How to ( … ) things that Don’t Exist

FIFA’s over but there’s more to Brazil than football! Sneha Shah explores the development of the 31st São Paolo Biennial.

Panning a little to the west of Rio de Janeiro, where Germany championed triumphantly at the FIFA 2014 World Cup Finals, the 31st São Paulo Biennale is shaping up for its early September vernissage. Whilst the home team had a terrible defeat, all my fellow Brazilian supporters will be happy to know that Brazil is appearing pretty strong on the art and culture front. For those new to it, the São Paulo Biennale is South America’s largest contemporary art survey, and the second oldest biennial in the world (1951) after Venice’s (1851). Promoting international involvement right from its initiation the Biennale has been instrumental in making Brazil an international centre for contemporary art and establishing a market for Brazilian art globally.

Image of the pavilion taken at the 30th Edition of the São Paulo Biennale (2012) Credit: Artinfo

Image of the pavilion taken at the 30th Edition of the São Paulo Biennale (2012)
Source: Artinfo

Like its Venetian counterpart, the São Paulo Biennale Foundation invites a team of curators to conceptualize the event. Charles Esche, Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Pablo Lafuente and Oren Sagiv, along with associate curators Benjamin Seroussi and Luiza Proença, will be developing this year’s edition. Focusing on educative collaboration, questioning the definition of ‘art’ today, and eliminating formal hierarchies between artist, participant, viewer and user, the curators have decided to replace  genre-specific ‘artworks’ with the more generic term ‘projects’.

Inviting educators, sociologists, architects along with artists and performers to participate, the projects will be unresolved and exploratory; their unscrambling will sustain from the experiences and active involvement of individuals within the event. The curators urge “This is not a Bienal built on art and objects, but on people working with people on projects; on collaborations between individuals and groups; on relationships that should continue and develop throughout and, perhaps, even after the 31st Bienal is over,” on the official biennial website.

Official poster design by  participating artist Prabhakar Pachpute Credits: The Biennial

Official poster design by participating artist Prabhakar Pachpute
Source: The Biennial

Themed “How to (…) things that don’t exist”, with the ellipses interchangeable with verbs “feel”, “talk about”, “struggle with”, “use”, “read”, etc. the projects will reflect on subjects that seem to fall out of commonly accepted beliefs, frames of thinking and doing. Influenced or censored by expectations of immediate society, country, or world at large, human concerns, acts and understanding often materialize as emotions, injustices and struggles we feel we can’t surpass. The participating artists began their journey by ‘talking about’ these distresses, later moving onto ‘living with’ them as part of a 2-8 week residency within São Paolo and Brazil at large. ‘Using’, ‘struggling against’ and ‘learning from’ their experiences, the 75 collaborators will echo the optimism and possibilities of art today, challenging the capacity of the arts in its ability to reflect and act upon these ideals, beliefs, and societal concerns at the 31st São Paulo Biennial.

The biennial will open its doors on September 6th in the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion. This year the pavilion has been divided in three architectural zones: the Park, Ramp and Columns, providing three distinctly different environments for viewers to encounter this artistic development and discourse.

The Park Credits: 31ABienal

The Park
Source: 31ABienal

The Ramp Credits: 31ABienal

The Ramp
Source: 31ABienal

The Columns Credits: 31ABienal

The Columns
Source: 31ABienal

That said, the participants have their work cut out for them and I for one cannot wait to see their creations! So don’t stray away from Brazil just yet, and stay tuned for more updates on the 31st São Paulo Biennial

Raqs Media Collective’s “The Last International”

Elizabeth Prendiville of Saffronart discusses Raqs Media Collective’s performance at Performa 13. 

"The Last International" By Raqs Media Collective

“The Last International” By Raqs Media Collective

New York: During my intensive work on the performance art biennial Performa 13 one performance was often discussed with excitement and mystery. Raqs Media Collective’s contribution to the month-long biennial was heavily anticipated, because it was intended to involve film footage, music, spoken word, sculpture, history and a number of other major themes all in one piece. “The Last International” was described in the Peforma publications as “a celebratory performance that takes New York’s history as an international gathering place for people from all over the world as a starting point, and proposes a moment of coming together”. This description brings on so many different themes and approaches that I had no idea what to expect from the artist’s group credited as India’s artistic “think tank”.

"The Last International" by Raqs Media Collective

“The Last International” by Raqs Media Collective

The Connelly Theater in the Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan was the ideal venue for this performance, because it allowed Raqs Media Collective to immerse every inch of the multi-leveled space in their fantastical and literal imagery. Although it was quite conceptual from start to finish, the performance created such rich visuals for the audience. The jumping point for the performance was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s aspirations to move the Council General of the First International Working Men’s Association to New York City. However, imagery of a rhinoceros, a wealth of film projection and endless use of language transported viewers completely from these historical roots. Just as the description of the performance implied, it was such a full sensory experience that I could barely decide where to look.

"The Last International" by Raqs Media Collective

“The Last International” by Raqs Media Collective

Prior to the performance beginning viewers were invited to explore the space. This included areas that would normally be off limits to an audience such as behind the stage and in the wings where a traditional performer would prepare in secrecy. The space was filled with impressively sized potted citrus trees, which immediately transported the audience away from the urban New York City environment. A large mountain of plastic chairs was also piled in the center of the room looking equal parts chaotic and architectural. The audience was invited to completely explore this transformed space before sitting in the round to take in the performance. There was no traditional start of the performance, no dimming of the lights or a call for viewers to take their seats. The performance just began (a trend that would repeat itself in the finale of the performance). The piece began with performers stacking, crawling through and negotiating the space around and within this huge pile of chairs. From there each aspect of the performance was a striking visual narrative snowballing from one idea to another. Raqs utilized everything from spoken word to tape and chalk on the ground. Ideas and concepts were illustrated both literally and verbally. One of the most striking visuals was a large ladder allowing performers to move from the ground level to the upper balcony freely. In the same vain as letting the audience explore every inch of the space, this ladder broke the normal spatial rules of a theater. The area where performers present and the audience observes blurred together more and more throughout the performance.  This concept was even clearer when massive balloons were blown up and then released (one from the highest point of the ladder) to float through the audience. In “The Last International” Raqs Media Collective presented the most visually rich and conceptually intricate performances that I encountered during the entire biennial.

For more information on Performa 13 please visit their website. To read more about my experience working with Performa click here. 

From Kitchen To Table with Subodh Gupta

Elizabeth Prendiville of Saffronart shares her experience attending Subodh Gupta’s performance feast “Celebration” at Performa 13.

Subodh Gupta "Celebration" at Performa 13

Subodh Gupta “Celebration” at Performa 13

New York: For the past three months, I have had the opportunity to participate in the Performa Intensive program through New York University. This included researching, assisting and participating in the production process for the well-known, visual art performance biennial under the Founding Director Roselee Goldberg. Throughout the process the most memorable and unique experience has been participating in Subodh Gupta’s piece “Celebration”, both as an aid to the kitchen staff and as a guest. Gupta is well known for his large-scale installations made from everyday objects from the Indian Subcontinent, specifically food containers such as steel tiffin boxes, thali pans and large pails. His work touches on the histories of Duchamp’s readymades, while simultaneously addressing issues of everyday life in India. Sources of inspiration range from politics to social issues. For “Celebration” (held at The Old Bowery Station) Gupta has constructed a massive chandelier made of various sized steel containers and a dazzling collection of light bulbs. The piece embodies the artist’s ability to transform these everyday vessels, while still honoring their place in everyday life. In addition to his spectacular installation, Gupta’s performance focuses on the concept of “feast” and how this event brings individuals together. Eight times throughout the biennial he prepared an elaborate meal for around fifty guests to enjoy, sharing the space with his spectacular chandelier.

Subodh Gupta at Performa 13

Subodh Gupta at Performa 13

Presented with the opportunity to assist in the kitchen for this project I was excited to get to see one of my favorite artists creating something innovative, yet so customary. Gupta’s piece stressed the role that feasting has in every community. Whether it is shared in mourning, happiness or simply togetherness, communal food presents an important element in every culture.  While helping in the kitchen, I was thrilled to see the artist actively involved in every part of the meal. He would be quickly stirring a pot and seconds later run over to direct and interact with the kitchen staff, preparing other elements of the meal. Simultaneously with being involved in the execution of every single part of the meal, Gupta also directed art handlers in the installation of his massive chandelier in the next room. The entire kitchen was buzzing with excitement and energy the way a family home would before a big holiday. Very rarely does one have the opportunity to witness an artist do something (aside from their chosen craft) with the passion and delight that Subodh Gupta expressed while cooking in the Bowery Station space.

"Celebration" by Subodh Gupta. The Old Bowery Station. Taken by Elizabeth Prendiville

“Celebration” by Subodh Gupta. The Old Bowery Station. Taken by Elizabeth Prendiville

Having this behind the scenes experience and actively participating in everything from plating bananas for dessert and drying cups to carrying packs of King Fisher beer into the event space, contributed to my understanding of Gupta’s performance. As a guest I immediately noticed that the space was pulsing with energy. Guests chatted, drank, ate and enjoyed the full sensory experience of “Celebration” from start to finish. As dessert was being served the artist took a moment to speak. He stressed the importance of community feasting in every culture, especially in India. Gupta explained that in Indian communities it is very common to share and serve food for strangers and foster new friendships in this celebratory setting. This was very fitting for the experience we shared as each table was packed with different groups mingling freely. When asked if his family or some other outside source influenced the menu Gupta simply said “I cooked the food I like to eat”. “Celebration” was truly a heartfelt performance that the artist generously shared with everyone in attendance.

"Celebration" by Subodh Gupta. The Old Bowery Station. Taken by Elizabeth Prendiville

“Celebration” by Subodh Gupta. The Old Bowery Station. Taken by Elizabeth Prendiville

Performa 13 runs through November 24th. For more information about artist’s classes, performances and other programming check out the official Performa 13 website here.