Sunday, December 26, 2010

Socialist Art - part 1

It's always amazed me that in a country where even animals have Facebook pages, the country where social networking and web 2.0 (arguably) arose (with Gore or otherwise), that most words relating to "social" are seen by the majority as a pejorative term, much like Feminism.

Recently I read an article at about a Christian church in Alabama where its members decided to completely reformulate their organization's budget and make hundreds of thousand of dollars towards helping the ones in need, abroad and in the U.S.. Their reasoning was one that stemmed from the realization that in order to live the word of (their) God, they had to put the need of others ahead of their individual wants (the 160 families in that congregation also adopted and/or foster-cared all children in their county). This concept could also be transposed to some of the discussions on Health Care around that country, though the results have thus far been the opposite (the individual comes before the community).

It is funny how social living has become the platform for display and observance, meaning that in a social-techno setting, an individual becomes the center for society to watch. Now do people really watch one another, or watch only the responses they might get?

At this point you might be thinking, what does this have got to do with art? Hang in there, please.

I've lived in two countries for extensive periods of time in my life, Brazil and the United States (and a couple short residencies elsewhere). The longer I transit between these two places and cultures, I seem to see a south-to-north shift, where one place has slowly (in my view) overcome their difficulties, and another begins (also slowly, though it seems fast because it is happening right now) to fall before my eyes. It is as if one place is learning from the mistakes (hopefully) of the other. While I always saw Brazil as a theoretical place (Order and Progress its motto), I now see it as a place where some social concepts are being put into practice and now, some 20 years or so, the fruits of these ideals seem to be coming out. The U.S. seems rather rhetorical these days, more concerned with speech, the breaking down of speech, than action.

Mind you that Brazil, in my view, is still a relatively poor country (middle class, if you will), with extreme social and cultural issues, and the U.S. is still very wealthy by comparison (with the exception of Switzerland, I still find the U.S. one of the cleanest countries in the world overall - and I live in Detroit).

Of course what I propose here has been shaped by some recent events, such as the Smithsonian fiasco with the "Hide/Seek" exhibition (see the Virtual Protest post in this blog), as well as my art tour of São Paulo in the last twenty days.

In 1991, the Law nº 8.313 of December 23, known as "Lei Rouanet" came into effect in Brazil. Its directives allowed for 6% of a person's taxable income, and 4% of a corporation's taxable income, to participate in funding for a variety of cultural purposes, and therefore become tax deductions (for what I understand 100%). This fund is managed by PRONAC (National Program for the  Support of Culture) and MinC (Ministry of Culture) as far as I can tell. Much of the funding has gone towards the visual and scenic arts, partially the reason for the boom of Brazilian cinema in the mid 90s (you will find MinC as one of the funding sources for the internationally acclaimed Central Station movie of 1998 - a must-watch). Michigan has enacted a tax break for cinema, and though I imagine the particulars are very different (not sure how much it has trickled down to the local economy), the effect is somewhat visible there. 

Back to the Rouanet; by 2008 about BR$1 billion (about US$588 million), had been collected and dispersed. In 2010 this law was amended to expand its reach and facilitate access to those seeking funding. A reoccurring criticism for this law has always been that corporations might dictate what constitute culture, but how is that different from any institution? In my view at least they are putting their money where their mouth is (as opposed to loud-mouths elsewhere who in the name of morality, call for censorship, claiming misuse of public funding - all of a sudden government SHOULD control people's lives).

As a U.S. resident and college professor at a state institution, I often wished I could dictate where a percentage of my income withholdings would go to. If I had a choice, I'd choose the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and education. I fear that unwillingly, I am contributing to causes I do not agree with. But such is the fate of living in society, sometimes we take one for the team, we put the group ahead of ourselves.

In my slightly utopian view of taxation, I see exponents  of this ideal, even if awkwardly articulated, all over São Paulo, the city I once called home, the place I grew up in. Of course this is the largest and wealthiest city in the country (probably Latin America), so what gets funneled through here is larger than in other parts of the country (though I have heard that in the Northeast, traditionally  the poorest part of the country, huge amounts of funding have been put into state and federal universities - by helping everyone, by raising the bar, everyone benefits).

The 29th São Paulo Biennial is of course the most obvious example (its catalogue displays its sponsorship, both private and governmental). Of two articles I read in the local media about this event, one was by its CEO, who divulged the (over)budget, about BR$30 million, and the fact that it is, for the first time in a while, out of the red. The other article I read was a critical review, much focused as far as I could tell, on local drama, but that called for a more educational or didactic presentation mode for its displays (because most people were left in the dark what the stuff was about). As an educator I have to say that sometimes giving students (or the Biennial's audience) a feeling of WTF when seeing art is actually more productive than chewing down and providing all the answers. Sometimes art has to plant that seed of doubt or wonderment in one's mind in order to persist (see my two Redux entries in this blog, where I barely introduce the works, hoping that readers will think for themselves). And let's not forget the negative criticism the Detroit Institute of Art received when it opened its doors after many years of expansion and construction (too didactic, too dumbed down, too local).

Now, finally, back to art. A walk through the old and new downtowns provided the usual stops and some fun flaneurial unknown encounters. The rundown that follows will provide the name of the institution and the works I saw in them. I will finish the downtown list and include the new downtown in part 2.

Caixa Cultural (a federal bank)

If you get off the Sé metro station (the equivalent of the Time Square/Ports Authority/Grand Central of New York, only much cleaner and very modern, architecture-wise) and walk away from the Cathedral you will encounter this black granite building with NeoClassical features. This building by far contained the most variety in exhibitions, all with catalogues (locally called "folder" in English, a misnomer of sorts, like most of the English intertwined into Brazilian Portuguese).

The first and second floors contained rotating modern and contemporary art, and the 6th floor (only accessible by elevator) holds an interesting but creepy museum of furnishings of this bank (including a somewhat barbaric doctor's office) from the 20's, 30's and 40's. Up there you will also get some great views of the Cathedral.

Lágrimas de São Pedro (Saint Peter's tears) by Vinícius S.A.

Formas Silentes  (Silente Forms) by Luiz Martins - apologies for the lack of photographic focus.

Retrospecto (Retrospect) by Bandeira de Mello - first image view from lobby (stained glass not artist's work).

Entre Tantos (Among Many) by Geraldo de Barros

Espaço Cultural BM&F BOVESPA (the state's stock exchange) 

Photography was not allowed in this beautiful space, but you can visit their site and see a few images by Alice Brill. The catalogue (free, as the entrance) is beautiful.

Secretaria da Justiça e da Defesa da Cidadania (a government agency)

At the heart of Patio do Colegio (where the city was found in 1554), inside the lobby of this beautiful 1880s building designed by Ramos de Azevedo (who designed most of the architecture of the old city), is a statue by Dante Dado de Giacomi, titled "Zumbi" (an important Afro resistant leader in Brazilian's problematic history). Interior pictures taken illegally (photograph first, and act dumb and smile when they tell you it is not allowed, works every time).

The building on the far left is where the statue is, the pink building in center was the home of one of the most famous mistress of the Emperor, Solar da Marquesa de Santos (currently being remodeled, to become a museum). 

Saguão da Defensoria Publica do Estado de São Paulo (the lobby of the State Attorney's Office, a government agency)

A photographic exhibition from the Museu Afro Brasil titled "Walter Firmo, um fotógrafo negro."

Centro Cultural Correios, Palacio dos Correios (central post office building, a government institution)

Another structure by Ramos de Azevedo, this building was revitalized with the city center (a few doors down a public Music Institute is being planned, ground just broken). Inside its immense lobby, in the Cidade Galeria (City Gallery) Cassio Vasconcellos's Noturnos (Nocturn) exhibition of large photographs (resembling polaroids) is installed.

Following is an interior view of the building's entrance to Vale do Anhangabaú (as seen from gallery level).

Noturnos extended itself to the outside of the building, between Correios and the construction site for the new music school. This picture was taken from the 360 degree penthouse terrace of the Martinelli Building, a downtown landmark. 

Red Bull House of Art 2010 at Sampaio Moreira building

The irony of this gallery for me is not to the fact that it is sponsored by Red Bull (after all they've got to use their 6% somehow), but by the fact that it is exactly across the street from the bank I worked at as a teenager, before moving to the U.S. and follow my dream of becoming an artist. Sometimes what you run away from is right in front of you.

I do not know much about this space, with the exception that it seems that Red Bull offers residencies in the city and each year there is an exhibition at a different site. It also seems that São Paulo was the first city in the world to host House of Art.

Six artists, Clara Ianni, Felipe Salem, Guilherme Peters, Jaime Lauriano, Marcos Brias e Sofia Borges, make up the exhibition Tateando o redor (touching the surrounding).

And surprise, surprise, the architect is also Ramos de Azevedo, and this was the first skyscrapper in the city (entrance to the bottom left).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Redux: The 29th São Paulo Biennial - part 2

There's more to look at. To view any one of the images below, please click on it.

One of the most interesting installation pieces I saw, of many that depict a room, or living space (most will be featured on another post), was the one created by Anna Maria Maiolino (Italy, 1942). Radicated in Brazil since the 60s, Maiolino's Arroz com Feijão (Rice and Beans) was first made during the dictatorship, and has been reassembled many times ever since democracy was reinstated.

Marcius Galan (USA, 1972)'s Ponto em escala real (Dot in real scale) presents a literal transposition of a point in the map of the city that uses a 1/130,000, reconstructed it in this new environment to its actual scale.

Tatiana Trouvé (Italy, 1968)'s work 350 Points toward Infinity comes with a warning. The magnetic field hidden in the floor of her installation space, which holds multiple pendulums as if they were in mid-swing, could potentially offset pace-makers. A secondary and less threatening warning is the slight plumber's crack on display by the Biennial staff that was cleaning the piece when I photographed it (it being the work, not the crack).

More than once I ran into the cleaning crew, who incessantly cleaned the place, no small feat given the spareness of the building the the shedding quality of some artworks, such as Cinthia Marcelle (Brazil, 1974)'s Sobre este mesmo mundo (This same world over). Her work made me think of how William Kentridge's studio might look like, but with charcoal dust instead of chalk.

A good segue-way to that Kentridge reference is  Qiu Anxiong (China, 1972)'s animated drawings titled The New Classic of Mountains and Seas Parts 1 and 2, which were shown as three projections, though this work possesses its own merits.

While some works were immersive in their subject and pace, some works actually required its audience to enter and navigate through its interior, such as Henrique Oliveira (Brazil, 1973)'s A origem do terceiro mundo (The origin of the third world). As one exited this piece (paging Courbet), the gathering of smiling faces on that end made one look back, join the group, and enjoy the impending surprise.

Fittingly placed near one another were artists Antonio Manuel (Portugal, 1947) and Gustav Metzger (Germany, 1926). Their work used concealment and audience participation as a means of unveiling to deal with  political topics, from different times and places.  Manuel's flans are concealed by cloths that can be moved from ceiling pulleys.

Of a larger scale, Metzger's To Crawl Into - Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938 was displayed in front of it on the floor, covered by a yellow fabric.

Towards the end of my second visit to the Biennial, a day before its closing date, I ran into Yoel Diaz Vázquez (Cuba, 1073)’s video installation La torre del ruído (The tower of noise), which was one of my favorites. Unfortunately I ran out of memory space in my card, so only this small snippet of video is available.

Rosangela Rennó (Brazil, 1962) uses the object-ness of the photograph, and related apparatus, in her installation Menos-valia (Worth-less). On the day between my viewings a live auction took place, so upon my return the majority of the artifact on display was gone.

Another manner in which multiple video screens were presented were via multiple projections in a darkened room (my least favorite mode, I’m a fan of television monitors). Two that come to mind that transcended my bias centered on the relationship of body and space, in and out of the image. Kutlug Ataman (Turkey, 1961) presented Beggars, perhaps a contemporary take on (or result of) Sam Taylor-Wood’s Third Party.

Amar Kanwar (India, 1964)’s The Lightning Testimonies also employ multi-screen projections, but  with the different pacing in the videos and intermixing of audio channels.

Last but not least, another favorite of mine (which did not make it to the well-known section of part 1), Cildo Meireles (Brazil, 1948) featured two different bodies of work.  The early Projeto Cédulas (Quem matou Herzog?) [Project Bills (Who killed Herzog?)], where real currency was changed and reintroduced into the world was almost lost in a small room filled with other three artists’ works (Hélio Oiticica, Artur Barrio, and Sandra Gamarra), a real disservice to everyone involved in that section on the third floor.  In a better spot, near the temporary home of MAC (Museo de Arte Contemporanea), a new installation simply titled Abajur (Lamp) invites viewers into a circular walk up enclosed environment, where a large photorealistic diorama of an ocean, with birds and clouds, slowly moves, lit from within. As one walks around the space a colonial imperial vessel appears. Upon close inspection, below deck so to speak, one sees three or four young men moving a mill, that activates the motion of the space.