The Curitiba Biennial - one of the key events of contemporary art in Brazil, which in 2015 has turned 22 years old - will close the next December 6th. Under the title Luz do Mundo, it has been dedicated to the theme of light and, in this context, has paid tribute to the trajectory of the Argentine artist Julio Le Parc.
The Oscar Niemeyer Museum (MON) has ben once more the central venue, hosting the exhibition of Le Parc in its great eye and the main show of the chief curator of the Biennale, Teixeria Coelho. To this iconic museum, six more central exhibition spaces have been added - including the cathedral, the Rodoferroviária station, the Mall Pátio Batel, the Palacete dos Leões and the Municipal Museum of Art (MUMA), amogn others - as well as several circuits that have included one of the museums, one of the galleries, the University-CUBIC or the Film Festival, along with the "Open Biennial", a series of independent events organized by various cultural agents of Curitiba coinciding with the Biennale. In total, more than 100 spaces where to approach the work of over 150 artists from five continents.
Besides visiting the Biennale, during its development, I had the opportunity to meet with its director, Luiz Ernesto Meyer Pereira, to learn more about the event and his view on the current edition. Thanks to his kind disposition, our encounter, beyond being a simple interview, became an occasion to approach the Biennial from within and to explore some of the perhaps lesser-known aspects and projects. Now that the Biennial ends, it's time to make an evaluation.
Museum Oscar Niemeyer, main venue of the Curitiba Biennial,
with Carlo Bernardini's installation
The Biennial in Context
The Curitiba Biennial has a long history indeed. The Paraná region has had a long trajectory of artistic diffusion, which -as explained by Luiz Ernesto Meyer- goes back to the 40s, when the first edition of “Salao Paranaense" was conducted as a first project for the exhibition of contemporary art. But it would be in the 90s, with the establishment of the “Mostra de Gravura”, the Biennial of Photography and the “Mostra VentoSul”-forerunner of the current Biennial- when Curitiba took off as artistic hub in southern Brazil.
In 1993 the first “Mostra VentoSul” was launched, curated by Miguel Briante and Ticio Escobar. At the time it used to take place in different cities of Paraná and was focused on the presentation of artists from the Southern Cone. Gradually, the focus of VentoSul opened up internationally and in the 1995 edition, again at the hands of Ticio Escobar, artists from Uruguay and Chile were included; in the 1997 edition, the show was also presented in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, including artists from more Latin American countries and a large team of guest curators. In 2007, seven countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Paraguay) attended the exhibition presented under the theme “Narrativas Contemporáneas”, while in 2009 -under the theme “Auga Grande: Os Mapas Alterados” - the event was already presented as VentoSul Biennial and showed the work of artists from different continents.
In accordance with its trajectory and history -explains also Meyer- this Biennial provides a different model from other benchmarks, such as Sao Paulo Biennial -which occurs mainly in a single area of the city- and is integrated within the cultural and urban fabric, occupying different locations. With this vocation to keep expanding both locally and internationally, and to get consolidated as a reference for contemporary art in southern Latin America, in 2013 the Biennial VentoSul became definitely the International Biennial of Curitiba, with Escobar once more as curator, with the collaboration of Teixeria Coelho, who joined the curatorial group that year.
Installation/sculpture group Fantasmas by Lars Nilsson, at MON. Detail.
The 2015 Biennale…
As a contemporary art event, in quantity and quality, the Curitiba Biennial can be overwhelming. I ask Luiz Ernesto Meyer what aspects characterize it, what are the main initiatives, spaces and projects involved in this Biennale.
He explains that this year’s edition has intended to emphasize the relationship with the public space. The program included performances in different areas of the city, including projects as the one conceived in the Rodoferroviária: curated by Daniel Rangel, the artist Tom Mais Amor -in collaboration with other local artists and in several stages of development throughout the Biennale’s duration- has been occupying various transit areas of the station with his colorful wall paintings. As Meyer explains, the station is a place where several thousands of people passes by everyday and this is the best way to bring contemporary art to everyone. The same would have happened with the display of the work Quimera by Regina Silveira - an installation that plays with the metaphors of light and shadow on the main facade of the Mall Pátio Batel. Also conceived for the public space -in this case, outside the MON- was the work Invisible Dimensions by Carlo Bernardini, an optical fiber installation that, although remaining largely unnoticed during the day, it illuminated the nights of the Bienal creating a delicate play of reflections in the pond of the museum, in dialogue with its particular architecture.
With the aim of reaching a broad audience, the Biennial has also had a strong educational program and a series of guided tours by hiking, cycling or by van.
The circuits have been also crucial to Meyer. Among them, we could highlight the University Circuit-CUBIC, that in this Biennial held its second edition. With a show also distributed in three different spaces of the city -Paço da Liberdade, Memorial of Curitiba and Deartes- this circuit has brought together the works of young artists in training. As explained by the director of the Biennale, the selection of artists started with a public call and, curated by Angelo Luz and Stephanie Dahn, the CUBIC2 has sought to show the different facets of the emergent art in the city. The idea of this circuit is not only to show the work of future art professionals, but also to foster dialogue, to generate encounters with other artists or curators in a way that these young artists can further expand their education.
Luiz Ernesto Meyer conveys genuine enthusiasm when he talks about the Biennial and its possibilities for the city. It is not just an economic issue, although obviously an event of these characteristics activates the local economy at many levels. It is much more a question of how art is related to the city and its citizens, and how through these artists and their projects, in many cases, some unknown aspects of local culture become known.
Tom Mais Amor's intervention on the stairs of the Rodoferroviária station
during the 2015 Bienal. Photo: Levy
Luz do Mundo…
As noted above, the light has been the main theme of this Biennial of Curitiba “art of light, art as light, art made of light and that has light as its matter, its material and content” says Teixeira Coelho in the curatorial text of the Biennale.
Art made with light is represented in the work of Le Parc, but also that of Anthony McCall, Dan Flavin, the Korean artist Choi Jeongmoon, Carlo Bernardini, Ivan Navarro, Bill Viola and many others who use it directly as a medium. However, with the European festivals of light as a benchmark -in some of which light and technology become inseparable through techniques such as mapping or interactive aesthetics- it was surprising for me that the vast majority the works in the exhibition worked with light much more as content, as subject, as an indirect object of reflection, and not as a means. Discussing about this with Meyer, he says that this is due to the different curators. Light is a vast subject, and there has been a will to explore its less literal or obvious dimensions. For example, within the the official exhibition, the MUMA (Municipal Museum of Art) space, has been entirely dedicated to think light in relation to spirituality, as a metaphor. Thus, as we see in the works chosen by the four curators who have intervened in this space, in general, the light has remained in the background, just suggested, and has become an excuse to leave real prominence to the spiritual.
Helga Griffiths' Identity Analysis at MON. Photo: Guilherme Artigas
The choice of the theme of the Biennial coincided with the institution of 2015 as the “Year of Light” in the field of science and technology by UNESCO. But, in general terms, who and how is the theme of the Biennial choosen?
Meyer explains that the choice of subject, in this case and others, stems from a proposal by the chief curator, assessed and agreed by the commission of the Biennale, and that takes its final form in joint work with guest curators and other stakeholders in the organization. The choice of the guest artist has followed the same procedure: among several proposals from renowned artists, Julio Le Parc was chosen, because apart from being a pioneer in the field of light art and a widely recognized artist, he belongs to the Latin American context the the Biennial aims to promote. Having known the work of Yamil LeParc, he was invited to make a proposal as guest curator and thus by working together and crossing proposals, the proposal of the guest artist was materialized and the final exhibition was conceived.
In this context, the question that seems obvious is: Who chose the chief and guest curators of this edition and how have been they chosen? Meyer clears that there are different cases. For instance, since 2013 the Biennial has established a “Young Curators Prize” and the winners of this year, Ana Rocha and Goura Nataraj, have participated as curators in different spaces in collaboration with other guest curators. Meyer shows great interest in creating connections and a feedback, in continuing the work of one edition into another, as part of that vocation to grow and take root that the Biennial pursues. In this line, in other cases, they are curators or critics with extensive experience who were already involved in the project or who are invited by the chief curator, who in turn - although Meyer does not use these words - is appointed directly. In this sense, the process doesn’t seem to be as transparent and fair as in the case of young curators and again it raises a general question, fundamental in building cultural policies: who curates the curators?
Bill Viola's Three Women video at the Cathedral of Curitiba
In the time I spent visiting the Biennial and in contact with independent cultural agents in Curitiba, I detected some questionable aspects that I wanted to share with Luiz Ernesto Meyer. First, despite the will to connect with citizens, my perception was precisely that of a certain lack of information and accessibility: the Biennale locations were not always marked, the staff in the institutions was not always able to provide information about the event and, certainly, in the streets of the city -and among many citizens- there was very little trace of an event of such dimensions taking place.
During our conversation, Meyer let me know that some of these logistical problems were due to the budget cuts faced by the country, which obviously, have directly affected this year's Biennial. Therefore, at the time of my visit, the edition of the pocket guide -which should function as an integral and manageable route sheet (apart from the Internet) for all spaces and events- had not yet been completed, nor had the distribution of Biennial catalogs taken place. Clearly, says Meyer, an event of this magnitude involves many problems. For example, exhibiting the work of Bill Viola in the cathedral required a difficult process, involving numerous negotiations until all parties agreed to the conditions. But these negotiations are necessary for the exhibition of the work. Despite all difficulties, the Biennale has made enormous efforts to advertise in public spaces and also to develop an inclusive education program, which became apparent at the time of our conversation, through the number of school groups coming to the MON to visit the exhibitions of the Biennial.
The second question, which has struck among independent artists and cultural institutions, even those participating in the Biennale, is its tense relationship with the cultural fabric of the city, giving the impression that the Biennale engulfs and submits the rest of the artistic life. Despite being aware that something so big cannot please everyone Meyer expressed a firm commitment to be open to dialogue with everyone, which I believe he has met. And above all, he showed a willingness to make up for past mistakes and improve. For example, he explained that in the edition of 2013, the call for artists for University Circuit-CUBIC was widely criticized. The central issue was that the call was open only to university art students, leaving out many young people who, without being directly involved in these studies were developing relevant work. The criticisms were taken into consideration and the call of this year was open to all university students, regardless of their field of study.
General view of Julio Le Parc's exhibition at MON
Continuel Mobile Inox by Julio Le Parc at MON
The Best of the Biennale…
What has been, for Luiz Ernesto Meyer, the most interesting work or project of the Biennale? Has he had a favourite work or artist in this edition? Lacking one, Meyer lists five projects.
First, the exhibition of Julio Le Parc. I agree with him that it has been an excellent retrospective of the artist, in which - in line with the proposal of Le Parc himself - it has been possible to face a reality altered by light. The experience of the machines and gadgets of Le Parc, in the darkened stage of the great eye of the MON has been - also in my opinion - one of the highlights of the 2015 Biennale.
In second place, Meyer choose the installation Between You and I by Anthony McCall, which occupies the Palacete dos Leões. Undoubtedly, the immersion in the space articulated by smoke and geometric light beams create a unique experience for anyone who has had the opportunity to visit the facility.
The video Three Women by Bill Viola also ranks high among Meyer’s preferences. In this work, on the delicate visual style of the artist - exploring an expanded time - three women of different ages travel their way round through a curtain of water - element also omnipresent in Viola’s work. The poetic of the image and the discourse, coupled with the visual effects in play between color and black and white - and certainly the symbolic space created on its display in the interior of the cathedral - have made of it, surely, one of the artwork with more capacity to thrill.
Another project that Meyer highlights is Jeongmoon Choi’s installation of thread that, through illumination with black light, transforms the space of one of the rooms at MON into a network of wires that create the false impression of being enlightened and which we can go through to experience its changing geometry from different angles.
A final project that Meyer mentions - despite the interest shown also towards others, such as those mentioned before as Regina Silveira or Carlo Bernardini- is Café Bueno by the Catalan artist Antoni Miralda, which is precisely the best example of how the Biennial dialogues with local culture, giving visibility to it, even to inhabitants of Curitiba themselves.
Anthony McCall's Between You and I. Installation view
...and Local Culture
Miralda’s project results from an in-site research on the local culture, which took him to the figure of Maria Bueno - a popular saint of Curitiba to which miracles are attributed and that many curitibans worship. Meyer acknowledges that he, like many others, had heard of the phenomenon, but had never become aware of its dimensions until he knew about Miralda’s project.
Meyer gave me the opportunity to be part of the phenomenon of this saint, and before giving me a ride to visit the exhibition at MUMA about spirituality and seeing the installation by Miralda, we stopped at the city cemetery. Not knowing quite what to expect, I followed him all the way to the tomb of Maria Bueno, where all that he had told me during our conversation materialized in something that only then I truly understood. Around the mausoleum of the saint - chaired by his figure and open to the public at certain times of day - hundreds of plates from devotees, spread out by the adjacent walls, give thanks to the saint herself for granting them a «grace». During the time we stayed there Maria Bueno was visited by young and old people, making offerings and requests. Regardless of personal beliefs both Meyer and I agreed that the experience of being in that space makes one wonder about the strength of these beliefs and up to what point they are something real.
Arriving at MUMA, Miralda’s installation - that corner of the museum turned into Cafe Bueno, with a menu specially designed for and from the "legend" of Maria Bueno, inspired by the saint - acquired a depth that I doubt I could have appreciated without the previous experience. Although I could not try the menu, as it was only served at certain times, I also consider that Miralda’s work -despite being more low-profile than other projects mentioned here- is certainly one of the artworks to be highlighted in this edition of the Biennial.
Plaques giving thanks to Maria Bueno at the Cemetery of Curitiba
Menu at Antoni Miralda's Café Bueno
In our conversation I asked Meyer for his vision of the Biennial, considering that the model has been widely questioned in recent years. Well aware of these criticisms received by the biennial system, and contrary to those who consider it an exhausted format, Meyer believes that the Curitiba Biennial is precisely an example of the fact the Biennials still have a lot of vitality. He explained that the Biennial of Curitiba is in a process of expansion, not just for itself. Its coincidence with the 10th Mercosur Biennial in Porto Alegre, and also this year with the newborn and neighboring Asuncion Biennale (Paraguay) provides a strategic axis for artistic diffusion in the Southern Cone that seems called for further strengthening these events.
We hope so, and that the closure of this Biennale is just the start of things to come in 2017.
Jeongmoon Choi's In.Visible. Istallation view at MON
Photo: Guilherme Artigas