San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bienarte 2011: A winning show of contemporary art

You’ll laugh, you might cry, and you may be a little mystified at Bienarte 2011, the eighth edition of Costa Rica’s Visual Arts Biennial, now showing at the National Gallery in the Children’s Museum. What you won’t be is bored.

This energetic exhibition includes contemporary artworks by 12 finalists chosen from 42 entries. Bienarte’s three-judge panel included two art historians: Sara Hermann, visual arts adviser for León Jiménez Cultural Center in the Dominican Republic; and Guadalupe Álvarez, who heads the Technological Arts Institute of Ecuador. The third judge was Italian-Brazilian art critic, architect and urban studies professor Jacopo Crivelli, curator of the Bienal de São Paulo.

Each of the gallery’s small rooms focuses on one artist’s or artistic team’s work, ranging from room-size installations to animations, videos, performance art, an interactive board game and astonishing arrangements of objects, including corsets, turtles, kitchen knives and silk roses.

This is conceptual art that demands some detective work. Helpful clues can be found in information panels (in Spanish only) outlining what the artists set out to express. Of course, you can also just wander through the rooms and make your own guesses.

The grand prize of the competition was awarded to renowned printmaker and painter Álvaro Gómez for his “Mare Nostrum,” a metaphorical travel board game that examines the stereotypes that underpin much of the interaction between Costa Ricans and their neighbors in Nicaragua. You can try out the game yourself – fliers with the rules and game instructions are on hand.

One of the most affecting works is by John Juric, who takes the plastic arts literally, using strips of adhesive vinyl instead of paint to create his canvases. “Silla de espera” depicts the dilapidated plastic chairs in the waiting room of the dialysis unit of Calderón Guardia Hospital, where patients awaiting or undergoing treatment volunteered to perform the painstaking manual labor of preparing the strips of vinyl. An accompanying video features some of the patients, incorporating them into the artistic process both as subjects and collaborators. 

The biennial is organized by the nonprofit Empresarios por el Arte. Six of Bienarte’s 12 finalists will represent Costa Rica at the Central American Art Biennial in Panama next year. 

This year’s Bienarte was officially launched Nov. 7 by two founding Empresarios por el Arte board members, Ronald Zurcher and Margarita Herdocia, perched on a platform overlooking the vast covered courtyard of the Children’s Museum.

While the eerily lit hall throbbed to the sound of amplified techno-pop, more than 300 artists and art lovers gathered to cheer the winners, take in the exhibits, sip red wine and sample appropriately “conceptual” canapés – sesame-studded falafel balls atop upright yellow plastic forks, and tiny chocolate-iced donuts strung on twisted wire coils. 

Most of the inauguration crowd was under 30, many sporting creative hairstyles and idiosyncratic evening dress, evidence that the audience for contemporary arts is alive and well, and young, in San José. As with most artistic endeavors, however, the six artists traveling to Panama to represent Costa Rica need money to produce more art. The exhibit here is free, so gallery-goers might feel generous. For information about making a donation, email

Bienarte 2011 is on display through Nov. 29 at the National Gallery in the Children’s Museum in San José, at Calle 4, Avenida 9. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. For information, call 2258-4929.

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