The biennial refurbishing a Unesco World Heritage city one building at a time

The city of Coimbra in Portugal is hosting the third edition of Anozero cc François Philipp

The Anozero biennial in Coimbra was founded in response to part of the Portuguese city being designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2013. It was important to look at “how that [designation] might constitute a challenge for contemporary art, rather than being a problem,” says Carlos Antunes, the biennial's co-founder and director of Círculo de Artes Plásticas de Coimbra. Antunes, as well as his partner and associate biennial director Désirée Pedro, both trained as architects and are familiar with how such a designation can stifle a city. “We think that artists can bring new readings to these spaces,” Pedro says. To the couples surprise, both the local council and the university—one of the oldest in Europe, which still holds significant sway in the city—backed the biennial straight away.

The third edition of Anozero, titled The Third Bank (until 29 December), features 39 artists, including Steve McQueen, Susan Hillier, Anna Boghiguian and Alexandra Pirici, spread across ten sites in the city. The artists were selected by the Brazilian chief curator Agnaldo Farias with associate curators Lígia Afonso and Nuno de Brito Rocha. Among the 20 new commissions at the biennial are Boghiguians installation ABC of Life (2019) and Meriç Algüns The Library of Unborrowed Books, Section IX: Biblioteca Geral da Universidade de Coimbra (2019), for which the artist has gathered all the unborrowed books from the university librarys short stories section.

Farias, who has in the past worked on the Bienal de São Paulo, says that curating on a smaller scale is much more satisfying now that he and his fellow curators are able to work closely with each artist. “If it had been big, I would not have accepted the invitation,” he says. The São Paulo biennial included “160 artists, with 39 artists you can follow the work of each and every one—with 160 artists it is impossible.”

Anna Boghiguians installation ABC of Life (2019) © Photo: Luís Fardilha

The biennials title and theme come from a book by the Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa, where the protagonist leaves his family and takes up residency on a small boat in the middle of a river. “The presence of the river in Portuguese culture is very strong,” Farias says, and Coimbras river Mondego and its historic flooding has shaped the city. In the 17th century, floods drove the inhabitants of a riverside monastery uphill to establish the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova. The vast building, which later became a military barracks and was subsequently abandoned in the late 1980s, was brought back to life by the biennial ahead of the 2017 edition and is this years main venue.

Among the works on show in the old monastery are David Claerbouts The Pure Necessity (2016), where the artist de-anthropomorphised Disneys The Jungle Book; Maria Condados site-specific wall paintings that embrace the old buildings damp walls; Erika Verzuttis specially-commissioned Mineral (2019) sculptures; and a 16mm film installation by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva. The Portuguese duo were the first artists to be selected for the biennial, Farias says, partly because he felt he owed it to them after they missed out on a well-known emerging artist prize that he was judging several years ago (he argued that they should win, but another better-known artist got the award, he says).

One of the principal aims of the biennial is to reclaim, repair and reanimate, abandoned or forgotten buildings in the city. “That is fundamental [to the biennial],” Antunes says, and there are plenty of abandoned buildings awaiting the biennials magic touch. “It can be a symbolic act of repair; thats why we decided to go from that monster [of a building in 2017] that is 300m long, to a little fountain,” Antunes says. This years restored building is the Manga Fountain, an example of Portuguese renaissance architecture that will house an archival sound piece of 16th and 17th century compositions later this week.

José Spaniol's Sonhos de outubro (2014–2019) in the Sala da Cidade, a former refectory for the Santa Cruz Monastery Courtesy of Anozero

For the inaugural edition in 2015, a former refectory for the Santa Cruz Monastery was regenerated after the biennial invited the Portuguese artist to Pedro Cabrita Reis to rip apart its dated museological displays and make a temporary installation. Once the installation was dismantled, the space was returned to its former glory and this year houses Sonhos de outubro (2014–2019) by the Brazilian artist José Spaniol, which is an installation of a boat seemingly stranded after floodwaters have receded.

But the greatest accomplishment of the biennial so far has been the rehabilitation of the aforementioned 9,650 sq. m Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova (around the same size as the recent Read More – Source