Sunday, August 7, 2011

Venice Biennale: Brazil Pavilion

It's a hard thing to be an artist these days. Especially in something like the Venice Biennale.

At one time I'm sure it was supposed to be a great honor to be selected to represent your country--but that phrase alone, to "represent your country," involves the contemporary artist in all kinds of problems involving nationalism and politics and representation of any and all sorts.

A walk through the Biennale can sometimes seem to me like a walk through an ingenious system of exquisite torture, in which artists find themselves in the most impossible of positions, struggling mightily to maintain their credibility as subversives in the most institutional of settings.

It's a losing proposition. Back when the Biennale began an artist could simply exhibit his (mostly) or her (sometimes) work. But many contemporary artists feel the need to call into question the whole notion of "exhibition" and "national pavilion" and a lot of other once seemingly straightforward terms that can only be handled safely within quotation marks now, lest the artist become infected by them.

 The Brazilian installation artist Artur Barrio bravely does without the quotation marks in his work, but the setting of the Biennale seems to present particular challenges for him. Barrio specializes in subverting the ordinary contexts of the everyday by preparing odd unidentifiable sacks of things--for example, a raggedy bloody bag about the size of a human torso, filled with bones and entrails and other unappetizing things--and leaving them anonymously behind on a sidewalk in Rio, for example, then recording the reactions of passers-by. One of the two rooms in the Brazil Pavilion documents two such works from the early 1970s.

At at time when "para-police forces" in Brazil were "cleansing" the streets of delinquents and poor children--that is, murdering them and dumping their bodies outside the city--Barrio's "placement of five hundred plastic bags containing blood, nails, dung, waste, and other debris in downtown Rio during the peak of the dictatorship’s repression” (Ramirez, Mari Carman and Olea, Hector, Inverted Utopias: Avant-garde Art in Latin America, Yale University Press) was a way of marking these disappearances, of trying to engage Brazilians personally in what their government was trying to keep out of sight.

These were brilliant works by an important artist--but how much can he possibly do within the Brazil Pavilion at the Venice Biennale? He has created a site specific installation but the setting of the Biennale works against him. No one is really surprised to find dried fish heads in crates of salt or an ersatz bed and refuse, empty bottles of wine, writing on the wall, scraped-off plaster, ropes and so forth; we're used to seeing a bunch of junk scattered around in contemporary art. There are so many other pavilions to see, viewers don't even slow to take it all in, much less react in any way.

He knows what he likes
Except for one viewer, that is. A pigeon happened to walk in while I was looking at the installation and he became very engaged with the piece. Specifically with a plastic sack of dried corn kernals hanging on the frame of the cot.

He watched the corn and I watched him. Then he leaped onto the plastic bag and, wings flapping, tried to break into it. He tried this a number of times with no luck.

He spent far more time with the piece than any human who passed through while I was there. Then, finally giving up, he walked out of the pavilion through the same door he came in.

It was the most intense interaction with any of the Biennale art that I've witnessed in my half dozen visits to the pavilions and, no surprise, it was by a creature whose appetites remained undimmed by the aesthetical institutional setting. If I were the artist it might not have been all that I'd hoped for but, considering the context, I'd be pretty happy with it.


  1. Aren't you glad you happened to be there to capture that!? From what you have written about him, Barrio would have approved of that pigeon.


  2. Indeed I was happy when that pigeon strolled in & I do think that's the kind of interaction Barrio hoped for (though perhaps with some other species as well).

    In Barrio's account of one of his works from the early 1970s on display in the other room of the pavilion, he tells of an older man who came up to him while he (the artist) was leaving bags of stuff on a Brazilian city sidewalk and asked if they were witchcraft. Barrio told the man, no, in fact it was art. The man considered for a moment, then said that as it was art he'd like to take one of the bags home with him. Barrio was happy to let him do so.

    I don't think the Biennale would have allowed me to take any part of the installation though.