The 35th São Paulo Bienal Revives Forgotten Memories

Memory burns. This is the overarching feeling at the 35th edition of the São Paulo Bienal, where collective memory is represented as both an endlessly fading and reemerging encounter within each artwork. This year’s Bienal, which opened to the public on September 6th and runs through December 10th, boasts one of the largest selection of artists to date: A staggering 121 names in total have work incorporated into the main pavilion at the Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, the official headquarters of the Foundação Bienal de São Paulo since 1957.

Described by the Foundation as the first post-COVID Bienal for Brazil, the exhibition aims to respond to the global urgencies of our times. This includes the political, ecological, and social emergencies that have become frequent tremors over the past decade—the once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes that greet us in the morning news. In particular, the Bienal seems to confront how quickly these traumas can be erased from public memory, or quite literally, burn, as was evident with the fire that heavily damaged the National Museum of Brazil in 2018.

This is reflected in the title, “choreographies of the impossible,” which Menezes described during the press conference as a reflection of how marginalized individuals live through impossible periods of systemic oppression, ever walking across a tightrope of life to make art, love, and work that suggests that an alternative to that precarity is possible. Choreography, for the curators, is a way to channel political action into the body, and a way to revive memories.

“choreographies of the impossible” centers art and political narratives of the global Black and Indigenous diaspora, with a strong focus on the Afro and Indigenous populations located in Brazil. This approach is unsurprising as the Bienal was organized during the far-right reign of president Jair Bolsonaro. Under his leadership, Afro/Indigenous Brazilians saw an increase in policing and deforestation of their lands.

The Bienal opens with a digitized 16mm film, Meditation on Violence (1948) by Maya Deren. The black-and-white film was made in collaboration with actor and dancer Chao-Li Chin; in it, we see Chin performing a Wu-tang ritual from Chinese martial arts. The film’s camera plays an active role by following Chin’s rhythm and movement. This approach suggests that the camera is becoming possessed by the ritual and that we, as the audience, become active participants in the work, engulfed in Chin’s movements.

Adjacent to Deren’s film, a quadrant of video monitors play digitized archival recordings of dances choreographed by Katherine Dunham. This placement is intentional in that it draws out how dance, often overlooked by the visual arts, has a rich past of narrating history through abstract movements, sets, and design. It also speaks to Dunham’s influence on Deren as both a dancer and “filmmaker”—Deren managed and toured with Dunham’s dance troupe in the late 1930s.

These two digitized projections set the tone for the exhibition that follows, dancing across difficult histories of oppression through work about exercising freedom through the body. Like the exhibition title, choreography in both works demonstrates a physical way of being in the body that is not conditioned upon the representation of an oppressor, or the image of suffering, to understand what that freedom might mean for Chin and Deren.

As curator Diane Lima explained, much of the exhibition speaks to the history of colonization that undergirds Brazil. “We did not want the exhibition to begin with violence,” Lima said. “While violence shapes the origins of many of these encounters [between Europeans and Afro and Indigenous peoples]…we did not want to reduce these histories to just the spectacle of violence.”

However, to engage deeply with the Bienal’s overarching themes of how collective memory can be used to rehearse and perform freedom, if only momentarily, one needs to have existing knowledge of the artists and works on view. For example, the exhibition’s representation of artists of the Black diaspora is largely focused on feature-length films by directors like Sarah Maldoror, Marlon Riggs, and Leilah Weinraub. However, it’s unlikely that audiences will take seriously the premise of watching a 90-minute film in a gallery space with limited seating, and thus, they may miss this portion of the show. If these are artists and works you are familiar with, though, the section demonstrates a nice selection of experimental film and video, which are far too often excluded from visual art exhibitions.

More successful are the show’s large-scale installations, which envelop audiences through their use of color, scale, and material. This is evident in São Paulo–born artist Daniel Lie’s Outres (Others) (2023)—monumental earth-infused installations that release both an aroma and the land into the enclosure of an institution.

Elsewhere, the Indigenous Brazilian art collective MAHKU (Huni Kuin Artists Movement) presents massive, colorful narrative paintings that enrapture audiences. These works rewrite the history of the Brazilian Amazon, favoring a spiritual and visual iconography that mirrors the visionary experience stimulated by the ingestion of ayahuasca (miração).

Additionally, Citra Sasmita’s immense figurative paintings on cowhide and canvas, made in the Indonesian Kamasan style, mythologize the terrors and tension surrounding femme bodies of color in the world and their never-ending fight for bodily autonomy. The rich, violent hues of crimson across the cowhide stand out and reveal shocking violence beneath the seemingly superficial, flat style. Sasmita’s work is one of the Bienal’s stunning discoveries.

Another Bienal revelation is the mesmerizing photo-collage installation of trans women by the Argentinian collective Archivo de la Memoria Trans (AMT). This archive of images is largely pulled from records of sex work; the artists focused on images of trans women centering themselves through personal photographs and newspaper clippings and assembled them in a way that resembles a type of teenage bedroom wall collage.

The photo-installation is a piece that I found myself coming back to again and again as it seemed to best reflect what a life spent choreographing the impossible might look like—people who lived a free life, but are not represented in public records, memorialized by those who were also at the margins. Memory may burn, but ashes mark the evidence of fires not seen.

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