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The land in Brazil that Maria Pires is restoring from cattle grazing

‘Man bringing seeds from another country is as much natural propagation as a bee carrying them, or them being blown by the wind.’
Henry Noltie, botanist, Royal Botanic Garden,

Last summer, while I was traipsing around the west coast, on an artistic quest for a tropical Scotland, a Brazilian art student was busy making one on the east coast. Every day, after eating the advocados, watermelon, dates or papaya she had in her packed lunch, Maria Pires would save the stones, pips and seeds, plant them in compost and watch them grow. She ended up with 3000 plants—enough to fill a greenhouse at the David Welch Winter Gardens in Aberdeen—which she then gave away to visitors, continuing the natural propagation of plants through the work.

In terms of inverting the common viewpoint of tropicality—that is, of distance—and thereby reversing the ‘gaze’, our two pieces of work could be said to make a connection, but in terms of intent they could not be further apart. My journey was, in a way, a metaphor, an inward search for an imaginary place signified by the visual iconography of the palm, but Pires’s work is rooted in the real.

Pires, who now lives and works in Brazil, quotes Joseph Beuys as an influence—in particular his belief in the transformative power of art, and the part it can play in reconnecting ‘humans, nature and spirituality’. She says: ‘For me, Beuys was willing to see art and man in a wider context. If art was the means to change society then everybody needed to become part of it.’

In making this statement, Pires reminds me of another Brazilian artist, Lygia Clark, one of the leading figures of the Tropicalia movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Clark is known for pieces such as ‘Bichos’ (‘Animals’)—sculptural objects designed to be picked up, moved and played with by the spectator. She believed her work derived its meaning from the spectator’s participation. She wanted it to ‘release the general creativity of everyone, without any psychological or social limits’.

Likewise, Pires says, ‘I see myself as an enabler and a facilitator’, attempting to repair the ‘broken relationship between humans and nature’.

Pires’s current ‘long-term’ project expands these preoccupations, and blurs the division between artist and activist to an even greater degree. Six years ago, she bought a piece of former grazing land, 1200km west from São Paulo, that had been stripped of its natural biodiversity and is surrounded by large cattle farms.

‘The aim is to realise a dream I always had, and that was to put orchids back into nature. It sounds crazy but so far, a lot has happened. Thousands of native and fruit trees have been planted and all sorts of wild birds and animals are appearing there.’

A look at the gallery of images on her website, www.rts.web.com (Life Project), reveals the slow recovery of land which had been covered in harsh cow grasses. Huge, blushing mangoes hang ripely off a branch. A vivid turquoise and crimson parakeet flashes between the banana plants and coconut palms. The project is an ongoing one, with no end in sight, and the main aim is to ‘recover completely the native trees, vegetation and biodiversity’. Pires believes this is a transformative act, and therefore an artistic one. ‘For me, recycling and planting are more than protesting. They are ways right now to transform and reverse destruction.’

Lygia Clark stated that, despite being a contribution towards the universal development of art, her work ‘was not intended for the galleries but was aimed at “the person in the street”’. Pires also sees her work as being important for society as a whole, and not just the creation of an art-market commodity, or an exploration of the self. This is not to say the work is ‘folk art’: rather, it exists very much within the trend for conceptual art as a force for change, exemplified by artists such as Jeremy Deller and his ‘Battle of Orgreave’ project.

In making planting the process of her work, and growing the meaning, Pires has found a language that connects the natural, external world to our internal capacity to change and grow, while also transforming our physical experience for the better.

Melanie Carvalho is an artist based in London