São Paulo Biennial: Live Uncertainty

According to Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen (1995 Nobel Prize winner for his studies on the ozone shield) we are entering a new geological era: the Anthropocene Age, in which humans and their intense technical-scientific transformations replaced nature as the prevailing environmental force on Earth. Researchers have found several evidences to prove this: the planet temperature increase by 1ºC, due to our cars’ smoke and and our fires resulting in glaciers melting and sea level raise; the permanent modification of rivers courses of all the world’s watersheds owing to our 40,000 dams and the multiplication of the percentage of radioactive elements resulted from the explosions of more than two thousand atomic bomb tests, to name just a few.

If human activity is interfering so much on the planet, jeopardizing mankind’s own survival, it is worth questioning: could art play an active role in reversing these complex geological changes? How to transform passivity into activism and reintegrate artistic action into natural flows? These and other questions seem to be behind of most of the works and actions of this Biennial, which, in addition to praise the uncertainties, bets on the transforming power of art. Today’s choices define tomorrow so revisiting our habits and behaviours may be the beginning of this mutation point.

Conceptual, social, political, ecological and less visual than previous editions, the 32nd São Paulo Biennial Live Uncertainty was conceived from a collective process involving its curator Jochen Volz (Germany), the co-curators Gabi Ngcobo (South Africa), Júlia Rebouças (Brazil), Lars Bang Larsen (Denmark) and Sofía Olascoaga (Mexico) and a heterogeneous group including teachers, students, activists, indigenous leaders and scientists. This plurality of voices invites us to shelter and inhabit uncertainties as well as practice the deconditioning of our habits and thoughts by experiencing 340 works of 81 artists and collectives. Also the expository project, designed by Brazilian architect Alvaro Razuk, was designed as a large garden to highlight these issues: “closed projection rooms, high and medium walls and the juxtaposition and articulation of these elements in a more or less concentrated form design a possible and desirable landscape”, sums up the architect.

And, as a starting point for this deconditioning, the curatorship examines the ecological aspects of food. For this purpose, the Fundação Bienal’s cafeteria became the workspace of the artist Jorge Menna Barreto (b, 1970, Araçatuba, São Paulo, Brazil). Based on the fact that 90% of the deforestation of the Amazon Forest is due to livestock and agricultural activity, the work Restoration (2016), which operates as a restaurant that prioritizes food from vegetable and agroforestry origins, raises questions about the construction of our food habits – by rescuing previous stages of food’s life that comes to us – and proposes a slowing down of our voracity to adjust ourselves to the earth rhythms.

An example is the Landscape Pot, one of the dishes offered by Menna Barreto, in which the glass container shows the layers of food and reminds us that the landscape we eat changes the landscape of the planet. Applying a set of ecogastronomy guidelines and with the support of a team of cooks and agroforestry workers, the artist faced a number of challenges: from being overlooked by a large part of the public, to solve problems related to the complex operation involved from harvesting until its suitability for consumption to Fundação Bienal’s team resistance who questioned the fact that there was no milk on the menu.

Potatoes are the protagonists of the two works of Víctor Grippo (b, 1936, Junín, Argentina – 2002, Buenos Aires, Argentina). Analogía I (1970/1977) is composed of a table full of them connected to a handful of earth suggesting the idea of a cycle: the energy contained in the potatoes on the table returns to the earth and is renewed to become, again, energy and food. Naturalizar al hombre, humanizar a la Naturaleza (1977), an installation composed of 400 kg of potatoes, laboratory bottles, towel, paint, wood makes visible the energy and vitality contained in them.

Food was also approached from its industrial and advertising aspects. Maryam Jafri (b. 1972, Karachi, Pakistan) examines in Food Recall: An Index of Innovation, (2014-2015), foods that came to be considered innovative and then collected from the market due to a loss of their seduction for the consumer. These include the Pepsi Baby Milk Bottle (soda for babies), a salad flavour gelatine and the tracking of decades of history of a product called Hot Coffee, since its inception in 1994 to its latest form and package in 2015 under the name of ChillCan, thanks to several consumer researches. The work denounces the instability and influence of the media in the construction of the food culture and the palate.

Still on the relationship between landscape and food, a group of artists chose the fungus as the main element of their research. Rikke Luther (b. 1970, Aalborg, Denmark) presents Overspill: Universal Map, a large mural of tiles with drawings on diagrams relating natural landscapes and environmental catastrophes, oil samples, toxic sludge and myxomycetes (organisms whose biological classification is uncertain) and a prototaxites fossil sculpture – a possible fungi ancestor that inhabited the Earth about 400 million years ago and which brings information about an era dominated by other forms of intelligence.

Continuing within the fungi universe, the Lithuanians Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas (b. 1968 and 1966) present Psychotropic House: Zooetics Pavilion of Ballardian Technologies, a house-installation inspired by the English writer JG Ballard, who imagined a world in which there would be living technological devices being one of them the mycelium, a fungus responsible for the absorption of nutrients, oxygen and energy. The mycelium was also used by Em’kal Eyongakpa (b. 1981, Mamfe, Cameroon) to cover the walls of his Rustle 2.0 installation (2016). The work situates, from the observation of the relations between cybernetic and biological systems, nature and culture as inseparable parts of the whole.

The ecological bias, with a focus on subjectivities, also appeared in the work of Frans Krajcberg (b. 1921, Kozienice, Poland), which presented remnants of calcined wood, trunks, vines and roots cut, trimmed, decomposed and painted. The installation Gordinhos, Bailarinas e Coqueiros, composed of 78 sculptures in earthy tones (from light woody to black charcoal), are both natural monuments and ethnic entities, evoking the person aspect of the work. Each group of sculptures, with their formal idiosyncrasies, seem to manifest themselves as members of different tribes gathered there in the exhibition space for some kind of ritual or duel.

Right next are located the big installation hollow-shaped Ágora: OcaTaperaTerreiro of the artivist Bené Fonteles (b. 1953, Bragança, Pará, Brazil) that composes with Krajcberg’s “tribes” a ritualistic sphere and invite the visitor to dive into the collective, dialogue and shamanic (endowed with the power to transmute and intervene in reality) experiences. “Ágora” also refers to Ancient Greece forum for discussions and, taking this concept, Fonteles introduces the practice of dialogue as a possible tool to avoid a planetary catastrophe. To do so he created the Conversations to postpone the end of the world, an extensive program of lectures, tables and film projections to unfold within the hollow. There I was able to watch the documentary Rio de Lama, by Tadeu Jungle, about Mariana’s disaster: the biggest Brazilian environmental tragedy caused by the rupture of the mine tailings dam controlled by Samarco Mineração SA, which destroyed cities and polluted the river Rio Doce in November last year.

This and other environmental and social damages linked to the construction of dams and the control of natural water courses resulting from major infrastructure works were also the subject of artist Carolina Caycedo (b. 1978, London, UK). A Gente Rio–Be Dammed (2016) is made up of different elements including satellite photographs of Bento Rodrigues (Mariana, Brazil) region, before and after the tragedy mentioned in the previous paragraph, and the territory around the Xingu river, inhabited by several Indigenous tribes and “ribeirinhos” (local communities) that were seriously affected by one of the country’s most controversial energy projects: the Belo Monte Hydroelectric. There are also drawings that tell legends of the rivers Yuma (Colombia), Yaqui (Mexico), Elwha (USA), Watu, known as Rio Doce and Iguaçu (Brazil), as living entities endowed with their own stories.

Legal Jungle by Ursula Biemann (b. 1955, Zurich, Switzerland) and Paulo Tavares (b. 1980, Campinas, São Paulo) consists of videos, maps, photographs and documents discussing jurisdictional conflicts and the rights of nature amidst global resource sharing from the history of the Kichwa people of Sarayaku (Ecuador) who won a lawsuit in which they defended the right of the “Living Forest” and its importance for the survival of that community. Nature presents itself here not as a scenario of political disputes, but as a subject endowed with rights in its own terms. The work also questions the laws that determine only distributions concerning the surfaces of the territories while the underground geological resources remains under state control.

Looking at all these narratives, we may ask ourselves: what can art do in a moment of crisis and uncertainty? How can we bring these artist studies and processes into practice? To answer those questions it is necessary to review not only the environmental ecologies but also the social ones that also go through serious deteriorations, according to the French philosopher, psychoanalyst and revolutionary militant Féliz Guattari in his essay The Three Ecologies. The philosopher summarizes that we are facing a crisis in subjectivity – be it social, animal or vegetable – and the subsequent loss of its texture with the environment and any otherness. The exit of this crisis, he said, would be to elevate the reflections beyond the technocratic perspective, being the aesthetic-ethical-political articulation between environment, social relations and human subjectivity – that he named “ecosophy” – the key to reintegrate human and nature.

Therefore, it seems fundamental that we let ourselves be crossed by these artistic reflections, so that they penetrate little by little our deepest layers with the hope that they can modify our way of acting and of thinking by replacing the consuming voracity, the social neuroses, the hierarchies, the segregations, the idleness to give rise to creation, research, reintegration with the environment and enrichment of life and sensibilities. The great living uncertainty is, after all, this planet that we live in, the only home we know. To watch over it, perhaps the best starting point is, as the curators of this Biennial pointed out, to think and work collectively on the primordial relationship between living beings and the natural environment. Shall we start now?

Thais Gouveia

Live Uncertainty runs until 11 December. Find out more: www.bienal.org.br

1. Installation shot from the 32nd São Paulo Biennial Live Uncertainty. Leo Eloy / Estúdio Garagem / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo