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Luis Camnitzer: Letter from Porto Alegre      (Print/Download-Version)

Luis Camnitzer: Uruguayan artist. Lecturer at the Department of Visual Arts of New York State University, College at Old Westbury.

Despite the many pronouncements about the anachronism and possible demise of biennials, these artistic events seem to be mushrooming everywhere. Korea and South Africa have already staged for their second edition; Turkey seems to be in good health and Cuba - perhaps suffering from a passing fatigue - has now acquired the standing of its counterparts at Venice and São Paulo, which remain impervious to the apocalyptic prophecies. The density of the panorama is even greater if we take into account the plethora of art fairs, which are no longer limited to just business, but include theoretical seminars and round tables amongst their activities to bolster their credibility as genuine cultural enterprises.

With an investment of six million dollars and the presentation of more than 900 works by almost 300 artists in eleven enormous premises, the First Mercosur Biennial arrives on the scene amid a burst of fanfare. The city of Porto Alegre, which has embarked upon an impressive plan to rehabilitate buildings, was already in the process of dedicating some of the buildings to culture. Enterprises interested in Mercosur helped with the renovation of enormous depots and port warehouses, providing an estimate total of 24,000 square metres. The Mercosur Biennial included several exhibition spaces rivalling those of an international museum, which deserve to remain on a permanent basis rather than just being fitted out for a couple of months every two years. The Ulbra Space, an old department store, has an ideal architecture for a museum, and was impeccably restored for the occasion. The old gas factory (Gasómetro), another significant locale, was also used for the Biennial. But it is not clear whether Porto Alegre, with a population of around 2 million inhabitants, can become a cultural center of sufficient importance to occupy so many square metres of culture on a continuous basis.

Indeed, the Biennial project itself was so ambitious that the opening date had to be postponed. Ironically for a project aimed at abolishing trade frontiers, customs problems delayed the exhibits from Argentina, Chile and Venezuela. On October 2nd, the date scheduled for the full inauguration, there was a formal ceremony and the opening of two shows (Xul Solar, to whom the Biennial was dedicated, and an exhibition of Latin American works from Brazilian collections). The other inaugurations were spread out over the following week, causing frustration for many visitors who had to leave early. This is also the reason why this article is limited to observations of a more general nature.

The Mercosur Biennial is a product of the strange combination of contradictory factors which, due to a special situation here, seem to be functioning to the benefit of art. Porto Alegre is the only city ruled by the Workers' Party (now in its third term). It is the capital of Rio Grande, an affluent state (I do not know if the comments were in earnest or in jest, but I heard someone speaking about a secession), governed by another much more conservative party which maintains tense relations with the city's administration. The municipal administrative building was decorated with large flags denouncing the state policy towards municipal employees and illustrating the mutual disagreements. The geographical position of Porto Alegre, which is relatively close to Uruguay and Argentina, coupled with a possible desire to compete with São Paulo and Curitiba (both host cities of the other Brazilian biennials), probably helped establish a precarious truce.

The business initiative which in fact launched the project also influenced the spirit of collaboration. The meta-commercial objective (it was not art which was on sale here but all the rest produced by the countries from which the art comes) meant that the neo-liberalist policy could tolerate leftist positions. The Biennial was dedicated (in addition to Xul Solar, as noted above) to the art critic and theorist Mário Pedrosa, who was co-founder of the Workers' Party, and was organized into aspects which reflected the art of resistance characterizing the decades of the l960s and l970s. There was thus a mixture of politicized erudition and academic rigor within a government political agenda which sought to establish pacts with a business profit-oriented enterprise.

The business sector had two good reasons for launching the project: a law which allows 75 per cent of funds invested in the promotion of culture to be deducted from taxes; and a need to support and consolidate the image of the member countries of Mercosur. In statements published in the economic supplement of Zero Hora [ 1 ], Justo Werlang, a businessman, collector and president of the Biennial, stressed the mutual advantages of this arrangement: The government is taking advantage of the efficiency of the corporations and the latter in turn are benefiting from being able to associate their trade marks with the quality of the art. Art is not a matter of combining a picture with a sofa in your sitting room, but requires intelligence and cultural synthesis. Cultural integration goes hand in hand with the expansion of the market.

These remarks describe the philosophy of the North American corporations. We are hearing here the voice of Philip Morris or Mobil Oil, which in the United States are already playing the role normally carried out in other countries by a Ministry of Culture. In this sense, the words of Werlang can seem to represent a certain kind of mercenary spirit. But they also have a different tone. In the regional market context, an expansion of the market means resistance against the North American economic hegemony, and symbolizes a kind of regionalist anti-imperialist capitalism, one of the underlying ideological elements of Mercosur. This is a commercial-ideological phenomenon, which is disconcerting because it is new. It is both surprising and logical, therefore, that Frederico Morais, the general curator of the Biennial, should begin the theoretical justification of the event in the spirit of Marta Traba, by citing Henry Kissinger's insult that nothing important can ever come from the South, where history was never made [ 2 ]. Morais said: The first and main task of this Mercosur Visual Arts Biennial will be... to initiate the urgent task of rewriting the history of art from a Latin American standpoint or, at least, a standpoint which is not exclusively Euro-North American. The reality of this urgency was made clear a few days later with Clinton's visit to Brazil. His team of advisers requested that the entire country, with its l60 million inhabitants, should adopt Washington time, by turning their clocks back one hour, to enable Clinton to fit an extra hour into his agenda [ 3 ].

Accustomed as we are to the ideological bipolarity of the past, from which both Morais, as the project's theorist, and myself, as reader of his text, are emerging, such cohabitation between the left and neoliberalism is quite unusual. The integration of such ideas with the mercantile project places us before a choice between possible market expansions. It is accepted that such expansion is both proper and inevitable and that this particular expansion of the market is better than the other because it is mine. It does not matter if I benefit personally in economic terms, just as it does not matter in terms of my own physical well-being whether my football team scores more goals than the other. What seems to matter is the satisfaction which I gain from the symbolic attribution - symbolic, since it is not a matter of ownership - made to my market or my football team. We are thus being led to abandon ideological analysis in favor of a commercial chauvinism or, more exactly, to allow trade to exploit our base and primitive chauvinistic instincts. Of course we will choose regional trade expansion as a means of defence against economic globalization. In the final analysis, globalization threatens our sense of identity, whereas regionalism seems to affirm it. It is precisely this schematic vieew of things which allows so many ideological contradictions to co-exist. And Coca Cola, realizing that none of this can really affect it, was one of the enterprises which sponsored the Biennial. From February 1st l996, the company abolished the separation between its national and international activities and assumed its identity as a global corporation. According to its general manager, the international and national labels which used to provide an adequate description of the company's trading activities are no longer applicable [ 4 ].

The continental union of Latin America had until now been a utopia which went beyond the geographical frontiers and the nationalist concepts imposed by Europe in the nineteenth century. While nationalism had orginally been fostered to bring people together within the same identity, its function slowly deteriorated until it became an instrument of exclusion. It was the deteriorated version which took root in Latin America, and the frontiers drawn by the empire remained as a divine and unquestionable imposition, sealing the colonial fate of our countries. So far, Latin Americanism has been the antidote to chauvinism.

Partial trade regionalism is threatening to destroy this antidote. During the recent visit by President Clinton to Latin America, the North American press commented on the Brazilian opposition to Clinton's globalist trade policy, to be explained by the fact that Brazil wants to establish itself as the leader of Mercosur so as to enable it to compete with the United States. Earlier, Argentina had already evoked its own leadership. In the magazine Scientific American, the Argentinian Government published an advertisement promoting its country, which it said offered an ideal and varied climate, a European cultural atmosphere, a country which hoped to act as a supplier of engineers, researchers and highly skilled labour to staff the companies and institutes that would establish the strategic associations needed to generate knowledge and products for Mercosur as a whole [ 5 ].

The Mercosur Biennial is a potential response to the problem. By focusing on art in the rigorous manner proposed by Morais, avoiding national divisions and organizing an expressive fabric in terms of aspects, it attempted to establish an identifiable configuration. But Mercosur itself is only a regional fraction of Latin America. It is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and there are certain historical reasons (the colonization format and certain wars) which united these countries [ 6 ]. With the addition of Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela, the selection logic becomes more tenuous and results in a fragmentation of Latin America based on the predisposition of some governments to sign the respective trade documents. Thus this Biennial in fact seems to replace the old identifiable criteria of ethnic group and nationality by the criteria of production and consumption.

It may now be speculated that NAFTA (the regional agreement concluded between Canada, the United States and Mexico) might also organize a biennial based on its own sphere of production and consumption. With the diasporas which exist, there arises the obvious question: Where should an Uruguayan artist living in New York show his work? If the response is to be determined by the market in which that artist operates, then the place would clearly be NAFTA. If identity is based on the cultural region in which the artist was nurtured, then the place would clearly be Mercosur. And yes, he could also show his work in both places. But this would mean accepting that art can be globalized, an old view (pre-multiculturalist and pre-dating the recognition of ethnic rights) embraced by the hegemonic centers. It is also a position which refutes the possibility of a biennial with identifiable characteristics, such as a Latin American biennial or, in the case in point, what to some extent the Mercosur Biennial is trying to do.

Within these parameters, the Biennials of Venice and São Paulo are clear in their inter-nationalist position. Both have inherited the ideologies of the last century, where everything was concentrated on competition between countries. The Venice Biennial began in l895 and the Olympic Games were re-established in l896 - and both events were shaped in the same mold. Later, the São Paulo Biennial was established in line with the Venice model. The Havana Biennial, on the other hand, in a process of evolution, opted to represent ethnicity and marginality. The Mercosur Biennial represents the new contradictions which are emerging today.

Morais clearly proposed the Biennial as a Latin American event. History, cultural roots, political and aesthetic proposals were clearly articulated and well conceived in the Biennial, where the art was not organized according to countries but by aspects: the political dimension (north to south, a current ranging from the Mexican muralism of the early decades to the Southern Cone of the l960s and l970s), the constructivist dimension (abstractionism, which runs from south to north) and the cartographic dimension (the mapping of identities which is occuring at the continental level). To this was added a show on the last five years, devoted to young artists, as well as other satellite exhibitions. This approach successfully transcended the arbitrary divisions established by geographical frontiers in an attempt to identify the cultural flow which reveals the coherences and differences of the continent. But the commercial-geographical dimension invalidated this enterprise. This was not because of the fact that Colombia, to mention one of the countries which were not present, was not represented, but because of the fact that Colombia's presence is necessary if the panorama is to have any meaning - and the same can be said for all the countries of the continent which were also absent.

The Mercosur Biennial is the second major Latin American exhibition created in Latin America [ 7 ]. It is also the largest and most ambitious, comparable only to The Bride of the Sun, organized by the Royal Museum of Antwerp in l992. But whereas the latter endeavored to provide a complete panorama of post-Columbian art, the Biennial focused in what in hegemonic terms would be called modern and postmodern art. The material presented was fascinating, but only had a meaning if the visitor filled in the gaps with his or her own knowledge. Since furthermore the show managed to present artists and works that were surprising but not very well-known, the frustration was even greater since it highlighted the ignorance remaining beyond what we know.

Despite its twofold lack of completion before its inauguration, the Biennial was already revealing artists. They included Ignacio Soler (Paraguay), represented by his militant-naif paintings. The work of João Câmara Filho (Brazil) consisted of a personal revision of German »New Objectivity« (Neue Sachlichkeit) as applied to the history of Brazil, culminating in the suicide of Getulio Vargas. Waldemar Cordeiro (Brazil), who had a small show in the constructivist section, provided a strange and missing link between pop art and conceptualism, with his work entitled Popcreto. Uruguayan constructivism appeared in a synthetic exhibition which was nevertheless more than correctly representative. There were also some folkloric and unavoidable curiosities, including the Andean geometry of Vergara Grez (Chile).

Of the intermediate generations, the Biennial included the finished installations of Carlos Capelán (Uruguay) and Cildo Meireles (Brazil). The former, in a (fruitless) attempt to free himself form his drawing work, sprinkled water, milk and Coca Cola over a space which he filled with wooden pillars and a sofa on which the specatator could sit with his back to a mural drawn in Capelán's characteristic style. Meireles re-did his piece entitled Mission/Missions: How to construct cathedrals. Created ten years ago, it had been inaugurated in the same place (the rectory of the University of Rio Grande) where it was now being shown. Of the younger generations, special mention must be made of the small objects and sculptures of Efrain Almeida (Brazil), the digitalized photographs of Keila Alaver (Brazil), the morbo-scientific installations of Rosa Velasco (Chile) and the work l950 by Pablo Conde (Uruguay).

Conde's work can be seen as a symbol of the positive potential of the Mercosur spirit. It consisted of a delapidated wall supported an incomplete mosaic mural, where the image was a photograph of a Uruguayan team which won the world cup in Maracana, beating Brazil. This event has become a watershed in the definition of Uruguayan identity and self-esteem and after almost half a century acquired the same importance which Waterloo had for England. In Conde's work, and in the audacity of placing it on Brazilian territory and in a deteriorated state, the memory of the game becomes a meditation on the partial histories which have faded and become invalidated by time. An offering in the name of the possible disappearance of nationalisms.


1. Porto Alegre, 28 September.
2. Meeting of foreign ministers of the continent in Viña del Mar, l969, cited by Morais in »Projeto Curaduria«.
3. The New York Times, l5 October l997. It was also interesting that the Associated Press reported that during Clinton's stop over in Venezuela that President Caldera praised him as the president of the most important country of the world and said that his visit would put Caracas at the center of world attention. In contrast to the importance attached to the trip by Caldera, Terence Hunt, in an AOL News report of l2 October l997, said that for Clinton, the trip offered a welcome escape from problems in Washington about the financial irregularities in the Democrat election campaign and the embarrassing questions about his alleged acts of sexual harassment. During his visit to Buenos Aires on the same trip, the balcony of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, from where Clinton addressed the Argentinians, was described as the place from which Madonna sang her Evita song.
4. The New York Times, l3 January l996, p.35.
5. April l995.
6. The Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro had suggested back in l933 the creation of the Andesia Republic, made up of Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, to counter the North American hegemony in the continent.
7. The first was Before America, an exhibition curated by Gerardo Mosquera, Carolina Ponce de León and Rachel Weiss, which began in Bogotá in l99l and subsequently travelled to the United States and Costa Rica.

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