9th Bienal do Mercosul
Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
As a force beyond our control, the weather offers some relief; it’s not our fault. And that’s probably why we talk about it to avoid talking about other things. But is it only that? In fact, weather fails as a metaphor. It is a ferocious mood swing that can destroy your home or make you fall in love or both, and that makes it far too real to describe only something else. Because over the past few years something else happened. We don’t know exactly what yet. But we do know that a series of storms came through. Political events and economic collapses arrive just as the weather does, without explanation. Cause and effect decouple. Hierarchies dissolve and people enter the streets in the millions. We become like the wind but also not ourselves. And the foundation on which art objects have been produced and exhibited shatters, because it was always pegged to a modern project that, like financial speculation, took for granted that the future would always be better. Faced with an empty lot, it sees an apartment complex. Faced with rocks it sees sculpture. And when the bubble bursts, all these emotional projections draw back to expose the material substrate of our dreams. But this is also the moment we see artworks, as well as each other, for the first time not as carriers of value or as heroic gestures, but as fragile, beautiful, awful singers making a desperate go at karaoke. We see straight through humanistic fantasies about sculpting the world in our own image and start hearing the weather telling us that it is the world that sculpts us.
For the 9th Bienal do Mercosul in Porto Alegre, curator Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy introduced the weather as a figure of submission and grace.(1) And what emerges is a kind of poiesis that might look melancholic at first sight. But the Bienal doesn’t advocate an art of repose; it’s far more interesting than that. The non-title of the Bienal, “Weather Permitting…,” was initially meant as a subheading but grew into a placeholder, signaling that the entire enterprise was receptive to change and reconciled with the possibility of being blown away at any moment. You never know. And it must be this spirit of receptiveness to contingency and contradiction that allows the exhibition to thematize a sophisticated transference of emotion into material forms, of an ecological and financial catastrophe-sublime manifesting as states of being or matter. A perfect example is Anthony Arrobo’s absolutely radiant sculpture Perfect Crime (2013), a work in two parts comprising a sculpture in the form of a rock cast from another rock located in the bottom of the river Guaíba. Believe it or not, the wall text actually says: “Probably, the very belief of this source may involve symbolically turning this sculpture into an original rather than considering it a replica—approaching it like a soul, instead of a double.” In the end we are the ones who decide what signifies and what is signified. Our optics against theirs. Our advertising against theirs.
Indeed, running through the exhibition there is a paradoxical kind of material immanence to the works, like a new substance invented by financialization, information-driven autism, and energy extraction, and it is profoundly indifferent to weight and scale.(2) It is conscious of larger cosmic or geological schemes. It conflates the destructive forces of weather and the death drive of capital and gives them form. And from those forms, it tries to develop a poetic voice as a weapon for reconstituting our sensibility, to basically give life back to art.
Take four works at the Usina do Gasômetro venue, an old thermoelectric powerhouse in Porto Alegre that was active from 1928 to 1974. Koenraad Dedobbeleer’s Amassed Knowledge in a Frantic Race Against Death That Death Must Win (2013) on first sight appears to be monumental minimal sculpture—brightly-colored, orthodox contemporary art. But actually these forms were simply part of the powerhouse building. They look sculptural enough, so he painted them to impersonate monumental sculpture. A bit like the institutional energy redirection of Michael Asher but under conditions of defunding and austerity. Forget dematerialization—now we function so purely in the realm of the idea that any substance becomes ephemeral. Upstairs, David Medalla’s Puertas de Nube (1965/2013) is a kinetic sculpture developed by the artist in the 1960s that used a motor to produce soapy foam from tubes, making a playful and light form that in its time challenged notions of stability and solidity attached to sculpture, and appears eerily prescient today when we live and die by the bubble. Back downstairs Sara Ramo’s The trick of the remote or vertebrate (2013) twists wrought iron children’s playground bars into dead or dying dinosaurs that read as a tortured timescale confused between life on earth and the erratic temporality of childhood. And Hans Haacke’s epic 1969 Circulation brings it all back to communication, biological processes, and economy with his ideological circulatory system of water pumped through an array of plastic tubes, meditating on the fluid dynamics of power and flow.
Most works in the exhibition with a heavy poetic sensibility nevertheless manage to come across with precision and purpose. Elena Damiani’s elegant Macelo 1 (2012) places an image into the dead weight of a stone that is probably a gravestone. Death and conservation swirl around each other. And anyone who has compared action painting to financial abstraction will enjoy seeing a rarely exhibited work by Robert Rauschenberg, Mud Muse (1969–71), a kinetic sculpture that is basically a bubbling primordial soup. A kind of abstract expressionism of the earth. The origin of life reanimated by machines.
Weather also forces us to remember that its destructive forces are often a social equalizer. The storm hits everyone. And for those with little to lose, destruction can be a new start. There are even certain life-giving forces in disasters, and they offer new modes of representation for those who know how to pick through the wreckage and reconstitute themselves. Luiz Roque’s short film White Year (2013) is based on Beatriz Preciado’s defense of the right to modify one’s own body as one pleases. International law still considers gender change to be analogous to psychiatric disease, to which Preciado responds by using testosterone gel to alter characteristics of her gender as a demonstration of her right to her own body as an extension of her being. Roque’s short video is a science-fiction scenario in which a beautiful young woman is scanned and profiled by an android either following or in preparation of modification. We do not know whether she is the original or the product. It doesn’t matter. Her appearance is a decision rather than a fact.
Of course, the weather makes a sentimental attachment to nature impossible in the face of our own obsolescence and the possibility of creating new forms of being out of it. Maybe some kernel emerges out of depression, compressed and diamond-like, a family jewel like Fritzia Irizar’s untitled (fake nature) (2012), a trinket that we can produce with a lock of hair and exchange for a little slice of roof to keep out of the storm.
Moving through the exhibition, I often wondered whether the sensitivity of so many works in the Bienal do Mercosul to atmospheric forces of dissolution and decay could be seen as a coded recognition of a necessary shift in our expectations of art.(3) Seen together, so many of the works assume a weird new materiality stripped of any projective potential. Artworks are weather-beaten into dead matter—de-mannered and impoverished, radically without aura to the point of being mute. But then why is the Bienal do Mercosul not a graveyard? Why do I feel with all this dead matter that I am looking at art for the first time in years? Why do I feel my receptiveness to flows of information coming back to me? A guess: the spectacle of contemporary art has become unsustainable. It front-loaded all its projective potential with financial futures on the one hand, but also with the errant messianism of dashed social desires on the other. As a figure of decay, the weather tells us there is no point to all this. Art spaces were never the cathedrals or offsite server farms for economic and social-political bloat. And I will not give myself a heart attack trying to convince myself they can be. Better to accept that they are, like you and me, already in a state of collapse, and to think about what Reza Negarestani says about decay—that it’s commonly thought of as a march toward death but in fact it plants itself on the brink, and from there produces life.(4) Decay works extra hard on the knife edge of a real deadline. We have been outmaneuvered and outstretched and we need our sensibility back. Look again at Arrobo’s rock sculpture. Check your astrological chart and do some karaoke. And let’s let the weather take over for a while.
(1) Consider Shin-Lamedh-Mem, the triconsonantal root of many Semitic words whose root meaning translates to “whole, safe, intact.” Derived from this are meanings of “to be safe, secure, at peace”, hence “well-being, health” and passively “to be secured, pacified, submitted.” It is the root of the word Islām , salām, Shillumim, Leshallem, Lehashlim (submission, entrusting one’s wholeness to another, peace, reparations, to pay, to complete or fill in). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S-L-M.
(2) See Joshua Simon, Neomaterialism (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013), for instance.
(3) I actually wrote a text on the weather last May (See http://www.e-flux.com/journal/we-are-the-weather/), and I was asked what this all means for artworks or the conditions for viewing them. It was amazing for me to see how so many of the artists in the Bienal answered this question already.
(4) Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia. Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Victoria: re-press, 2008).
- 1View of 9th Bienal do Mercosul, Usina do Gasômetro, Porto Alegre, 2013. All images courtesy of 9th Bienal do Mercosul. Photo by Tarlis Schneider/indicefoto.
- 2Anthony Arrobo, Perfect Crime (detail), 2013. Submerged stone in Guaíba and reproduction of the stone in resin, both pieces approx. 55 x 60 x 50 cm. Photo by Cristiano Sant Anna/indicefoto.
- 3Koenraad Dedobbeleer, Amassed Knowledge in a Frantic Race Against Death That Death Must Win, 2013. Concrete, wood, enamel, steel, electronics, two found sculptures and a selection of local vegetation, dimensions variable. Photo by Tarlis Schneider/indicefoto.
- 4David Medalla, Puertas de Nube, 1965/2013. Acrylic, foam, hoses, and pump system, 320 x 300 cm. Photo by Tarlis Schneider/indicefoto.
- 5Sara Ramo, The trick of the remote or vertebrate, 2013. Iron and paint, dimensions variable. Photo by Tarlis Schneider/indicefoto.
- 6Hans Haacke, Circulation, 1969. Water, air bubbles, circulating pump, plastic tubing and connectors, dimensions vary with installation. Image courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo by Tarlis Schneider/indicefoto.
- 7Elena Damiani, Macelo 1, 2012. Marble, glass, collage. Photo by Camila Cunha/indicefoto.
- 8Robert Rauschenberg, Mud Muse, 1969–71. Installation with drilling mud, sound, and air valve system. Image courtesy of Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Tarlis Schneider/indicefoto.
- 9Robert Rauschenberg, Mud Muse (detail), 1969–71. Installation with drilling mud, sound, and air valve system. Image courtesy of Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Tarlis Schneider/indicefoto.
- 10Luiz Roque, White Year, 2013. Video, 10:00 minutes. Photo by Brian Kuan Wood.
- 11Fritzia Irizar, untitled (fake nature), 2012. Diamond. Photo by Eduardo Seidl/indicefoto.