Skip to main content Start of main content

The Bienal de São Paulo: Unseen/Undone (1969—1981)

Reproduction of the diagram made by Paulo Herkenhoff as part of the conception of the ‘Núcleo Histórico’, which also informed the installation plan. Photography: © Juan Guerra, courtesy Arquivo Histórico Wanda Svevo / Fundação Bienal de São Paul
As Vilém Flusser put it in 1969, the Bienal de São Paulo is a stubborn fact.1 Its recurrence since the first edition in 1951 lends it a semblance of perpetuity, and it is now a cultural event that might be described in terms of ‘always’…

As Vilém Flusser put it in 1969, the Bienal de São Paulo is a stubborn fact.01 Its recurrence since the first edition in 1951 lends it a semblance of perpetuity, and it is now a cultural event that might be described in terms of ‘always’ – as in: ‘São Paulo’s biennale has always been intended to indicate Brazil’s competent modernism to an international clientele, and to energise local developments by injections of the international.’02 However, underlying this stubborn fact is a series of structurally discontinuous exhibitions, particularly during the 1970s, after the boycott of the 10th edition in 1969, and in the context of Emílio Garrastazu Médici’s military government (1969-74), which brought with it an acceleration of repressive means of state control such as censorship, arbitrary arrest and torture. The boycott was supported by prominent Brazilian artists and writers, and gained solidarity in Europe and later in the USA. By 1971 the boycott had successfully appropriated the exhibition’s international prestige, or, rather, participating in the Bienal, co-sponsored by Brazil’s right-wing military regime, had come to be seen as a dubious ambition for any politically engaged artist. National agencies, including the British Council, maintained a diplomatic but distanced mode of participation until political change became apparent in the early 1980s.03

The boycotted Bienal remains a landmark within the event’s history. But by the mid- 1970s the once focused, artist-led boycott lost much of its attention and participation. The five editions that followed received little coverage in the international press, and their history hasn’t been widely examined. As a consequence of this lapse in critical attention, the 16th edition of 1981, which was curated by Walter Zanini and received remarkable international interest, may seem to have sprung ex nihilo – without relation to what took place the decade preceding it. The first to replace national representation with a series of different thematic ‘nuclei’, that edition also reflected forms of practice that had developed within Brazil over the 1970s but had previously been sidelined by the Bienal, and included a ‘live’ mail art exhibition which grew to a length of nearly 3,000 metres as post progressively arrived at the pavilion.04

But despite being invisible to the international mainstream, the Bienal did remain active between 1969 and 1981. Its constituency was altered by the boycott, and this, alongside attempts at structural reforms from within the organisation, generated far-reaching debates concerning the event’s local and regional significance. Works from that period form an essential part of the Bienal’s critical history, and continue to hold relevance for contemporary practice and for how Brazilian art of the 1970s is understood. The question of persistence, too, remains significant; it resurfaced, for example, when, for the 28th edition in 2008, in the face of financial crisis, chief curator Ivo Mesquita translated the need for economy into a strategy, reducing the number of artists and leaving the second of the pavilion’s three floors empty to instead concentrate on programming cycles of performances, screenings and discussions for the duration of the Bienal.

That edition, titled ‘Em Vivo Contato’ (‘In Living Contact’), stressed its relation to its local context. A strong component of its programme was ‘The Bienal de São Paulo and the Brazilian Artistic Milieu, Memory and Projection’, a conference series organised by art critic Luisa Duarte that continued ongoing work centring on the Bienal’s archives, including the compilation of critical responses to every edition. Drawing attention to its own history was instrumental in asserting the São Paulo biennial’s longevity and specificity as an event now within a crowded biennial circuit (a status quo regularly described in phobic terms, such as ‘proliferation’ or ‘mushrooming’). The archival focus inaugurated by its 28th edition departed from the conventional, intermittent exhibition format, and its conception of the event as a neutral stage for the placement of works by ‘historical’ artists.05 But what matters more here is the fact that the archival focus of the 2008 edition has a particular significance in relation to the post-boycott editions of the 1970s, not only because of their relative obscurity from an international perspective, but also because temporality and locality stand out as the key issues addressed by the artists who did take part, whether exploring the Bienal’s physical space, its duration or its context at the time of each exhibition.

The boycott was provoked by the emergence, in 1969, of evidence that artists and critics in Brazil were operating under conditions of political repression. That year, ‘subversive’ works were removed from the Bienal da Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, while an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro was shut down and the museum’s director arrested.06‘The Duties of the Art Critic in Society’, an article written under a pseudonym by the prominent author Mário Pedrosa, made reference to these events. Pedrosa was president of the Brazilian Association of Art Critics, and while his article called upon members of the ABCA to refuse to take part in judging the Bienal de São Paulo, it also caused debate amongst Brazilian artists who had been selected for participation in the 10th edition. Even though the boycott wasn’t unanimously upheld by either the ABCA or by the selected artists, it gained momentum and solidarity elsewhere. Pierre Restany’s manifesto ‘Non à la Biennale’ (‘No to the Biennial’) was published in The New York Times and the Corriere della Serra, and the anonymous dossier ‘Partial Evidence of the Cultural Repression’ was circulated amongst artists across Western Europe and the USA. In New York, the artists’ lobby Museo Latinoamericano spurred a second wave of protest in 1971, soliciting prints and statements for a self-published book titled Contrabienal in support of political prisoners.07 The Museo used the publication as an alternative exhibition and a way to disseminate evidence of the use of torture in Brazil.08 In so doing, it also put in place an enduring perception of an association between the Bienal and the military government. An oft-cited example of how this came to happen is an open letter that Gordon Matta-Clark contributed to Contrabienal directly relating the Bienal to the regime’s political patrimony.09 Asserting that ‘works shown in São Paulo will shamefully lend importance to this totalitarian government and their allies’, his letter defended Contrabienal as the proper place for opposition.10

In fact, the Bienal was not directly implicated by the evidence that provoked Pedrosa’s call for boycott in 1969, but it was uniquely placed to draw wide attention to cultural repression. Refusal to participate in a vehicle for national pride and political expediency was seen by artists and other art professionals as an effective response to the intensification of state repression under the governments of Artur da Costa e Silva (1967-69) and Garrastazu Médici. The success of the boycott, however, and the continued visibility of the Contrabienal as a point of reference obscure the role the Bienal played in the local context, and its relation to the artists who remained in Brazil during that time. In 1969, taking part in the exhibition had been irreversibly cast as an ethical as well as a professional decision, but for local artists the biennial’s of the 1970s presented a more complex choice, as each edition offered a chance not simply to gain prestige, but to continue to work critically and apart from the market.

The ‘intervening’ editions – those that lie between 1969 and 1981 – were marked by the exodus of a generation of artists (including Pedrosa, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica)11 who had gained international prominence in the 1960s, and by acutely repressive episodes following the strict implementation of the extra-constitutional Institutional Act Number Five (1968). Under the act, censorship and federal intervention in local government were legitimised under a pretext of ‘national security’, habeas corpus was suspended and the leftist guerrilla movement suppressed. Artists and writers opposed to the regime operated at risk of arrest, and cultural practice could confidently benefit from neither explicit dissemination nor prominent criticism. The artists and critics who stayed in the country constituted an intimate circle, and made works that, like those produced by Conceptual artists in New York or Europe at the time, were often ephemeral. Because of these various factors, not only work that was included in the Bienal but, more broadly, artistic practice within Brazil in the 1970s is not as easy to recuperate as that of the 1950s and 60s. From an international perspective, the ‘cultural void’ is a hole in knowledge that is often papered over:12 the English-speaking history of 1970s Brazilian art is habitually restricted to those who came to be known in the 1960s and later worked in exile, and to those able to maintain supportive contact with that earlier generation. The partial or provisional nature of such history is rarely admitted. Anglophone studies of Latin American Conceptualist tactics, for example, are often presented as conclusive while omitting the context of artistic practice within Brazil.13

A history of Brazilian art written from the perspective of the international visibility of the Bienal allows for this lack of knowledge to be read as lack of activity or solipsism. British art historian Margaret Garlake’s Britain and the São Paulo Bienal 1951-1991, a sketch of the Brazilian milieu from the perspective of the Bienal, conflates international withdrawal from the event with a complete shutdown in external contact for Brazilian artists. She describes them as being in ‘total’ isolation during the boycott, seeing ‘no foreign art and only occasional magazines’ before being revived by the properly international oxygen necessary to ‘once again counter the isolation of Brazilian artists’.14 A trajectory of decline from 1969 onwards is a narrative more habitual than its reverse – that is, reading back from the 1981 edition in order to account for an apparently sudden innovation. But, in fact, while international contributions to that event (including a visit from Gilbert & George) were crucial for reawakening international attention, any memorable aspects of form and content it might have had did not come from any recent injection – they were the result of what had taken place within Brazil during the 1970s.

Without resolving into a permanent structural shift, various sorts of experimental practices, including video, slide installations, performance and urban interventions, were accommodated by the Bienal during the 1970s. An ‘Art and Communication’15 section in 1973 brought in group proposals from cities across Brazil to be placed on the third floor of the Bienal pavilion alongside a special room dedicated to Waldemar Cordeiro.16 The eventual form of these projects (many explicitly critical of the political and economic status quo) was not systematically documented, and it is impossible to know from the institutional record alone how they were realised – the experimental practices were included alongside traditional modernist displays of a type that the Bienal was better prepared to catalogue and archive. Until 1977, the Bienal remained under the firm direction of its founder, Francisco Mattarazo Sobrinho, who did not allow technical or curatorial advisors to effect decisive changes in display or documentation strategies.17 Innovation thus did not permanently capture centre stage, but there is archival evidence of the projects’ presence in the exhibition in the form of proposals sent by the artists. It is thus possible that the gap in documentation could one day be filled with the work of cross-disciplinary groups that formed in alternative centres across Brazil (such as regional universities, fine art schools, contemporary art museums, collaborative urban interventions and rural convivências).

In São Paulo, the Bienal had become one exhibition amongst others; its attempts to innovate were not only provoked by new international paradigms (notably Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5 of 1972), nor solely bids to compensate for the absence of artists from the earlier generation. It had local competition: experimental practice was already being supported by annual exhibitions, including ‘Salão de Arte Contemporânea’ (1966-75) at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea Campinas and JAC (Jovem Arte Contemporânea, 1963-74) at the University of São Paulo Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC-USP), which occupied a space directly adjoining the third floor of the Bienal pavilion. In the course of his tenure as MAC- USP’s founding director (1963-78), Zanini repositioned the function of the museum from a repository to an experimental space that approximated both studio and school18 and exhibited international (but often marginal) practices.19 Recognition of what was going on next door is one expandable margin that can render legible the work of artists who took part in the Bienal. In 1972, the JAC exhibition adopted a new system: sections of its space were distributed through a lottery amongst artists, who then worked continuously for the show’s two-week duration. Rather than authoring projects of their own, Francisco Iñarra and Genilson Soares solicited and developed proposals by Jannis Kounellis, Jean-Jacques Castex, Sérvulo Esmerlado, Arthur Luis Piza and Erika Steinberger.20 For the 1973 Bienal, this time working with Lydia Okumura as Grupo Três, Iñarra and Soares extended their investigation of appropriation by inhabiting the Bienal itself. Each occupied one corner of their exhibition space, and used different formal devices to alter its shape and appearance. Referencing each other’s work (for example, one artist’s found object was counteracted by another’s figurative depiction of it) their abstract battles of line, plane and shadow introduced an illusory incline within the floor and constructed walls. In this way, they reduced the pavilion from emblematic building and international stage to physical space for temporary collective intervention. Iñarra and Soares repeated this tactic for the 14th edition in 1977. This time working under the name Arte/Ação, they accessed the empty pavilion three months before the opening, inverting the duration of the Bienal and doubling that of their participation. Taking only what they found as material for their work, they used the entire space as a studio, producing and photographing a shifting cycle of sculptural interventions. When their sole occupancy of the empty building ended with the opening of the Bienal, they displayed works produced from found objects in their designated exhibition space alongside photographic evidence of their three-month inhabitation of the building.

The proximity of MAC-USP to the Bienal’s site also allowed international artists to stray. French-Algerian artist Fred Forest’s participation in the 12th edition in 1973 was the result of Vilém Flusser’s failed attempt to rethink the Bienal’s entire structure. Forest, a member of the Collectif d’Art Sociologique, conceived a series of ‘symbolic utopian spaces for free expression’.21 In collaboration with Forest, several newspapers published a blank space daily during the Bienal; readers were invited to write or draw within it and post their pages to Forest for display in his third-floor exhibition space, where several telephone lines were also installed. Following instructions included in the newspapers as advertisements, readers could call Forest at the exhibition, to have their voices amplified in the space of the pavilion. This formed part of the first deliberately popular edition of the Bienal, as play and physical participation were prioritised in the selection of works. The admission fee was lifted and high visitor numbers were publicly reported. Forest, meanwhile, deflected any populist accommodation of his project by staying in Brazil for three months and organising parallel actions independently. Mounted in specific areas of the city, these emphasised the widening of social divisions, something that would have been conspicuously apparent to a visitor to São Paulo in 1973, when both repression and Brazil’s concurrent ‘economic miracle’ were at their peak.22

Approximately one month into the Bienal, Forest temporarily defected to the JAC exhibition in order to organise an ‘Aesthetic- Sociological Walk’ in the district of Brooklin.23 He and thirty recruits conducted sociological interviews with residents, filmed by television cameras. Then they made their way back on foot to Ibirapuera Park, the location of the Bienal pavilion, and documentation of the interviews was integrated into JAC. Also organised in collaboration with MAC-USP, Forest’s work Autopsy of the Rua Augusta: A Little Museum of Consumerism (1973) used CCTV to transmit images of objects on sale in exclusive shops into a gallery located on the same street; while White Invades the City (1973) was a simulated protest that involved Forest and ten paid recruits from a favela in Barra Funda carrying blank placards in procession, along a route passing prominent public places and monuments. Forest’s combined defection and critical observance was repeated when he returned to São Paulo in 1975 to mount a ‘Bienal do Ano 2000’, also at MAC-USP. For this counter-biennial, Forest and a group of recruited artists acted as ‘archaeologists of the future’. The idea was to produce material that would eventually (by the year 2000) stand as an anthropological record presenting the official Bienal as a cultural ritual. Identified by ‘Bienal 2000′ stickers, they collected footage and interviews from the main event and made expeditions into Ibirapuera Park to search for physical traces from past editions.

Walter Zanini left MAC-USP in 1978 and was appointed curator of the 16th edition in 1981. Zanini’s curatorship accommodated those he had worked with over the course of the preceding decade, spotlighting artists’ books, video, mail art and actions by artists including Hervé Fischer, Iñarra and Antoni Muntadas.24 The edition also reflected how both international contact and localised activity had persisted in Brazil throughout the 1970s.25

The axis of the Bienal/MAC-USP/city-at-large negotiated by Iñarra, Soares and Forest is one fragment of what took place in and on the outskirts of the Bienal during that decade. Other archival material is more resistant to recovery. The names of those who proposed projects from less prominent cities or whose practice was not attached to professional circles remain unknown. Self-censorship also stands as a barrier to making sense of what took place at these events. Iñarra and Soares used the Bienal not only because of its prominence, but also as an occasion to produce work that subtly addressed the event’s parameters. It was, as well, a national stage for dissent. A case in point is a group of five young architects, working together as Grupo Segurança, who were selected for the 12th edition;26 their project Faixa da Segurança (1973) took over the main exit of the pavilion, filling the first floor with noxious fumes and obstructing the passing of both the public and government officials.27 Omitted by neglect, censorship or wilful misrepresentation, the intentions of explicitly critical projects like this one haven’t made it on the historical record. Faixa da Segurança‘s reversal of control and reference to the enhanced state of ‘national security’ was topped off by a demonstration that included tipping litres of blood over their own work and the pavilion’s exit ramp, an event that eventually provoked their expulsion from the exhibition.28 This, however, was treated by the Bienal’s press statement as so much jejune acting out against the art institution. To complete Flusser’s quote, the Bienal de São Paulo is a fact both stubborn and important, and because it is important, it asks to be criticised.29 The better-known criticisms of the Bienal in the 1970s were articulated at a distance, and successfully dealt with just one aspect of it (for example, projects such as the New York Contrabienal were able to make explicit and effective reference to censorship, arbitrary arrest and torture). But by 1973 the Bienal itself could flippantly accommodate reproductions of works titled The Torturer and Censorship – Violence in its official catalogue.30 Grupo Segurança’s actions were rendered similarly impotent by the impossibility of translating violent visibility into serious attention, let alone macro-political change. The solidary act of appropriating prestige by those who participated in the boycott as a means to insist on recognition of the severity of human rights abuses in Brazil was perhaps a fitting tactic at the time within an international context. In contrast, artists living in or still travelling to Brazil undid its prestige by using different strategies – such as emphasising quotidian duration over prize-winning moments or reducing the Bienal from its symbolic stage to an experimental physical space. It is these partially undocumented tactics of questioning participation that shaped Brazilian art throughout the 1970s – and subsequently.

– Isobel Whitelegg


  • Vilém Flusser, ‘As bienais de São Paulo e a vida contemplativa’, O Estado de São Paulo Suplemento Literário, 27 September 1969, p.4.
  • Rachel Weiss, ‘Some Notes on the Agency of Exhibitions’, Visual Arts & Culture, vol.2, Sydney: Arts and Humanities Research Foundation, 2000, p.122.
  • Ernesto Giesel devised from 1974 to 1979 a plan of gradual democratisation which continued to proceed by slow steps under the rule of his successor, João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo, until 1985. Figueiredo was succeeded by an opponent elected by members of an electoral college, Tancredo Neves. A new democratic constitution was adopted in 1988 under the government of Neves’s successor, José Sarney.
  • The ‘nuclei’ were a set of group exhibitions, each with different criteria for selection and display, including a show (itself divided into different ‘vectors’) that grouped works from the 1970s onwards according to analogies between media.
  • The on-and-off placement of ‘historical nuclei’ within the exhibition has included internationalist revisions by theme (e.g. ‘Antropofagia e Historias de Canibalismos’ [‘Anthropophagia and Histories of Cannibalism’], 24th edition, 1998, curated by Paulo Herkenhoff) as well as the establishment of national genealogies relating the 1960s to the contemporary (e.g. the ‘Salas Especiais’ for Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Mira Schendel, 22nd edition, 1994, curated by Nelson Aguilar).
  • The exhibition was dedicated to work by artists selected for the forthcoming Biennale des Jeunes in Paris, and this international connection helped the boycott spread from Brazil to Europe.
  • Formed in 1970 to promote a boycott of the Center for Inter-American Relations in NY. Museo Latinoamericano was a group of NY based Latin American artists.
  • Whereas work by Brazilian artists was not included, Brazil was represented via a special section documenting the use of torture.
  • Gordon Matter-Clark’s open letter to the São Paulo Bienial was published in 1971 in both Contrabienal and Artforum,in 2006,  a facsimile of the letter was printed in the inside-cover gatefolds of the guide to the 26th Bienial de São Paulo.
  • The letter also references a tangential polemic between Matte-Clark and the Argentine entrepreneur-critic Jorge Glusberg, who was attempting to recruit North American artists for ‘Art Systems’, a cross-national thematic exhibition.
  • Corresponding from NY, Oiticica accepted an invitation to participate in the 1977 edition. His name is included in the catalogue, but archival material suggests that his outdoor environmental/architectural project was not released due to the lack of funds.
  • Journalist Zuenir Ventura coined the expression ‘O Vazi Cultural’ in 1971. It refers to the combined affect of censorship, exodus, economic growth and consumerism on Brazilian culture in the 1970s.
  • Firsthand critical histories are available in Portuguese, for example, in the writings of curators and writers, including Frederico Morais and Zanini, who lived and worked alongside the new generation. They remain untranslated, however.
  • Margaret Garlake, Britain and the São Paulo Bienal 1951-1991, London: British Council, 1991, pp. 25-26
  • The ‘Art and Communication’ section reflects the institutional creation of a Bienal Nacional in 1970, which fed into the international the international event, which was itself fed fed from the regional Pre-Bienais. The Bienal Nacional in 1972 included invited artists working in Conceptual art, technology, environmental art and areas of cross-disciplinary research.
  • Cordeiro died suddenly in June 1973, before the opening. His project was carried out as a posthumous exhibition in collaboration with former students at the Centro de Processamento de Imagens, Instituto de Arte, University of Campinas (a computer-image processing centre he had established in 1970).
  • Discussions about the adoption of an overall theme for the exhibition and about the appointment of an independent artistic director started in 1971, within a closed round table organised as part of the 11th edition.
  • 18 See Cristina Freire, Poéticas do Processo: Arte Conceitual no Museu, São Paulo: Editora Iluminuras, 1999; and ‘Territory for Freedom’, in Maria Lind and Liam Gillick (ed.), Curating with Light Luggage, Frankfurt a.M.: Revolver, 2005.
  • MAC-USP’s group exhibitions solicited mail art, artists’ books, video, conceptual proposals and performance documentation from artists in Canada, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Japan, Poland, Spain, the UK and the US, among other countries. Artists visiting from abroad included Fred Forest and Hervé Fischer (Collectif d’Art Sociologique, France) and Marta Minujín (Argentina); others, including Antoni Muntadas (Spain), sent material for solo exhibitions organised in absentia.
  • This work was titled Incluir os Excluídos (To Include the Excluded, 1972). Iñarra and Soares’s participation also included Título para um projeto ausente (Title for an Absent Project, 1972), a title which describes the unanticipated action of waiting for a proposal by Daniel Buren to arrive, and Dentro e Fora da Lotería (Inside and Outside the Lottery, 1972), which documented the processes and politics involved in implementing the lottery system before and during the exhibition.
  • A proposal to transform the 1973 edition into an international laboratory was developed in 1972 by the Brazilian philosopher, then resident in France. He ceased communications with the Fundaçao Bienal in early 1973, but certain of his ideas were retained, including Forest’s inclusion. Flusser’s involvement with the Bienal is discussed by Ricardo Mendes in ‘Bienal de São Paulo 1973 – Flusser como curador: uma experiência inconclusa’, presented at the symposium ‘A terceira margem: Vilém Flusser e o Brasil’, at the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz in October 2006, and available at (last accessed on 11 June 2009).
  • The economy grew by 10 per cent annually during Gastarrazu Médici’s regime; social divisions were sharpened as commercial and industrial development was prioritised.
  • Brooklin is a suburban residential area of São Paulo, at the time on the brink of commercial development; the favela occupying its drainage ditch had been recently identified as a prime location for the construction of office buildings.
  • In Clemente Padín’s absence, Iñarra carried out his action A Artista Está à Serviço da Comunidade (The Artist Is Serving the Community,1981).
  • In addition, the administrative and financial structure of the Bienal was reformed for this edition, and an international commission of ‘ambassadors’ was established.
  • Grupo Segurança included Alberto Cechi, Eduardo Carlos Pereira, Laura Machado de Mello Bueno and Monica Mattar Oliva, with support from municipal workers from the suburb of Jundiaí.
  • The project consisted of a stretch of pavement built on the first floor using a six-tonne steamroller and employing a full road crew to mix asphalt. The pavement extended directly towards the Bienal’s main exit and the order ‘PARE’ (‘STOP’) was painted in large white letters on the floor, to the side. Visitors (including Vice-President Augusto Rademaker) were required to negotiate the work and attendant signage when leaving the building. This de facto exit also obstructed the passage of customers to the pavilion’s ground-floor bank.
  • Grupo Segurança’s planned action began with what appeared to be a polite vernissage – with the artists elegantly dressed and drinking champagne under dimmed light, just as the building was being emptied of visitors for closure. It culminated with litres of pig’s blood being poured over the pavement and down the pavilion’s exit ramp as people fled.
  • ‘A Bienal de São Paulo é um fato. Como todo fato, ela é obstinada. E como todo fato, ela é ameaçada tanto na sua permanência como no seu significado. Ela é um fato importante. Não se pode compreender São Paulo sem considerá-la. A importância do fato exige que seja criticado.’ V. Flusser, ‘As bienais de São Paulo e a vida contemplativa’, op. cit., p.4.
  • Roberto Paez’s El Torturador (1973) and Juan Bercetche’s Censura – Violencia (1973) were part of the official Argentinean representation in the 1973 edition.