RIO DE JANEIRO — With about a week of games left in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in Brazil, we wanted to revisit some of our favorite ceramics in the city. A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about Adriana Varejão’s faux-tile swimming pool, but it’s time for me to discuss a more-famous tile project in the city.
There must be something about mosaics that prompts obsession. When I wrote about Raymond Isidore’s mosaic house in Chartres, France, I envied his ability to be so consumed by his project that he worked on it for decades, quitting only two years before his death in 1968. There are bold, flashing parallels between Isidore and Jorge Selarón, the man responsible for Rio de Janeiro’s Escadaria Selarón. The “Selarón Steps” consumed 20 years of the Chilean-born artist’s life. People mocked him at first, but over time his odd project became world-renowned. Tragically (but romantically), he was found dead on the steps of his creation in January 2013.
Selarón began the project in 1990, starting with the steps in front of his house. He selected green, blue and yellow tiles at first — the colors of the Brazilian flag. You see, Selarón wanted this work to be a tribute to the Brazilian people. So dedicated was he in that regard that when he ran out of money to buy new tiles, he started selling paintings to fund the project.
Before long (actually, after very long) more than 215 steps, covering more than 125 meters were adorned with tiles. As the artist installed more than 2,000 tiles to fill out (but never complete, he was quite clear about that) this work, donors from more than 60 countries contributed their own tiles. The steps became an amorphous, shifting project that included nationalism, biographical details from the artist’s life (there’s a pregnant woman he would only briefly allude to) and Popeye gripping a can of spinach. This makes me wonder how important themes were to the work. They’re there, certainly, but Selarón was more concerned with momentum. Themes were a tool, something to drive the piece forward a few more inches and nothing more.
I also admire how worn the steps look, a lived-in feel that is only acquired after being much loved by the community. Compare this to many other public works of art, which too often appear to be occupiers of a city rather than residents of it. Perhaps the steps are different because the tiles enhance a feature that was already a part of the environment. Perhaps it’s that Selarón wasn’t commissioned for his work, but rather he was compelled by the need to create. Perhaps it’s that children as old as the ones pictured in these photographs could have grown up watching the tile creep further and further down the steps they walked every day— on their way to school, on their way to their first job, their first date, as they brought their son or daughter home for the first time…
On January 10, 2013 Selarón was found dead on the steps he spent two decades of his life and who knows how much of his own money adorning with tile. He was 65. At the time, police investigated the death as a homicide, claiming that the artist had received death threats from associates of his who were connected to the drug trade. Over time, though, that theory fell away and police announced that their main line of inquiry was suicide. For all the beauty he gave Rio de Janeiro, Selarón was very depressed, according to his friends. One shouldn’t presume to play armchair psychiatrist, especially to people affected by mental health issues, but I’d understand if he implied any poetry in his choice to leave the world on his most enduring artwork.
I’m left feeling the kind of inspiration that only outsider art can cause: the threatening but pure need to create without any other motivation, the courage to continue even though people roll their eyes at you for the first several years; the sacrifice of your talent, not only in terms of money but in precious, fleeting time. It’s not such a bad gig, though. There’s fame to be had in that approach. Selarón found it. And the dirty secret of it all is that there’s nothing stopping anyone else from following in his footsteps.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe this work of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.