Joana Vasconcelos on Representing Portugal in Venice and Not Being Decorative

Joana Vasconcelos on Representing Portugal in Venice and Not Being Decorative
Joana Vasconcelos
( PA photographer Matt Crossick for Photography)

LONDON — Joana Vasconcelos has been busy recently. As her spectacular Château de Versailles exhibition ended, the Paris-born, Lisbon-based artist opened a large site-specific installation at London’s Haunch of Venison — before rushing back to her studio in Lisbon to prepare for the Venice Biennale, where she’ll be representing Portugal next summer.

Now best known for her extravagant fabric sculptures, Vasconcelos first came to global attention a decade ago with “La Mariée” (the Bride), a monumental chandelier composed of thousands of tampons (judged too controversial to grace Versailles’s ornate ceilings). Since then, the artist — a favourite of über collector François Pinault's — has taken her signature more-is-more aesthetics to epic proportions with nightmarish, oversized soft-toys and monumental compositions of everyday paraphernalia.


Speaking from Lisbon, Vasconcelos discussed her recent show with ARTINFO UK and shared some insights into the much-awaited Venice pavilion.

In your current exhibition at Haunch of Venison, you are showing Full Steam Ahead (Red#1) (all works 2012), a kinetic, flower-shaped sculpture composed of working steam irons. Could you tell me about this more mechanical strand of your practice?

I've been developing these mechanical pieces related to the domestic environment for a long time — they have to do with this idea that your house can become another world, with a different identity. These daily objects transform our daily life into an easier place to be in, but at the same time, they can trap you because you can't live without them, so there's always this ambiguity. I wanted to give these iron pressers the organic and violent look they have.

There is a clear tension between the aesthetic of the flower-like shape and the aggressiveness of the heat and steam coming out of the metal petals.

It’s aggressive, but it’s poetic too. Things can be looked at from different perspectives. You can look at your life in a very terrible way, or you can have a poetic view of it. That's exactly what I’m trying to do with that piece. In the "The Transformers" movie, it’s always trucks and cars that transform into warriors — manly objects, never feminine objects. Here, we have an object, which is more associated with women, transforming itself into something else. But instead of a warrior, it’s a flower.

Looking at your production, one cant help thinking of a particular art historical tradition which has appropriated female crafts: Louise Bourgeois, Rosemarie Trockel, Tracey Emin. Do you feel part of this lineage?

Of course. All of them, in their own way, tried to develop this notion of looking at the world from a different angle. Being a woman offers a different perspective, so why should we have to look at things in the same way? From these women, I learnt that you could look at things differently. I try to give my own perspective, in accordance to my way of looking at the world.

On the gallerys top floor, theres a monumental Valkyrie — the largest in your series so far and the first one visitors can actually step into. Can you tell me about this body of work?

In the Finnish tradition, the Valkyries are figures that fly over the battlefield and give a new life to the bravest warriors who died fighting. All of the pieces in this series have a special identity. I did “Victoria,” in honour of Queen Victoria, “Royal Valkyrie,” “Golden Valkyrie”… This one is “Valkyrie Crown,” in honour of the Jubilee. It’s the first Valkyrie in which you can really be a part of piece. It’s a new thing I’m experimenting with: You go inside, understand how this piece is made and how it works around you, like a crown.

What interests you in the idea of excess? Everything is so over-the-top in your work.

It’s not excess. What happens is that when I see a place, a building, a room, or a museum, I try to connect with it. The architecture is what is going to define the size of my piece. I try [for the work] not to be decorative, an accessory, but to interact with the space.

You are representing Portugal at the next Venice Biennale, but theres no building. Ive been told you are considering doing a floating pavilion. Could you tell me more?

The floating pavilion will be a traditional, industrial boat from Lisbon, its equivalent to the Venetian vaporetto. What I want to do is connect these realities: the city of Lisbon, the city of Venice, and the working class crossing the river everyday in both cities. The boat will be transformed with my textile work, it will become a different world. There’s an historical connection between Lisbon and Venice: All the traffic between the Orient and European cities was made through Venice, but Venice ended up suspended in time because we, Portuguese, discovered a faster way to bring things from the Orient. What I want to do is not to take us back in time, but to link this history to the present.

Joana Vasconcelos, October 10 – November 17, 2012, Haunch of Venison, London