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Artist Tavares mirrors life in surreal urban context

Daniela Caride

CAMBRIDGE — To some, Brazilian artist Ana Maria Tavares’ idea of paradise might seem a little odd.

Imagine a stainless steel cage the size of two Olympic swimming pools filled with dozens of white airplane seats. Bars divide the “metal pool” into a number of small rooms, each equipped with a seat and a pool ladder.

That’s “Paradise II,” an installation from Tavares’ 2005 series “Bunker, The Island Man,” and a textbook example of the intriguing artwork — which mixes visual arts and architecture to communicate the artist’s singular perspectives on urban space and globalization — that brought her to Cambridge this week.

Tavares arrived Monday for a six-day stay in Cambridge, the first of her tenure as the 2007 Ida Ely Rubin Artist-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As part of the residency — which brings renowned artists and writers to MIT to perform, present public lectures, and collaborate with students in free programs — Tavares will return to spend two more weeks at the school in March.

Along with a busy schedule of meetings with MIT staff and students, Tavares will present a public program, entitled “Suspension, Mobility, Displacements and Rotations: Art and Architecture as Still Life,” at the university’s Broad Institute Auditorium tonight at 7 p.m.

“She has an international reputation and she [is] part of a very active visual arts community,” said Antonio Muntadas, himself a world-renowned artist and a visiting professor at MIT’s Visual Arts Program.

Born in 1958, Tavares lives in São Paulo, Brazil’s business capital. She holds a master of fine arts degree from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of São Paulo.

In 2001, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation — a funding organization whose previous fellows include Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and Nobel Prize-winning writer Derek Walcott, founder of Boston University’s Boston Playwrights’ Theatre — recognized Tavares’ work with a grant award.

The Brazilian artist’s inspiration comes mainly from modern city architecture. Tavares’ installations — built of familiar urban materials like steel, glass and mirrors — create large-scale puzzles that many times resemble street furniture, such as benches and bus stops. She often explores everyday objects like handrails, stairs and chairs by placing them in a surreal context. She strips them of the function we normally associate with them and forces viewers to just see them as they are — a potentially disorienting experience that might spark the visitors’ imagination.

Airports and departure lounges are a recurrent theme in Tavares’ work, hitting on the tendency toward disconnection in a modern world forever on the move.

“I’m very interested in the idea of passage, of non-permanence; in other words, in the way we live our lives today,” said Tavares. “We are surrounded by places of passage, places that are non-places: shopping malls, bus stations, toll booths. We are bombarded by appeals to us and by excess.”

Tavares mixes the arts of sculpture and design with the rearranging of urban objects to express that sense of fleetingness. To produce 2001’s “Strategies for Enchantment,” Tavares placed a piano, mirror and seats inside a glass-walled room. Also that year, in the installation “Middelburg Airport Lounge with Parede Niemeyer,” she turned De Vleeshal, a historical building in the Netherlands, into a futuristic airport lounge using mirrors and video projection.

Her 2002 exhibition “Arte/Cidade” (“Art/City”) displayed several artworks spread out in the extremely poor east side of São Paulo, including “Labirinto” (“Labyrinth”), a maze of walkways and spiral staircases that passed through the floors and ceilings of a former textile factory.

Since Tavares’ first solo exhibition took place in Brazil 25 years ago, she has frequently shown her artwork in her home country and abroad, with installations exhibited in Cuba, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Singapore, Turkey and the United States, among others.

MIT’s Muntadas, who was one of the professors to suggest Tavares for the Rubin residency, says she is one of the few artists he knows capable of getting the most out of the program by interacting with as many people as possible from different fields at MIT during the few days the program lasts.

Also, Tavares will teach and learn in what Muntadas calls a “two-way” program — MIT staff and students get to meet and interact with an artist from a foreign culture, while Tavares has the opportunity to visit, and potentially work with, a number of different departments at the university.

“It could be the anthropology [department], the media lab, linguistics,” or any other MIT group interested in a collaborative project with Tavares, said Muntadas.

The program brings so many opportunities to engage in new projects with MIT students and staff that some Rubin fellows return self-funded, according to Michèle Oshima, director of student programs and artists-in-residence at MIT’s Office of the Arts.

The residency was established in 1998 to support artists-in-residence programs in visual arts through an endowment by MIT benefactor Margaret McDermott in honor of art historian and author Rubin, a founding member of MIT’s Council for the Arts and former president of the Americas Foundation.

Since 1999, the residency has hosted international celebrities such as Japanese visual artist Noboru Tsubaki, who installed a 110-foot long inflatable locust on the Yokohama Grand Intercontinental Hotel in Japan, and Chinese installation artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who set fire to 140-foot long drawings made with gunpowder at New York City’s Central Park in one of his so-called “explosion events.”

Tavares will focus tonight’s lecture on the intersection of art and architecture, which — though certainly less explosive — sounds just as promising to MIT staff.

“Her work is [a] hybrid,” said Oshima.