Former U.S. president George W. Bush kneels on the ground with his wrists bound behind his back and a pistol pointed at his head. Queen Elizabeth II stands with her hands clasped in front of her as a gunman aims at her back. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is tied to a chair with a knife held to his throat.
In each case the imaginary assassin is Brazilian artist Gil Vicente, whose series “Enemies” has sparked controversy at the Sao Paulo Biennial art exhibition.
All nine charcoal drawings depict Vicente as he’s about to kill a past or present leader. Among the other victims are ex- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Pope Benedict XVI, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Brazilian Bar Association asked the event’s organizers to remove the drawings but they declined, citing freedom of expression. Vicente has said that he choose the assassination figures “because they kill so many other people.”
The exhibition’s chief curator, Agnaldo Farias, said he’s not surprised by the uproar over Vicente’s work.
“Science provides answers, art raises questions,” Farias said. “We need to question the consensus more often.”
The drawings are a tiny part of the 323,000-square-foot (30,000-square-meter) free exhibition at the modernist Niemeyer building. It includes videos, drawings, sculptures by 159 artists from around the globe, plus six “living spaces” featuring dance, poetry readings and theater performances.
Dominating the entrance floor is the “Circle of Animals” by Ai Weiwei, best known for his design of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium. The display of 12 bronze zodiac heads, which originally adorned the fountain at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, will be shown at exhibitions in the U.S., Europe and Asia after the Biennial ends Dec. 12.
The grandiose set of sculptures almost hide the 1993 video by Jean-Luc Godard, “Je vous salue, Sarajevo,” a two-minute film on the Bosnian War presented as a photo-montage with accompanying text. The film expresses sadness in a bold, heartfelt way.
Also touching is the installation of Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar on the first floor. “The Eyes of Gutete Emerita” is a pile of 1 million slides all showing the eyes of a woman who witnessed the genocide in Rwanda.
“It is important to discuss the role of the media and awareness of terrors that happen in so many places in this world,” Farias said in an interview. “The eyes that saw terror are really striking.”
For pure poetry, there’s Tatiana Trouve’s “350 Points Towards Infinity.” Her installation shows motionless pendulums, hanging on an invisible magnetic field.
Another noteworthy display is “Bandeira Branca” (white flag) by Brazilian artist Nuno Ramos. Installed in the open center space of the pavilion that connects the three-story building, it consists of three large sculptures made of black sand, glass-covered loudspeakers playing Brazilian songs and three live vultures.
Animal protection groups have objected to keeping the vultures there. On the Biennial’s opening day, protesters wrote graffiti on the installation.
(Claudia Quinonez is an editor in the Sao Paulo bureau of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.