Impossible Choreographies: On the 35th Bienal de São Paulo
By Oluremi C. OnabanjoNovember 19, 2023
A backhanded compliment that coastal Brazilians often administer to Paulistas: “They don’t have sandy beaches, waterfalls, or ocean views. But they have great parks and great art.” The São Paulo Bienal stands as the perfect example.
The largest contemporary art exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere and the second oldest biennial in the world, the São Paulo Bienal has been housed since 1957 in the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion—a mammoth structure, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Hélio Uchôa, that measures 30,000 square meters. Rather than being dispersed throughout the city, all activities are consolidated in this central location, a clear articulation of modernist monumentality and the institutionalization of the biennial complex. This year’s iteration of the show embraces these maximalist possibilities—featuring over 120 artists and over 1,000 individual artworks—but it differs from its predecessors by almost every other account. The vast majority of the included artists live and work beyond the Euro-American circuit that overdetermines the demographics of the contemporary art world, and many embrace forms of making that exceed the static category of the artwork. This is to say that whiteness is not the starting point, and the finished object is not the end point.
As a result, moving through Choreographies of the Impossible means suspending your expectations of what art looks like, the time it takes to comprehend an image or form, and the ways you usually maneuver through an exhibition space. Inaicyra Falcão’s contribution to the show takes the form of a semicircular red listening booth that houses a vinyl record and a book entitled Tokunbó: Sons entre mares (2023), a phrase that collides Yoruba and Portuguese, meaning “the one born overseas: sounds between seas.” Falcão’s sonic affirmation of the world-making possibilities embedded in diasporic fracture bubbles up a floor above, through Julien Creuzet’s insurgent lament of an installation, ZUMBI ZUMBI ETERNO (2023). Floating in an aquatic ecosystem of cerulean and indigo, his voice bounces off suspended strands of fishermen’s nets. Laden with oozing liquid, these nets drip pendulously into jerry cans.
As you climb the pavilion’s central ramp and traverse its inner and outer loops, it becomes clear that movement is prioritized above all else. Here, choreography is not just the perfectly cued gestures set forth on a stage but the embodied tactics that shape collective resistance and revolt. Movement here is psychic and physical, emotive and political. At every turn (and there are many, along the building’s undulating curves), Choreographies of the Impossible calls its own material conditions into question, in conceptual and aesthetic alignment with our precarious collective present.
On a systemic level, this is achieved through the complete occlusion of the second floor from the viewer’s eye. Rippling walls flank the central ramp, courtesy of design firm Vão, elegantly muffling Niemeyer’s bombastic spatial appeal to optical exposure. Some openings serve as sleek windows, opaque oblong slices that invite sidelong glances at best. At the center of these solid curtains lies the standout presentation of Torkwase Dyson’s Blackbasebeingbeyond (2023)—a trio of charcoal sentinels that tower overhead, generating a gravitational pull that draws you through their fractured inner spine. Nearby, a stately panel of abstracted angles echoes in white—an invocation of the legendary Afro-Brazilian artist and curator Emanoel Araújo, now an ancestor. Araújo’s Museu Afrobrasil is walking distance from the Bienal building, also ensconced in Ibirapuera Park.
The two upper floors of the pavilion unfold in a manner that encourages doubling back, shifting your weight, meandering through spaces at unexpected angles. In short, nothing is straightforward. A recurring sensation involves encountering works rigorously configured to move your body through space. Kapwani Kiwanga’s pink-blue (2017) is a spatial deconstruction of color and bodily violence—a diagonal portal vibrating in Baker-Miller pink and neon blue. Oscillating into darkness, Tiganá Santana and Ayrson Heráclito’s collaborative work submerges you in the logic and lore of the forest. Theirs is a darkened passage where vision is the least helpful means of understanding. Diego Araúja and Laís Machado’s Sumidouro n. 2—Diáspora fantasma (2023) orchestrates a bevy of crimson-, wheat-, and umber-tinged sheets of straw. As the prickly sheets dart and dance, they engulf passersby with their own ephemeral enclosures. On an entirely different axis, Carlos Bunga’s expanses of pink paint lie prostrate, necessitating a lateral engagement—shuffling from one end of the room to another, leaving your trace on the surface terrain.
Shifting grounds are manifested historically, not only through affective experience. The participation of Quilombo Cafundó aligns Choreographies of the Impossible with fugitive histories that eclipse the nation state of Brazil. The photographic archive of this maroon community counters sensationalist accounts of their language and culture in ethnographic and journalistic records. Concerns about connection to the land recur on a granular level throughout the show—in Ana Pi’s pressed and puckering installation (with Taata Kwa Nkisi Mutá Imé), in Denilson Baniwa’s sprouting outdoor garden, in Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro’s ruined structures of racialized life, and in the soaring organic fabrics of Daniel Lie.
Choreographies of the Impossible is a fulsome show—unwieldy at times, sensual and entrancing all the way through. This is evident through the interplay of organic and inorganic forms but also in the exhibition’s commitment to collective forms of making, implicitly arguing that nothing worthwhile can be done alone. Nadir Bouhmouch and Soumeya Ait Ahmed’s contribution is constructed around the notion of the assay—a space of assembly rooted in Amazigh cultural practice. Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Metaphysics of the Elements—The Studio (2023) takes the physical form of a meeting place: interlocking tetrahedra shape tables and seats where Black feminist theoretical and political work might take place, an open score for decolonial possibility.
Imagination and movement blooms anew below ground, in the diaphanous house of the Sauna lésbica, a queer space designed by Malu Avelar where desire and dissident bodies thrive. Made in collaboration with Ana Paula Mathias, Anna Turra, Bárbara Esmenia, and Marta Supernova, the installation serves as a resting place and a programming site, a barbecue venue and a dance floor. Manifested differently, collective movement is writ large in the participation of Cozinha Ocupação 9 de Julho, a community kitchen established out of the Movimento dos Sem Teto do Centro (MSTC) for the houseless community in São Paulo. Both a participant and a central food provider for the Bienal, they model a practice that breaks the strictures of relational aesthetics. To engage their work is to be nourished, which in turn nourishes their movement.
As a conceptual vessel, Choreographies of the Impossible is shaped by the hands of Black feminist theory, epistemologically informed by Leda Maria Martin’s concept of spiral time. Organized by a curatorial quartet consisting of independent curator Diane Lima, conceptual artist Grada Kilomba, anthropologist Hélio Menezes, and former museum director Manuel Borja-Villel, the show is a crisp, coordinated portrait of systemic upheaval. It is both formed within and informed by transnational social movements that reckon with the (im)possibility of Black life, working-class strength, queer love, trans identity, and Indigenous sovereignty in the face of a global pandemic, geopolitical turmoil, climate change, and racial capitalism—not to mention the pungent tropical strand of white-supremacist Trumpism that continues on in the wake of the Bolsonaro presidency. A sober, sophisticated show, Choreographies of the Impossible reminds us that there is beauty in a different world order.
But what does it mean to choreograph the impossible? Luiz de Abreu’s O samba do crioulo doido (2004) provides one such answer. A staggering dance piece, it deconstructs the Black body and its visual and physical conscription into the making of Brazil. Throughout this “anti-samba,” libidinal, comic, and abject gestures are laid bare—gnawing at the guts of white spectatorship in the process. In the exhibition, O samba appears on a two-channel video installation: a large screen showing Abreu performing the work in the early 2000s and a small monitor showing the artist 20 years later, now blind, physically transmitting the piece’s constituent gestures to the dancer Calixto Neto. From generation to generation, limb to limb, the work demonstrates how, when it comes to the knowledge of the body, answers are much less interesting than the process of transmission. The condition of art-making is the point of the exercise. Or, as Lima states in the exhibition catalog, to choreograph the impossible might just be to “survive: a way to find freedom or, simply, to make things more possible in life.”
Over 10 consecutive days in September, I visit Choreographies of the Impossible again and again, breathing with the Bienal during its initial moments of public life. On my final evening, the flush of the art world has come and gone, but the space is more populated than ever. (By the end of its first month, the 35th Bienal had already broken all prior records for attendance.) Black boxes speckled across the floors are packed to the brim—whether housing Leilah Weinraub’s steamy study of the Los Angeles lesbian strip club, SHAKEDOWN (2018), or unraveling the poignant landscapes of Hophuis (2023), Ilze Wolff’s spatial meditation on the Steinkopf Community Center in South Africa’s Western Cape. The cacophony of voices and footfalls of the many visitors join the soundtrack of the building, rising and falling as the hours pass and the sun moves through the sky.
On my way out, I watch children hopscotching over and across the train tracks of Ibrahim Mahama’s Parliament of Ghosts (2019). Bounding from beam to beam, their innocent acts of play are a deft mobilization of the colonial structures the artist has laid out for inspection. As the children laugh and move, I am struck by the thought: This is free. Not only in the sense of grasping towards that unimaginable thing but also literally: it is free. For every day it is open, this exhibition is free to anyone who feels called. You can see it all, and feel it all. Art and life, art in life—perhaps the most impossible choreography of them all—not cordoned off by an entry cost.
Outwards we all move, back into the park.
The 35th Bienal de São Paulo, Choreographies of the Impossible, curated by Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, Hélio Menezes, and Manuel Borja-Villel, is on view from September 6 through December 10, 2023.
Oluremi C. Onabanjo is the Peter Schub Associate Curator in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History & Archaeology at Columbia University.
Featured image: Installation view of Blackbasebeingbeyond (2023), by Torkwase Dyson, at the 35th Bienal de São Paulo—Choreographies of the Impossible © Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.
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