present day; queer theories and identity politics; colonisation and other histories. The art itself took on a vast array of different forms, many of which were embedded into the city itself. Berlin-based Rosa Barba produced a 16-mm art documentary on the Minhocão, a 1970s-era elevated highway that citizens reclaim as their own High Line when it closes to traffic on Sundays.
‘My work represents the gesture of taking a controversial structure like the Minhocão built in difficult political times, and giving it back to the citizens, as an escape, a way out of the highway, with other stories, as an inhabitable surface,’ says Barba. ‘This is maybe how it plays with "uncertainty", as a fixed structure can be made unstable through narratives in order to speculate with its potential and social body.'
Other artists took their works beyond the boundaries of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed exhibition space, like Koo Jeong A, who built a glowing skatepark, open and free to the public; or William Pope.L, who choreographed a 72-hour performance that took place on the streets.
The result of this uncertain state is a show of extraordinary potency. ‘In general many of the works gained an additional urgency,' says Bienal curator Jochen Volz. ‘It’s not really only about parliamentary power struggle; that’s just the surface. The questions really at play are access to land, access to natural resources, access to education, to social welfare, healthcare, all of which the artists address. All of these are really the real questions, the matters of uncertainty.’