In a few weeks, as TV cameras swoop over the Olympic Park in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, viewers will glimpse what looks like a colossal seascape mural encircling the new aquatics stadium.
But what appears to be ancient, cracked decorative tile is actually a scrim of 66 panels of perforated canvas, each 90 feet high — the largest contemporary artwork commissioned for Rio 2016. And the blue-and-white work is steeped in a complicated past that is typical of its creator, Adriana Varejão, 51, the revered Rio artist.
“If you look closely, it’s not just a seascape, ” she said recently, speaking via Skype from her Rio studio, “but parts of angels, and other historic Baroque motifs, all fragmented, reordered and turbulent.”
In some ways, Ms. Varejão (pronounced bah-ruh-ZHAO) is the perfect artist for the commission, given her long use of tiles, pools and water as visual imagery. Yet she is also a bold choice for the global Games because much of her work asks uncomfortable questions about the hidden, bloody stories of racism and subjugation — Portugal’s colonization of Brazil in particular, but also England’s and Spain’s of other parts of the Americas. She puts the Baroque to work in service of those questions: “The beauty and grotesque are always like opposites in the Baroque — it’s an aesthetic that deals with contrasts,” she said.
The as-yet-untitled commission’s tiled appearance is a double trompe l’oeil, because it is composed of printed images from an older Varejão artwork called “Celacanto Provoca Maremoto” (“The Coelacanth Causes a Seaquake”). For that work, created between 2004 and 2008, Ms. Varejão encrusted with plaster 184 panels, each roughly 43 inches square.