In his 1809 novel, Elective Affinities, Goethe tells a story of a bourgeois couple whose idyllic life is disturbed by the appearance of two new characters into their relationship: the wife’s foster‑daughter, and the husband’s childhood friend. As is often the case in such stories, new relationships are forged beyond the social conventions of the time. So far, so typical. However, when the four protagonists are sitting in their well-equipped library enjoying an evening of music-making and reading, one of them takes a scientific treatise from the shelf and reads aloud about the reaction of certain compounds and molecules, and how some will attract and some will repel, like oil and water. Goethe seems to be inviting us to draw a parallel between the elective affinities of the natural world, and the conflictive emotional and spiritual lives of the characters in the novel. If our tastes and affinities are governed by laws we do not fully understand, we are potentially faced with an organizing system that is not primarily moral, or cultural, or biological, but some strange amalgam of all three, in which our affinity, be it conscious or unconscious, leads the way.
Almost a century and a half later, in a Brazil on the verge of a revolution in the arts (reinforced by the creation of the Bienal de São Paulo in 1951), the art critic and political activist Mário Pedrosa wrote his thesis “On the Affective Nature of Form in the Work of Art.” In this text, he uses Gestalt theory to discuss the ways in which a viewer actively constructs an understanding of any artwork, in a dialogue between the formal characteristics of the work, and the viewer’s psychological makeup. The dialogical nature of this framework, and its embracing of both formal analysis and subjectivity, was to prove transformative for the development of Brazilian art from the early 1950s to the present. By simultaneously empowering and relativizing the individual viewer, Pedrosa articulated a profoundly humanist perspective through which to understand art and its effects (or affects, 18 to use his term), independently of the prevalent ideological battleground in which x art form was to be considered inherently superior to y art form. For Pedrosa, art was to be judged primarily in terms of its ability to create a productive relationship between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s sensibility. As one of the most important political activists of the 20th century, Pedrosa was also crystal-clear about art’s revolutionary potential within this framework of individual emancipation, resisting calls for a ‘political’ art at the level of its narrative contents.
I would argue that Goethe and Pedrosa’s ideas, applied to our current reality, can offer a useful and enriching way to think about the challenges and contributions of a contemporary art biennial. Could the concepts of affinity and affect provide a different framework, or operating system, within which to organize a Bienal? For the 33rd edition of the Bienal de São Paulo, I am proposing that the centralized, discursive, and top-down Bienal – that today is the standard protocol for international biennials – can evolve into a more diversified experience, in which the hierarchy between art and curatorial practice can be re-thought. For this edition, I invited seven artists to comprise the curatorial team, each with the invitation to curate a standalone exhibition within the pavilion, in which their own work would be included, alongside artists of their choice. With this model, I hope to show how artists construct their own lineages and systems to understand their own practice in relation to others, while also allowing the themes and relationships to emerge organically from the process of exhibition-making, rather than starting with a set of predetermined issues. This choice also reflects a desire to re-evaluate the tradition of artists as curators, which is a central part of modern and contemporary art history, and also of particular relevance in Brazil, where artists have long organized their own discursive platforms. Each artist-curator works with complete freedom in determining the list of artists, the exhibition design, and the internal curatorial logic of their exhibitions, and the resulting diversity of curatorial methodologies is entirely intentional. In addition to these seven group exhibitions, I have selected twelve individual projects by artists I consider to be remarkable for different reasons, and who do not necessarily have a thematic connection between them. Of these twelve projects, three are posthumous exhibitions of key artists of the 1990s who have not received the attention they deserve in recent art history: Lucia Nogueira, Aníbal López, and Feliciano Centurión. In addition, the artist Siron Franco will participate with a selection from his iconic Rua 57 series (1987), a transformative moment in the artist’s production, and also in the history of Brazilian art, in response to an environmentally and socially catastrophic event.
If one of the critiques of the current biennial model is that there is a disconnect between the stated discursive principles and the actual physical experience of being in the space, this issue should be at the center of any proposal for renovation. For the 33rd edition, this concern informs both the physical distribution of art in the pavilion (low-density, and clearly demarcated exhibition spaces), and also the education program. Both of the major Brazilian biennials (São Paulo and Mercosur) have given great priority to mediation and education, and this tradition to my mind separates them from the plethora of biennials where, if this concern exists, it is usually at the level of good intentions, and not in terms of real resources. For this edition, the conceptual focus of the education program is attention: how we administer our capacity to focus or not on what surrounds us. While this is an age-old concern, in our times the issue of attention has become especially pronounced. We are just starting to understand the catastrophic impact of social media in our 20 interpersonal and political lives. Our attention has become the prime product that ‘free’ platforms resell, while continuing to seduce our attention during our waking hours. Visitors to the 33rd Bienal will be offered a number of exercises or protocols through which they can experience the exhibition differently, hopefully counteracting the natural dispersion that occurs in large-scale exhibitions of this type. The emphasis on attention also connects to Pedrosa’s idea of affective form, as it empowers the viewer to create his or her own relationship to the object, and then share that experience with others.
The concept of Affective Affinities works at two levels within this edition. The projects of the artist-curators demonstrate how artists can provide a model for thinking about the relationship between artworks that is born of their life-long and productive relationships within the field in which they work. At another level, by presenting a diversified and fragmented Bienal, free of an overarching thematic framework, the viewer is free to construct his or her own experience of the different proposals, without feeling that the experience will succeed or fail only in the degree to which it corresponds to a central-declared set of principles. At the heart of this edition is a desire to reaffirm the power of art as a unique place to focus attention in, to, and for the world. If we can think of art and its exhibitions primarily as experiences and not as declarations, we may be able to imagine a biennial in which artists, curators and viewers are treated as equals, all able to build their own affective affinities with art and with the world beyond.
General curator of the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo