Un jardin des délices: Joana Vasconcelos in the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda (Lisbon 2013)

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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Joana Vasconcelos, Jardim do Éden [Garden of Eden], 2007 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Jardim do Éden [Garden of Eden], detail, 2007 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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The exhibition of Joana Vasconcelos in the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda (Lisbon, March 23rd to August 25th) represents a happy encounter between space and the artworks presented in it. The installation is excellent overall, playful, insinuating and subversive. The viewer crosses the (un)familiar rooms of the former Royal Palace, discovering Vasconcelos’ work of the last decade in a variety of settings, sometimes highlighting the content and function of each room, others imposing themselves on their surroundings, creating new associations. Jardim do Éden was a surprising introduction to this world, situated almost at the beginning of the exhibition. The visitor is immersed in darkness, where the plastic flowers flicker with light, accompanied by motor noise. The work is supposed to stress the artificiality of this simulation of nature, but the feeling was almost the reverse: treading carefully between the flowers, a sense of wonder, almost of child-like joy came upon me. It also felt like some kind of rite of passage, the visitor “baptized” and then emerging anew, ready to take in the rest of the show.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Vitrail, detail, 2012, wool and cotton tapestry (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Vitrail, detail, 2012, wool and cotton tapestry (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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This tapestry, produced in collaboration with the Manufactura de Tapeçarias de Portalegre, much brighter than the picture allows for, was splendid. Working with local manufactures and revitalizing regional decorative traditions is a persistent strand in Vasconcelos’ art, and one of the most important. It reminded me of how much I liked the Grayson Perry tapestry exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences last year in London, and how my fascination had to do as much with the medium as it did with the subject matter. Here, Vasconcelos avoids narrative elements, and weaves colors and patterns in a way reminiscent of her embroidery works.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Full Steam Ahead (Green #1), 2013 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Full Steam Ahead (Green #1), 2013 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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Full Steam Ahead was another striking piece. At first look, it resembled a spaceship, something out of a sci-fi film. Upon closer inspection, the intricate structure revealed itself, but the movement and sound were still mesmerizing. Although there are things about her work that are conceptually perplexing (War Games is an example) or even seem superficial at times (the installation with the ties comes to mind), her re-imagining of domestic appliances and utensils is nothing short of inspiring. Vasconcelos reveals herself as a true heir of the modernist avant-garde, creating art by removing objects from their context and assigning them new functions.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Alorna, 2013 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Alorna, 2013 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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Joana Vasconcelos, Formentera, 2011 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Formentera, 2011 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Another group of works, the Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro faience animals, painted with ceramic glaze and covered with handmade cotton crochet, afforded a variety of impressions. Perfectly blending with their surroundings, even enhancing their decorative setting, the works had the added advantage of combining one of the most – and justly – celebrated Portuguese decorative traditions  (the Caldas da Rainha ceramics, revitalized by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro at the end of the nineteenth century) with an occupation traditionally associated with women (even with notions of femininity): knitting. Interestingly enough, Rafael’s sister, Maria Augusta Bordalo Pinheiro, a flower painter, distinguished herself in the production of lace (rendas de Peniche), for which she was much admired. This admittedly subjective association (the works are not covered with lace after all) deepened the works’ meaning for me. The central place of the feminine in Joana Vasconcelos’ artistic universe was re-asserted here with subtle force, at the same time that it seemed to insinuate itself into the decorative, the domestic, the interior.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Carmen, 2001 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Carmen, 2001 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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On the other hand, it’s quite difficult to capture the exuberant joy displayed in Carmen. Maria Callas’ inimitable rendition of L’amour est un oiseau rebelle musically dressed the piece, very fittingly. A young man next to me was unable to contain this feeling of joy as he was singing along in French. The light structure (made of iron, velvet and decorated by plastic earrings) seemed literally to soar in the open space above the staircase, transporting the viewer to the second floor.

Some of the artist’s most well-known pieces, such as the superb Marilyn (2011), Red Independent Heart (2005) and The Bride (2001-2005) in all its dazzling glory, were situated on the second floor. I had the chance of seeing Marilyn at Vasconcelos’ atelier two years ago and was utterly taken by it. The impressive high-heeled shoes made of pots and their lids were a brilliant commentary on the contrasting roles of the female: domestic and public, welded together by the mundane, the everyday, the utilitarian. Placing them in the Throne Room of the Palace, gives them pride of place in the context of the present exhibition, and rightly so, since they constitute a mature statement of the dominant preoccupations in Vasconcelos’ work.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Red Independent Heart, 2005 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Red Independent Heart, 2005 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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For me though, Red Independent Heart was the most poignant of this group of works. Accompanied by Amalia Rodrigues singing Estranha Forma de Vida (also Maldição and Gaivota), the slowly rotating sculpture made of translucent plastic cutlery and painted iron, seemed forlorn, yet resilient. The brightness of the bleeding color belied the pain concealed in this most emotive and personal of Vasconcelos’ artworks. Revolving around its core, the heart seemed to assert its independence, severing ties to the outside world.

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Vasconcelos is an artist that stubbornly weaves the local, the regional and the national into contemporary art for a globalized world and market. This contradiction is one of the most fascinating aspects of her work. The other is the way that Portuguese decorative arts and traditions may serve as a commentary on modern authorship. Vasconcelos is the quintessential artist as defined by a historical process initiated with the Renaissance, a process that tore asunder the roles of artist and craftsman. She does not execute. She conceives. She draws. Ironically, by doing so, she manages to bring decorative arts back into the discourse of “high” art (a discourse that excluded craftsmen), undermining the very notion of the artist under which her work is produced.

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