Taxi to São Paulo
by Sophie Perryer
The Bienal de São Paulo, considered one of the most important biennial art exhibitions in the world, celebrates its 25th edition this month with a tightly conceptualised exhibition on the theme of 'Metropolitan Iconographies'. The biennial will stretch across 30 000 square metres at the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion in São Paulo, Brazil, and draw in 190 artists - including a significant number of Africans.
Opening on March 23, the biennial - curated by Alfons Hug - is divided into five main sections: '11 Metropolises', of which Johannesburg is one; 'National Representations', in which Pitso Chinzima, curated by Prince Dube of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, will represent South Africa; 'Brazilian Nucleus', 'Net Arte' and 'Special Project Rooms' - the latter housing works by three Brazilian and six foreign artists including Andreas Gursky, Jeff Koons and Vanessa Beecroft.
The overall theme, according to curator Hug, refers "not only to the image of the metropolis in contemporary art, but also to the manner in which urban energy influences today's artists. We start from the assumption that still today, as was the case some 100 years ago with Paris, Berlin and Moscow, it is the metropolis that essentially defines artistic practice. But now with the mushrooming of mega-cities within the last decades, Asia, Africa and Latin America have been moving into the limelight, too. Here important urban dramas are played out putting new survival strategies to the test."
Hug evokes the examples of 11 key metropolises as measures of the current state of global artistic production. São Paulo, Caracas, New York, Johannesburg, Istanbul, Peking, Tokyo, Sydney, London, Berlin and Moscow are each represented by five artists, with a "12th city" posited as Utopia. South African National Gallery director Marilyn Martin has curated the Johannesburg segment, selecting primarily photographic work by David Goldblatt, Ruth Motau, Santu Mofokeng, Bonita Alice and Jo Ractliffe.
In her curatorial statement, Martin writes: "The challenge that the theme ... offered was to select five artists who live and work in the city of Johannesburg and who have seriously engaged the city in their creative work. I am interested in what artists are able to bring to the writing of new narratives and conclusions that are particular to the understanding of our time, and in the expressive vehicles they employ to communicate their ideas and experiences. Photography and photo-based work currently dominate cutting-edge visual production internationally and South Africa is no exception. The decision was taken to select work that employs moving and still photographic images and that would achieve some conceptual cohesion. The leitmotif, if there can be one in a presentation of this kind, is that of the artists' acute sense of time and place and their ability to merge the personal and the political."
From Goldblatt's oeuvre Martin has chosen images that typically focus on structures rather than their inhabitants, and date from the last 40 years of the 20th century. As Goldblatt writes: "Our structures often declare quite nakedly, yet eloquently, what manner of people built them, and what they stood for."
Similarly Mofokeng's series 'Appropriated Spaces' (1997-2001) looks at how people without access to institutional buildings find and create space for their spiritual activities: "In stark contrast to the formal places of worship in which Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims gather, members of the Zionist movement seek spaces - in parks, in the hills surrounding Johannesburg, under bridges - to practise their faith. They invigorate and enhance an urban landscape that is often harsh, ugly and hostile with their immaculate, colourful uniforms, with their movements and their music," says Mofokeng.
Motau turns her lens on the appropriation of disused buildings by the homeless, and in particular - with a delightful irony given the context of the exhibition - the Electric Workshop and other huge, derelict structures in Newtown, where the 1995 and 1997 Johannesburg Biennials were held.
So far, a straightforward enough interpretation of Hug's brief. With the selection of Bonita Alice, Martin allows herself to run with the ball a little, so to speak, with photographic documentation of Alice's site-specific intervention on the playing field of Barnato Park High School. Turf (currently on view at Millennium II in Johannesburg; see Paul Edmunds' review of the show in Cape Town) explores notions of roots and territory, the shifting attachments that people form with the places where they live, work and grow up. Alice will produce a new site-specific work for São Paulo - an extension of Turf entitled Spirit. She says: "Again, an image will appear from a particular point and dissolve as one moves away. It will evoke reality transformed abruptly into memory and, like Turf, will point to the folly of seeking permanence in anything."
Jo Ractliffe collaborates with Sebastian Diaz Morales (Buenos Aires/Amsterdam) on the video work One Year Later, which follows a man through Johannesburg, from the mine dumps to the shopping malls of the northern suburbs, throughout the course of a day. The piece was filmed using a Holga toy camera, with strips of slide film rolled over a light box, filmed and edited. The artists write of Johannesburg, "it is not a place that you can apprehend in any concrete way; it is a place that slips, that moves away from your understanding every moment you think you have found it".
Martin's show sounds entirely solid in its selection of individual artists who bring unique sensibilities and modes of working to bear on their engagement with the city; and yet there seems a certain element of surprise or risk missing from the mix. Perhaps this will be provided by South Africa's national representative, Pitso Chinzima, who at the time of his selection described his intention to build an installation using four minibus taxis - one fitted with flashy gadgets, one wrecked in an accident, one unroadworthy and another well-tended - with slides and video projected over the vehicles showing taxi violence, the lives of commuters, the culture associated with the industry and so on (see August 2001 News for the full story). Attempts to contact Chinzima's curator this week to find out how the work has progressed since its conception were unfortunately unsuccessful.
In an offshoot of the 'National Representations' section, Marcel Odenbach of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen in Stuttgart has curated a show of African video art with works by South Africa's Moshekwa Langa and Zwelethu Mthethwa, Goddy Leye (Cameroon), Ingrid Mwangi (Kenya), Papisthione (Senegal) and Mawuli Afatsiawo (Ghana).
South Africa's contribution to the biennial is potent enough, but it is undoubtedly the meeting of the various metropolises, the unforeseen dynamics that are likely to arise when Johannesburg rubs up against Caracas, Tokyo, Sydney, Istanbul, London, that look set to make São Paulo an incredibly exciting place to be over the next couple of months.
March 23 to June 2 2002
25th Bienal de São Paulo
Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, Parque do Ibirapuera, S�o Paulo, Brazil