Lower School News 

At Home in Uncertainty: Field Trip to the 32nd São Paulo Bienal
Posted 10/26/2016 09:11AM


IB Visual Arts students at the 32nd São Paulo Bienal, September 15th.
Photo: Henrique Montesanti.

“How do you define art, Ms.York?”

“Ahh, the age-old question,” I mused momentarily before responding: “How do you define art?”

“Action with intention,” declared the student with enviable certainty.


We discussed this for a time, applying it to different scenarios. Meanwhile, classmates offered up their own definitions, breaking from studio work intermittently to agree or disagree, or to ponder aloud their own artistic intentions. When class ended, we were no closer to an answer. It is more important that the question is asked.

While the definition may be fluid, art has always been a reflection of society and a mirror to it: sometimes critical, other times questioning. This is precisely what the theme of the 32nd São Paulo Bienal, Incerteza Viva (Live Uncertainty) endeavours to do, by asking viewers to ponder notions of uncertainty in the world today. When Graded’s IB Art students attended the Bienal this past month, they reflected on the uncertainties in their own lives, as well as “strategies offered by contemporary art to embrace or inhabit [uncertainty].” (1)


Yejin On in front of Ebony G. Patterson’s installation,
Da Esquerda Para Direita, 2016. Photo: Nathalia Tone.

Most of the 133 artworks (by 81 artists from 33 countries) were commissioned for the Bienal. Ranging from paintings to videos and installations to earthworks, each artwork presents a unique perspective and approach to the theme of uncertainty. As one student observed: “Human beings don’t like uncertainty; it makes us anxious. But I think that by having the different interpretations, viewers start to recognize uncertainty in everything. It’s a process of acceptance.” In fact, each student came away from the event having made his or her own discoveries, insights, or personal connections with the artwork and ideas encountered there.

“It really expanded my perception of art,” reflected one student on the value of the experience. Others felt validated, remarking that it was, “nice to see ideas or themes [we] have thought about as high school art students, visualized in a professional context.” Students were impressed by the variety of approaches to displaying work, invigorated by innovative uses of traditional media, and inspired to explore new art forms.

For some, the Bienal prompted further questions about the nature of art itself, and the creation and interpretation of meaning: “To what extent is an artist truly able to convey a particular message, in the face of ideas imposed on the artwork by an audience?” and “To what extent is art created to fit a need?”


IB Junior students Gabriela Lati and Isabel Haegler responding
to the exhibition in their Visual Journals. Photo: Nathalia Tone


Senior IB Art student Henrique Montesanti acknowledges that he enjoys the uncertainty in process and outcome, when creating his line compositions. Despite attempts to control placement and direction, small imperfections in the hand drawn lines accumulate and, like a ripple in water, change the course of the drawing process, which takes on a life of its own.


Henrique Montesanti, pen on paper, 2016 (40 x 50 cm).
Photo: Henrique Montesanti


Classmate Subin Jeon also recognizes a strong connection between the Bienal theme and her own artwork. She explores the liminality—characterized by ambiguity and disorientation—where cultures, languages, or identities converge, by giving visual expression to Korean words with no English equivalents. In a situation where spoken language leads to uncertainty, art presents strategies for clarifying meaning lost in translation.


Subin Jeon, 미련 (Milyeon), 2016, mixed media (wire, lacquer, twig), 33 x 10 x 7.5 cm. Photo: Subin Jeon.
Milyeon: A lingering affection/attachment to a point when one should let go; reluctance to give something up.


I encourage my students to ask questions—challenging and difficult ones—about art, about themselves, about the world we live in. But, as art students engrossed in the creative process, I also want them to feel comfortable in the presence of uncertainty. As the curators of the Bienal explain: “Uncertainty in art points to creation, taking into account ambiguity and contradiction. Art feeds off chance, improvisation, and speculation.” (2)


While I’m not sure that any of us is closer to finding a satisfactory definition for art, our field trip to the Bienal continues to feed that dialogue. It is certain, however, that these students are becoming more comfortable with the role that uncertainty plays in creativity and art making, and the expression of possibility it gives to their lives.

(1) Wall text, Incerteza Viva, Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, São Paulo, Brazil.
(2)  Alves, Lisa. (2016, September 17). “Uncertainty Reigns at the the 32nd São Paulo Art Bienal”, The Rio Times. Retrieved from http://riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/rio-entertainment/uncertainty-reigns-at-the-32nd-sao-paulo-Bienal/#.  

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