February 24, 2016 · 1:00 PM EST
Brazilian artist Néle Azevedo is best known for big public art pieces. She casts hundreds of small human figures from ice and puts them in city squares all over the world, where they quickly melt. Her installations have been adopted by environmentalists as a kind of activist climate-change art.
But is it? Yes and (mostly) no.
When I visit Azevedo at her apartment/art studio in São Paulo, she tells me she wasn’t thinking about climate change at all when she started making art from ice in 2002. Instead, she was thinking about historical monuments — those bronze guys on rearing horses and generals on pedestals that are popular in South America and, really, all over the world.
“I took every characteristic of the official monuments and made the opposite,” she says. “I made small figures, that sit on the floor. It doesn’t honor anybody. It does honor the anonymous.”
Azevedo wanted her art to get people thinking about impermanence, and the sight of ice transforming into a puddle of water certainly does that brilliantly.
But Azevedo also says she’s fine with her art taking on a meaning of its own – especially an important issue like climate change.
She’s working on a new installation art project now, still with ice. I wanted to see it, so she opened a big chest freezer in her kitchen to show me.
She carried her stretched-out ice figures into her living room, where she climbed up a ladder and started to hang them from the ceiling. One broke at the knees as she hung it.
"Very fragile," I said.
"Like life," she replied.
As the afternoon sun streamed in, bouncing off the white walls, the figures spun around lazily. It didn’t seem like much until Azevedo put metal bowls on the floor under each sculpture. As water melted off of them, the bowls amplified the sound of the drips.
This tiny, watery orchestra made not just Azevedo’s art, but the artist herself, come alive. Even though her point is ironically, the opposite.
“This is mainly to reinforce our mortality,” she says. “To remind ourselves that we all die.”
By reminding us that we all die eventually, Azevedo hopes, we’ll live better lives while we’re still around. Meanwhile the twirling ice figures in her studio ping off the metal bowls, drop by drop.