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Essential Elements: Shirley Paes Leme's "The Stream of Life"

  • PROJECT NAME The Stream of Life
  • LOCATION Espírito Santo
  • FIRM Shirley Paes Leme
Brazil is water-soaked, at least in the eyes of artist Shirley Paes Leme. It’s hugged by the Atlantic and interlaced by the grand Amazon and its tributaries. Not to mention that every inch of the tropical jungle is nourished by ceaseless rain. 

Being born into such abundance, Paes Leme admits that she once took it for granted. But that was until a Fulbright scholarship, for graduate studies in art, took her to the Tucson desert, which demanded appreciation for every single drop. Back in São Paulo, she became alarmed at the common sight of pavement getting washed with spray from garden hoses. “We need to think more about water,” she says.

Her thoughtful exhibition “The Stream of Life” at the Vale Museum, in the coastal town of Espírito Santo, celebrated water in some of its most enchanting forms: the quicksilver play of light on the surface, boundless blue seascapes. “I moved water from the ocean inside the galleries,” she explains. Symbolically, not literally. Though her work often incorporates natural elements, such as sticks and mud, this time she turned to man-made materials and technology to evoke her subject.

Beautiful, even occasionally sublime, the aquatic effects were more than a simple advertisement for conservation. For Paes Leme, water represents an existential fluidity that casts individuals adrift as it washes over them. She questions the impact of such amorphousness on contemporary society and the considerable cost of the flow we celebrate.

The venue for these meditations—she calls it “the most important museum for site-specific installations in Brazil”—occupies 1927 brick and stone buildings that once  48  contained Vale, the iron-mining company that now funds the museum. Waterfront depots, they were where ore was transferred from trains to oceangoing vessels. “I work with the residues of the history of mankind,” she says.

Meanwhile, the title of the show pays homage to the 1973 short story “The Stream of Life” by the Russian émigré author Clarice Lispector. “She talked all the time about how it is difficult to live and to be,” Paes Leme says. Lispector was obsessed by the now, an experience continually unfolding. In a telling passage, she wrote evocatively, “The instant is a living seed—it is a firefly that sparks and goes out.”

To simulate the visual delight of those winking insects, in a previous exhibit for the “Havana Biennial,” Paes Leme used LEDs. Plays of light in “The Stream of Life” took various forms. A real-time video image of Espírito Santo’s spectacular coastline, perhaps animated by a passing ship, was projected across a gallery’s end wall— a digital-age camera obscura. Visitors simultaneously saw the projection and admired the same vista out the tall, narrow windows. The effect was of being at once anchored in a place and strangely disoriented by it.

The exhibition filled four galleries. Two, including the projection room, were triple-height spaces capped by rugged old industrial timber trusses. Paes Leme covered the floor in both with polished anodized aluminum that rippled like a mountain lake while reflecting the ribbons of text on the rough-textured walls. Poetic graffiti, the words came from a passage of “The Stream of Life” where Lispector refers to “living in the instant-now.”

Paes Leme “painted” the words with a dark resinous ink produced by steeping the bark of indigenous mangrove trees in water, then boiling it for three hours. In addition, she applied the ink to large canvases in abstracted swoops that recall the curves of mangrove branches, capitalizing on ink’s inherent unpredictablity. She also adapted the traditional use for the bark-water, which is to boil it in unglazed clay pots, over a campfire, to render them waterproof and suitable for cooking: One of the galleries in “The Stream of Life” was scattered with large round clay vessels that owed their blackened finish to this method.

Next to the vessels gallery was the smallest one, a 20-foot cube fully mirrored with the polished anodized aluminum. The effect was like a fun house—though Paes Leme saw different symbolism. “We are living today in a very liquid state of being,” she says. “We don’t know where we are at all any more. That’s the metaphor.”