Joana Vasconcelos @ Haunch of Venison

Haunch of Venison presents the solo show of Paris born, Lisbon based artist Joana Vasconcelos. The visual vocabulary of Vasconcelos is well recognised worldwide. She is known to most art lovers from her 2005 Biennale piece ‘A Noiva’ (The Bride) -a gigantic chandelier made of 25,000 tampons-, her ‘Contamination’ installation at François Pinault’s foundation Palazzo Grassi in 2011 and this year’s exhibition at château de Versailles. The artist will re-visit Venice in 2013 to represent Portugal in the forthcoming Biennale.

Occupying both floors of Haunch of Venison, the exhibition comprises of eight sculptural installations of variable sizes. ‘Full Steam Ahead (Red #1)’ is the first installation as we enter the gallery, a kinetic assemblage of steam irons in a shape of a flower. Its ‘petals’ slowly close in vertical fashion producing steam. The rest of the ground floor is populated by four ‘Tetris’ sculptures utilising the homonymous computer game and two smaller wall sculptures. Their main body is protected by square ceramic tiles, embracing Portugal’s tile embellishment tradition of domestic space. Covering a long period of decorative motifs from the 17th century onwards the tile-protected structures sprout with tentacle-like formations of woollen crochet, doily and other textiles. These are spread all over the floor, communicating and interweaving with one another. The 2nd floor is dominated by the imposing presence of monumental ‘Valkyrie Crown’, a crown-like piece suspended under the glass roof apparently commemorating the Queen’s Jubilee and made of crochet, knitting, tassels and ornaments. Its tentacles branch out not only across the immediate space but also reaching the ground floor and the ‘Tetris’ works. For the first time visitors are encouraged to interact with one of the artist’s works by walking into it and standing right underneath the huge crown.

With clear references to Duchamp’s readymades and the work of the Nouveau Réalistes, the semiotics of Vasconcelos’ work encompasses issues concerning the social status of the woman and her domestic hypostasis, filtered via a distinctive ethnic platform of ownership. Imbued with a melange of vivid, festive colours her installations underline indigenous traditional references. The voluminous size of her sculptural forms and their tendency for expansion are statements for a strongly rooted cultural identity and its battle for continuity and evolution. The placement of the ‘Tetris’ formations is carefully choreographed. Harmoniously integrated with their surrounding locus, these four structures interconnect with each other, and simultaneously have a command of their territory. The ‘historical tiling’ of the main body of each sculpture resembles a national individuality, a common on-going history. The overconfident ‘Valkyrie Crown’ isolated upstairs aggressively conquers the given space and its sprawling tentacles extend to the ground floor attempting to establish a connection. This is an intense dialogue -an everlasting encounter- between representations of monarchy and populus. Despite the lucidly playful idiosyncrasy of Vasconcelos’ work, her distinctive iconography and a further exploration of what lies beneath its surface divulges a compact and subtle narrative that decodes the viewer’s own cultural references regardless of their origin.

Joana Vasconcelos talked to REVma -/+ about her work:

REVma -/+: Your visual language encompasses works of monumental scale as well as site-specific installations. What triggered the need to express yourself through works of such an epic scale?
J.V.: The large scale is frequently a consequence of previous decisions, like the choice of material. My shoe sculptures (such as Marilyn, for example) are clear examples of this: I first came up with the concept and then chose the cooking pan as the material, which immediately becomes my first premise in terms of scale because I will then repeat it until the point of abstraction. In this case, I multiply the pans in order to give shape to something bigger: a scaled up size 4 shoe. When it comes to site-specificity, it is essential to create a relationship between the scale of the work and that of its context. I have produced site-specific works for monuments and public spaces, and scale is a particularly key factor to a successful intervention.

REVma -/+: You live and work in Portugal but your work has been exhibited worldwide. To what extent do you feel your art can be penetrable and accessible by diverse audiences and cultural groups at different countries and are there any barriers that you are challenged to overcome?
J.V.: One of the most defining aspects of my work is the element of interaction; this enables a variety of dialogues and allows the works to accommodate different meanings. Although I often use references of Portuguese culture as starting points in my work, I find that people all over the world always find something familiar which activates their engagement with the work, whether it’s a title, a shape, a material, etc. I have indeed observed a few surprising reactions to my work: in Turkey, the tampons in A Noiva made the male technicians a bit uneasy, for example. Or the fact that, when I exhibited Message In A Bottle (a pair of giant candlesticks made of sake bottles) in Japan, they had no idea what a candlestick was nor the function it served, so although they recognised the bottles, the shape in which they were presented was entirely new.

REVma -/+: You will be representing Portugal at the 2013 Venice Biennale. What will you be focusing on and what do you envisage to achieve as an individual artist through the representation for an entire country?
J.V.: My project for next year’s Venice Biennale will put forward Portugal’s historical relationship with Venice, and how these two locations have contributed to the development of our knowledge of the world. As for the responsibility of representing a nation, which is of course a great honour, the difference this time is the official character; whenever I exhibit abroad, which is more and more often, I aim to confront the local with the global, as we are now able to establish a dialogue with the world after a 5 decade-long dictatorship. Moreover, my work cannot be entirely dissociated with my cultural surroundings, whether it’s due to the locally sourced materials I incorporate in it, or through my own subjectivity as a Portuguese citizen.

REVma -/+: How do you see your art evolving and developing in ten years from now?
J.V.: Since I find the works I made 10 years ago just as pertinent and current under today’s light, I find that although the next 10 years may allow me to explore new visual possibilities, my subject matter will remain the same: the everyday aspects of daily life and the behaviours of contemporary society. As such, there haven’t been major conceptual shifts, but as time passes my exhibitions become more challenging, so hopefully that will still be the case in 10 years’ time.