by Yitong Wang 王艺潼
translated by Peng Zuqiang 彭祖强
In March 2015, acclaimed Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos had her first solo exhibition in China at the MGM Macau. Prior to this, she had brought site-specific installations to the Venice Biennale, Versailles (as the first and only female artist), the Tel Aviv Museum and the Manchester Museum. Her works bear quite a few prominent signatures. They are often large-scale, elaborate and complex in composition and craft, combining a wide range of textures and colors, and they tend to relate conceptually to feminist concerns.
Her new studio in the center of Lisbon occupies an enormous warehouse-like space: two-stories high, spreading out along a tranquil riverside and, coincidentally, neighboring the Oriental Museum of Lisbon. The studio has over fifty staff members, and encompasses almost all aspects of the production of Vasconcelos’ works: from generating highly precise computer renditions of the artist’s design concepts, building various support structures for the installations, to a highly-skilled sewing team which occupies an entire section of the studio. Besides the working areas, the studio features cozy offices and a neat little canteen lined with glass walls which display sailboats parked in the harbor. It was in Vasconcelos’ office on the second floor of the studio where the artist talked to me about her exhibition in Macau (then upcoming), her artistic practice, and her life.
Yitong Wang: Your first solo show in China opens in March! Please tell us about the new works you will bring to this exhibition.
Joana Vasconcelos: The exhibition space is large; it’s the entrance to a casino and to a hotel, so it’s a combination of two spaces. I designed this piece, which is a Valkyrie and is part of my Valkyrie series — it’s so far the biggest and the most complex. I said to myself, well let’s bring in some materials, some silk, some materials that in a way are connected to Chinese culture, and combine these with the materials that I normally use.
YW: And this will be the “Valkyrie Octopus”.
JV: Yes. I designed it not thinking of the name, and suddenly, we thought, “Okay, what does it look like? It looks like an octopus!” My company is called Infinity Union, and I like the number eight—I was born on the 8th of November. It’s an eight-armed piece, and I know eight in China is also a very important number, so I said, “Okay, it’s the octopus.”
YW: Please tell us a little bit about the process of constructing your work. Where do you source such a large variety of materials?
JV: Anywhere around the world I can find my textiles. I bought some in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau. I love to buy things. But of course, I have my main shops here in Portugal.
YW: What would you have become professionally if you weren’t an artist? Is that even a possibility?
JV: Yes it is. I would have been a Karate teacher. I have studied Karate since I was very young, and then I had this knee injury, so I had to stop, and that’s when I started to be an artist. Being a Karate teacher might as well have worked, I think in another life, perhaps. It’s marshal arts or contemporary art.
YW: You mentioned in an interview that you see yourself as a kind of contemporary feminist artist — how do you define the role of a feminist artist in today’s world?
JV: The role is to show the world that women still have a lot to conquer. But we already have a voice, we are already much stronger than the generations before us. Having the opportunity to be a voice myself, I need to speak as loudly as I can to say to the world that many women are not treated equally today, they don’t have the same human rights as men. Until equality is realized, I will continue speaking about women and about their role in society.
YW: And do you think it is important to be controversial in order for your voice to be loud and heard?
JV: Yes, sometimes it’s important; but sometimes I feel that ambiguity is enough. You need to speak to people in order to open their minds, in order to show that being a woman artist is not that easy; it’s still a man’s world. Even I experience that in my work and in my personal life. I come from a small country, not a powerful country; I’m a woman; I’m young—all of which go against me in a man’s world. So I’m proof; I live that everyday. I know that I have work harder to prove myself, much harder than them…
YW: You frequently use everyday objects in your art, and you tend to magnify and adorn these everyday objects. What might be the relation between the originally small everyday objects such as women’s shoes, cupcakes etc. and your finished works, which transform them into much grander and more noticeable presentations?
JV: My idea has always been to transform the domestic environment into a public environment, and to show how domestic objects can have the same importance as any industrial objects. I pick up domestic objects, and I give them a new life by using them in the artwork. Suddenly they become not private, not hidden, but public. So the relationship is between private and public, domestic and industrial, crafts and technology, male and female. There are contradictions within my work and questions about how you can combine those contradictory worlds and dimensions. For example, a private dimension more associated with women, with the house, with domestic tasks, and a more public dimension, associated with the more powerful role connected to men, to the public, to industrial developments.
The world is no longer so polarized; everything is changing, and I think through my work you can feel that—the confusions and ambiguities. In my work, domestic objects become industrial and large-scale, meanwhile, they are made up of small objects, hidden objects from the domestic environment. The works become these strange worlds that are out of proportion, but consist of objects everybody knows. Everybody understands the objects I use, so the works become more available in a way, but then it’s very complex in other ways. Very simple, very glamorous they can be very dry — it just depends how you look at it.
YW: You use the term “glamorous”; it’s interesting because I do think your work has a glamorous presence relating to fashion and fashion design. Is fashion an element of inspiration to you?
JV: Of course. In a way, fashion may control a very large part of society today, economically and in everyday life. Fashion designers want to be creators, they want to be artists, and there is a lot of good creativity in fashion. I think it’s important to learn from what they have that we lack in contemporary art—the glamour, the glitter, the strength of the industry. The fact that it’s an industry pushes them to a limit that artists don’t experience.
YW: And which kinds of visual vocabularies would you say your work borrows from in terms of art history? Your work reminds me, for instance, of the Baroque and the Northern Renaissance.
JV: The Baroque, I agree with you completely; I love it. The Portuguese Baroque was a very specific one, so the movements and dynamic of the Baroque interest me a lot. Flemish paintings are also very interesting. I love Vermeer deeply, and Rubens too.
YW: And for this year’s Venice Biennale, you will use these plastic flowers from China? Did you once see these flowers when you were in China? How did this idea come about?
JV: The Chinese restaurants here, they can be intriguing places! I went to one and I saw these flowers and I said: “Wow what is this?!” And I said, “Well, might as well do something about it.” So, that’s what I’m trying to do.