MERCOSUL BIENNIAL: Crossing Territories
Author: Dr. Maria Amelia Bulhões
Originally published in NuktaArt, inaugural issue, May 2005
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Painting by Zubeida Agha, Karachi by Night, 1956
Mega events are a phenomenon of modernity in the field of visual arts and have seen unparalleled proliferation since the second half of the 20th century. Characterized by predominantly exhibiting contemporary art, and being established as a defining space of legitimacy within the international network, in Latin America this type of event should not be thought of from a homogenised and simplistic perspective. In this process of global domination, it avoids the different matrices and experiences that are materialized here.
One example to be analyzed here is the Mercosul Visual Arts Biennial that takes place in Porto Alegre in the extreme south of Brazil. It was devised as a result of the mobilization of critics and artists in the region, supported by a state government that was seeking legitimization, with additional support from a group of business people.
Two contradictions can be seen in the course of its development. The first is that, having been managed using local material and intellectual resources, the Biennial changed direction when the organizing committee chose a critic from Rio de Janeiro to be its general curator, and this condition continued in the second, third and fourth editions, with critics from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. On one hand these choices express the difficulty of finding local figures willing to articulate the interests in play, and on the other it confirmed the existence of centralization in the field of art in the country, to which this event intended, in principle, to be opposed. The curators from the Mercosul countries were chosen by the general curator, and also demonstrated the centrality of the capitals in those countries. So it can be seen that the problem of domination by the major centres unfolds from the international plane to the national and the regional.
The second contradiction is that the Biennial was strongly supported by the local government, which approved its inclusion in legislation for tax incentives for companies investing in culture, and also provided direct financial support, making technical personnel and spaces available for infrastructural activities. The process therefore developed in a way that led to it becoming an institution dominated by private business, moving away from the participation of different areas of interest in society.
It is worth emphasizing the capacity of this mega event to modify the relationships with the city’s spaces and facilities intended for the visual arts. Despite being an important centre of artistic production in the country, Porto Alegre has no specific places for exhibition of contemporary works. The Museum of Contemporary Art has been created on paper, but has neither the desired facilities nor resources. This is possibly due to the strong hegemony of the modern tradition in the local art climate. Thus, to organize the various editions of the Mercosul Visual Arts Biennial, it has been necessary to look for alternative spaces, such as some of the quayside warehouses that have been adapted for the exhibitions. These places were seen to be very interesting for artistic use, so much so that a movement within the city was organized to turn them into permanent exhibition spaces. In the third edition, a real city of containers was created to house some of the exhibitions. These movements and changes generated important public debates involving sectors traditionally distant from these kinds of problems.
This type of event can be considered as a significant force for inserting visual production into the spectator society, considerably increasing the usual flow of public to exhibitions. In addition to the great number of people rushing to the exhibitions, the Biennial stimulates reports in high circulation newspapers and magazines, radio and television debates, being publicised to social sectors that are normally distant from this type of material.
From its first edition the Mercosul Visual Arts Biennial established a new dynamic in relation to publicity. A highly professional business plan replaced the traditional amateur position of the artistic community in relation to the mass media in the region. A large part of the event’s budget, high by local standards, was spent on contracting, marketing and advertising specialists.
Publicity was developed in two directions. On the one hand, in the local environment an arrangement was established with publications in the city guaranteeing daily coverage. Thanks to this, the public never forgot what was taking place in relation to the event, and was constantly encouraged to visit it. In addition to the coverage offered by the printed press, TV and radio were also mobilized. On the other hand, publicity also took place in international specialist media, resulting in a strong presence of national and international artists and critics. This activity brought the event repercussions [sic.] beyond regional limits. News about the event is carried in all the Mercosul countries, in Europe and the United States. This publicity, beyond the local arena, aims to attract a foreign public to the Biennial, making it known and respected, and thus legitimized. Important specialists from the national arena, such as directors of art museums, critics and artists have been present. On the international level, visitors to the Mercosul Biennial have included Harold Szemann, Marcel Prevoust, Pierre Restany, Tyerri Pratt, and Ibis Hernández.
The curatorial team for each Biennial is composed of a Brazilian general curator, a specific curator for each Mercosul country, and another for a guest country (one for each edition). The curator for Argentina, in the first edition, was Irma Arestizabal, in the second and third it was Jorge Glusberg. For Bolivia, Pedro Querejazu was the curator for the first three editions, while for Chile it was Justo Pastor Mellado, for Paraguay, Tício Escobar and for Uruguay, Ángel Kalemberg. There was a greater change of curators for the fourth edition, showing that the initial team had exhausted its contribution and needed to be renewed. And so Adriana Rosenberg became the curator for Argentina; Cecilia Bayá Botti for Bolivia; Francisco Brugnoli for Chile; Javier Todriguez Alcala for Paraguay, and Gabriel Peluffo Linari for Uruguay. Of the guest countries Roberto Guevara was the curator for Venezuela, Eduardo Serrano for Colombia, Gustavo Buntix for Peru, and Edgardo Ganado Kim for Mexico.
Although in some editions the national representations were grouped together in the catalogues, this did not necessarily occur in the exhibition. Curatorial projects showed detailed care in the choice of works shown, and also a reflective commitment of the organisers to a conceptual axis, which is clear in the shows’ texts. The idea of updating can be seen constantly in their discourses, which show an awareness of a certain local discrepancy in relation to the more recent tendencies in contemporary art and the role that the Biennial plays in converting the eyes of the region. The criteria of curatorial and museographical organization include establishing aesthetic and confrontational positions that stimulate and attract the public while at the same time establishing very enriching conceptual dynamics for the specialist arena.
The idea of Frederico de Morais, the general curator of the 1st Mercosul Visual Arts Biennial, to rewrite the history of Latin American Art from its own bases, was an important feature. This subject, which has already been well discussed, points to a situation of dependence in which the art of this region is seen to be read from the viewpoint of the major artistic centres. And so the curator created several conceptual categories to organize the exhibition: Cartographic Inclination, The Political Inclination, Constructive Inclination, and Final Polish. With these categories Morais intended to explore particular artistic tendencies of the region, while at the same time showing its peculiarities, by revising this production since the introduction of abstraction.
In the 2nd Biennial, despite having the theme of Identities, the general curatorship of Fabio Magalhães and Leonor Amarantes left the conceptual structure freer, fitting it into a framework of showing a little of everything, centred upon current production. The special exhibitions: Art and Technology, Picasso and Latin American Cubism, Iberê Camargo and Julio Le Parc maintained something of the historical character of the first Biennial. In the 3rd Biennial, the basic proposal of the same general curators, Fabio Magalhães and Leonor Amarantes, was the occupation of different spaces under the epigraph “art everywhere”. They used a Psychiatric Hospital for performances, created a container city for exhibiting works, and also organized installations in a park.
Nelson Aguilar, the general curator of the fourth edition, approached it with the theme of Songs of Origins attempting to construct a genealogy of Latin American art. The three exhibitions: Historical Archaeology, Genetic Archaeology, and the Delirium of Chimborazo were decisive in this proposal. In addition the iconic exhibitions: Orozco, Verger, Cemin, Matta, Abramo, Berni and María Freire, showed a special concern for constructing a history of the art of the region.
The attempt to see possibilities for a local history of art, emphasizing points in common and specificities, has been a feature of this event in all its editions. Another salient tendency of the show is to offer a kind of weighing up of the art of the region, giving it a particular visibility, and also exhibiting and highlighting the output of the young avant-garde. It is clear that the problem of turning its gaze upon itself remains as an element that needs to be confronted.
The presence of the specificities of the different countries of Mercosul working together, which is ensured through their own curatorship, has enabled repercussive effects at the level of the nationalities involved. Thus, in the field of art, the Biennial seems to be fulfilling a function similar to that developed politically and economically by the organization that gives it its name, in other words an integration of the region to overcome conditions of dependency. Which is something that can only be carried out by a mega event of the importance given to the Mercosul Biennial.
The presence of Nation States in Latin America was very important in the establishment of Modernism. A certain resistance can be seen today in relation to moving beyond it. Thus the Biennial’s structure seeks to preserve the specificities of the countries, integrating them into a project of updating assumed by the exhibition as a whole. The Mercosul Visual Arts Biennial works both, in the construction of a new form of reception for art, and in the new productive processes of the specialists. In other words, it carries out changes within the arts system, and also functions at the level of the non-specialist public; it establishes a space for rearticulating tendencies, defining argument and power and granting legitimacy to currents in contemporary art.
Within the context of the globalization of art, the Biennial is a tool for accelerating the transformations and diffusion of the international circuit, establishing its intervention within national and regional conditions. The question today is not to reverse this process, but to explore the aesthetic strategies adopted and its suitability for more pluralistic proposals, through critical activity. This is a challenge for the members of the symbolic field in the peripheral regions.