Culture director of the Rio Olympics Carla Camurati was struck by Varejão’s installation Celacanto Provoca Maremoto (2004–2008) at the esteemed Brazilian museum Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim in Minas Gerais, and realized its imagery and themes were a natural fit for the aquatics venue. Celacanto Provoca Maremoto is a mural covering four walls, made up of 184 painted canvas panels—white-and-blue squares that recreate original tiles the artist photographed, depicting parts of angels, wings, and other decorative motifs, as well as the texture of cracked tiles.
“For the mural at Inhotim, I took tiles from different compositions and made them into an abstract form, which resembles a wave,” Varejão explains. “The name of the work—which translates to ‘Coelacanth causes seaquake’—has to do with a fish, and the sea and water; it relates well to the swimming pool, which is also covered with tiles.” For the Olympics, Varejão has reconfigured the work to fit the stadium; the tiles were photographed, enlarged, and printed on plastic canvas, which will be draped across the exterior walls.
The work is part of Varejão’s ongoing explorations into the traditions of azulejos, hand-painted tiles in Brazil that trace back to when the Portuguese imported Baroque tiles, which were inspired by the cobalt-blue ceramics that Europeans encountered in China. For decades, Varejão has been creating paintings and installations that investigate this history, often mimicking cracked, broken tiles, which not only reference the Brazilian tradition, but also Chinese Song dynasty ceramics.