Hidden about 10m below Jieyun Road (捷運路) in Sanchong, a Puerto Rican design company recently spent 45 days infusing a drab Taipei County intersection with “really hardcore” Mexican reds, “super intense” Mexican yellows and festive Brazilian oranges.
When I visited the MRT Sanchong Station (三重捷運站) worksite in late April, Alvaro Racines greeted me with a smile, a handshake and a hardhat. We descended a flight of stairs into the cluttered cavern that now houses one of the Department of Rapid Transit Systems’ (DORTS) largest art projects to date: a 60m-long, 3m-high mosaic called Echoes of Ages.
Cero Design, a portmanteau of the first names of co-founders Celso Gonzalez and Roberto Biaggi, had finished almost half of the piece’s abstract background and was painstakingly working on a dragon that is the work’s centerpiece. When construction of the station is complete, the mosaic will span one wall of a large lobby between two entrances.
The soft-spoken Racines handed me off to Biaggi for a tour and climbed a scaffold to resume working. Pounding hammers, buzzing electric saws and whirring overhead traffic intermittently drowned out a Bob Marley album playing from a cheap portable stereo. Biaggi’s booming voice came in handy.
At quieter moments, the continuous clicking of Cero’s seven-man team using pliers to break tiles drove home the scale of the piece. The average tiles were originally 10cm squares, but the team broke them into much smaller, more interesting shapes.
Biaggi, Gonzalez and “the crew” mixed mortar in pickle buckets, smeared it on the wall with trowels and pressed in broken pieces of tile — sometimes so small they could fit in a bottlecap. Earlier they had drawn a grid over the entire concrete surface and sketched or spray-painted lines on the wall, using a level to be sure the image matched their draft.
The installation process may sound simple, but Cero has developed labor-intensive techniques that make their works distinctive. For example, when tiles define a line between two fields of color Biaggi called “pools,” Cero always uses the unbroken, beveled outside of a tile to highlight the division between the two areas.
“Other people use the rough [broken] side, even for edges,” Biaggi said. “It looks kind of ... I wouldn’t say crappy, but less meticulous.”
Even within these “pools” they were careful to combine different tiles to add depth to what might otherwise be a plain swatch of color. White areas often contain light grays; orange areas blend glossy and matte yellows, oranges and reds. Most of the hundreds of “pools” diffuse one color into another: In one place lighter blends to darker from left to right, and in another area a red outline diffuses into yellow in its center.
Cero takes color very seriously. “It’s our thing,” Biaggi says. The team visited about 10 tile-making factories in Taiwan, mostly in Yingge Township (鶯歌), the country’s ceramics capital. While they were impressed with the durability of Taiwanese tiles and were excited to find an “excellent” gold, Biaggi said the colors couldn’t compare with those found in Latin America.
“That’s why we brought 4,000 pounds [1,800kg] of tile and glue here, on a boat, through the Panama Canal,” he said.
If that’s not enough, Cero also made sure no one worked on two adjoining sections. Some members of the team preferred large triangular pieces of tile, others trapezoidal or squarish shapes. Some left spaces between the tiles, others broke the pieces up until they fit tightly together like a jigsaw puzzle. Gonzalez and Biaggi took this into consideration when choosing who did what area, including themselves.