Reaffirming its capacity for resistance, Brazilian art arrives at the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale with a powerful exercise in language, conceived by Jonathas de Andrade especially for the national pavilion at the centenary show. The work of the artist from Alagoas has as its starting point the usual and at the same time absurd, fanciful expressions of the Portuguese language, phrases and sayings that are recognized by the strength of the collective. These are terms that the artist has been collecting for some time and that, he says, “only work in use”. Seen from a literal point of view, they refer to a segmented, shattered human body, but they also end up talking about an afflicted Brazil, on the verge of collapse.
Upon arriving at the building that houses the representations of Brazilian art in the Italian Biennale since 1964, the visitor is faced with the gigantic image of an ear. A similar sculpture was installed on the exit door, in an ironic and literal reference to the idea of “going in one ear and out the other”. The project conceived by Jonathas is composed of different sculptural, filmic and graphic interventions (icons printed on large colored panels and with purposefully low pixelated resolution), which dialogue with each other, functioning as allegories of the country's political, social, environmental situation. Playfully attract the viewer to then present deeper layers of criticism and resignification of the word, bringing a raw and terrifying reading of reality. “Bunda Mole”, “Cabeça nas Nuvens” and “Finger Rotten” (the latter in the form of a giant finger pressing a voting button) are some of the expressions that make up the set, making a tortuous path between sarcastic acidity and subtlety. linguistic and symbolic, one of the hallmarks of Andrade's production. After all, as he says, “art is the place of experience and radicalism”. The issue of translation – since the vast majority of the public does not understand Portuguese – also becomes a new and important layer of reading. The decision to translate sentences not for their semantic meaning, but for their literal meaning, adds an extra layer of nonsense.
It was precisely Jonathas' ability to recognize cultural forces and work with them as an invention of the myth that led the general curator of the last Bienal de São Paulo and responsible for the nomination of the Brazilian representation in Venice, Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, to invite him to conceive and present this challenging and visceral reading of the country, at a time when formal escapisms would not make sense. “How can we comment on Brazil in the face of this intense climate without being naive or documentary? I believe that other strategies must be possible”, asks Andrade, who has among his projects the desire to focus on the allegories of carnival, not as a feast of delirium and escape, but as ambiguous images, rich in their contradiction.
Between playful and acidic, two works stand out with great prominence in this set, a large red inflatable balloon that occupies the center of the Pavilion, entitled The Heart Coming Out of the Mouth, and the movie Knot in the Throat, two allegorical commentaries on the state of suspension and affliction in which we live. While the sculpture, pulsating and sensual, points to the organic, visceral character of the spatial experience, the film takes on a more militant character, associating dramatic scenes of environmental disasters, shots of nature and images of trainers and snakes interacting magnetically in a private zoo in Maragogi (AL). The succession of contrasting and ambiguous images in the work dialogues with The fish, a film between document and fiction presented by Jonathas in 2016 at the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo and which became one of his best-known works.
Andrade sees in these collaborative works that deal with the unpredictable aspect of nature a certain association with fantastic realism, which seeks fabled strategies to talk about the place and advocates its belonging to a more expanded cultural universe, which includes not only the Northeast (its starting point) and the Brazil it now represents, but more broadly Latin America. Other important references, not always conscious, stand out in the set. The first and most evident of these is the approximation between the expansion and contraction movement of The Heart Coming Out of the Mouth and Bubbles, inflatable sculptures created by Marcelo Nitsche in the late 1960s, or with the fragmented viscerality crafted by artists such as Antonio Dias. “Of course, it's all in me, it's an aesthetic seam that we're regurgitating,” says Andrade.
There is also a welcome harmony between the fanciful, enigmatic character of Jonathas’ pieces and the general theme chosen for the edition – postponed by a year due to the pandemic – of this biennial. Entitled The Milk of Dreams by the Italian curator Cecilia Alemani, the exhibition is inspired by the homonymous book by the surrealist writer and artist Leonora Carrington and presents itself as an invitation to reinvention through the prism of imagination. But it also intends to become a space for questioning and taking a position in relation to the enormous challenges facing the contemporary world, the growing inequality, the pandemic and the incessant conflicts around the world. The 59th Venice Biennale will be open to the public on Saturday, the 23rd, and its general exhibition will feature five Brazilian artists: Rosana Paulino, Jaider Esbell, Lenora de Barros, Luis Roque and Solange Pessoa.