Joanna Vasconcelos: Solo Exhibition
The Ajuda National Palace Lisbon, Portugal March 23 – August 25, 2013
My work has developed around the idea that the world is an opera…
A four-foot long ceramic wasp (modeled after Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro) is wrapped in an exoskeleton of blue crochet (Maria Pia, 2013); triumphantly, it hovers over a polar bear skin rug in the center of a room decorated with neoclassical furniture. A Bell 47 helicopter bejeweled with Swarovski crystals and covered in pink ostrich feathers sits underneath a domed ceiling of tromp l’oeil sky (Lilicoptère, 2012). A thirteen-foot tall pair of high heels made from linked stainless steel pans and lids (Marilyn [AP], 2011) dwarfs the plush royal thrones behind them, mocking monarchy. A Morris Oxford VI filled with plush and plastic dolls “painted” with toy rifles that seem not only to be aiming at its passengers, playfully violent, but gives the illusion that the vehicle’s motion is forcing the weapons to become windswept (War Games, 2011). A heart whose capillaries are made of melted and shaped plastic cutlery rotates as a recording of Amelia Rodrigues fado song reverberates off rococo walls and their baroque paintings (Red Independent Heart, 2005).
And yes, a twenty-foot tall chandelier made with tampons hanging in a black room, the white cotton somehow illuminating the black as though they were candles aflame (A Noiva [The Bride], 2005).
This is a small sampling of the work of Portuguese artist Joanna Vasconcelos at her current exhibition at the Palacio Nacional da Ajuda in Lisbon. According to her website, Vasconcelos’ “creative process [is] based onde-contextualization and subversion of pre-existent objects and everyday realities.” As standalone objects, each piece is provocative and beautiful.
One of Vasconcelos’ signatures is taking an everyday domestic “feminine” object (an iron, a saucepan, crochet) and making it the atomic base for the development of an organism that both problematizes and transcends the meaning of that object, as well as the environment in which it is presented. The mundane becomes sinister, seductive, charged with novelty, violent, hallucinatory, precious, in a word, art.
Even in her early work, the subtle juxtaposition of the private and the public, the “female” and the “male,” the domestic and the colonial, creates a seductively comprehensible paradox that challenges the unquestioned primacy of these binary categorizations. For example, a small Portuguese row boat, a symbol of the country’s relationship and proximity to the sea (which culminates in its pride and identity as a colonial country), is covered with kitsch tiles that are common to Portuguese homes (Barco da Marquinhas [Marquinhas’ Boat], 2002). One could pass by this and say, “That’s pretty.” But upon reflection, the piece becomes more unsettling, even violent. We think of the exploitation that made possible such luxuries as kitsch kitchen tile. We think of the suppression of the female to the prison of the home so the males can explore. We think of the blood upon which empires drink. Even earlier, in her Flores do Meu Desejo (Flowers of My Desire, 1996-2010), Vasconcelos lines an iron mattress frame with lavender feather dusters, making what at first glance seems like a playfully ticklish bed, but, if one lingers, becomes a cavern, an inviting prison that might close if you step inside. The handles to the dusters seem like arrows that have been shot into this trap, or a set of spikes that might kill any curious passerby. Symbols of servitude, objectification, and living death, transformed into an organism, living, erotic, predatorial. Is this a reclamation of these objects? A critique?
Alone, her pieces provoke. But as a corpus set amidst the baroque furniture and ostentatious neoclassical rooms of the National Palace, a monument to monarchy and colonialism, Vasconcelos’ work becomes sublime. Like her exhibit at the Palace of Versailles in 2012, Vasconcelos reinvigorates the halls and rooms of the ancien-régime with festivity, tragedy, beauty, pain, and life: “I feel the energy of a setting that gravitates between reality and dreams, the everyday and magic, the festive and the tragic,” she said of the Versailles show. “I can still hear the echo of the footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, and the music and festive ambiance of the stately rooms.”
In the case of the Palacio da Ajuda, it is the ghost of Maria Pia of Savoy that she channels. The Palace began as a wooden shack atop a hill where the Royal Family fled after the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755, an event that some say mark the real beginning of modernity and that inspired Voltaire to write his Candide, a satirical rebuttal to Leibniz’s belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” The wooden structure slowly became more formidable, increasingly frequented by the Portuguese monarchy. In 1807, it was invaded by Napoleon’s army. In 1862, the Palace was the primary residence of the Royal Family, which turned out to be its last home. After the revolution on October 5, 1910, construction on the palace ceased, and it was closed. During the middle of the 20th century, it fell into neglect, filling with rainwater and, in 1974, the painting gallery was lost to flames, including a self-portrait by Rembrandt.
What stands now is but a shadow of its former grandeur. The rooms of the palace are frozen in time, a snapshot of that moment between an Empire’s glory and its destruction, like someone on their deathbed that knows their heart is beating the last movement of the soul’s symphony, but nonetheless insists each day to be freshly shaven or to have lipstick newly applied. The hallways and staircases, cluttered with the refined accumulation of monarchy, weave and meander like the surreal chateau of Alain Resnais’ film Last Year at Marienbad (1961). One becomes enamored, lost, anxious, hypnotized. If, as Nietzsche writes, churches are nothing more than the “sepulchers of the dead God,” then palaces are nothing more than the tombs of Kings and Queens.
But if anything can resuscitate a corpse or catalyze chrysalis so that the worm may fly, it is art. Vasconcelos cajoles mummies to dance and the halls and rooms of the crypt become fête again. From the subtle (ceramic lobsters [Le Dauphine et La Dauphine, 2012] crawling onto the table to fight or possibly embrace) to the strange (a “fountain” of steaming irons that opens and closes like an electronic blossom [Full Steam Ahead, 2013]) to the grandiose (a rainbow-colored hookah-spaceship-diadem covered in yarn that takes up an entire ballroom [Valkyrie Crown, 2012]), her works somehow manage to be erotic, unsettling, and beautiful all at once.
Each room was an unexpected joy. I had no idea what to expect at Vasconcelos’ show, which gave both a sense of disorientated anxiety and anticipatory curiosity. I got lost in the Garden of Eden (Maria Pia), a series of plastic flowers illuminated by pulsating fluorescent lights (the hum of the micro-motors making the whole room throb, as though I were in some swamp after midnight). Though the display only occupied a room of about a thousand square feet, I exited where I entered, returning to the antechamber that housed the large cupcake made up of plastic pears, apples, strawberries, and pretzels (Petit Gâteau, 2011). I immediately accepted this fact, assuming I had simply entered into the other half of the book end, as though the exhibit already placed me in some visual palindrome. As I stumbled into the room that was the hangar for the Lilicoptère, I circled and observed from every angle, as though I were seeing an undiscovered creature for the first time. The craftsmanship (crafts-woman-ship?), the design, the meticulous forethought—I resolved to learn to fly just so I could be inside of this weird animal. A ten-foot high “independent heart” hung from the ceiling, rotating in time with the aching Fado verses reverberating from the walls like a pulse. I could not avert my eyes. I did not want to leave the room, a strange peace, perhaps what one might feel the moment she accepts the fact she is buried alive. I was only able to exit into the other room because I knew the next room held something just as terrifyingly wonderful.
Vasconcelos’ pieces can certainly be described as “feminist” or “political,” but they also succeed as art insofar as they invoke a range of immediate emotions—I am melancholic, I am intrigued, I laugh, I question. Each piece attracts, even if it be uncanny or overwhelming. I accept the challenges and the impression hangs with me weeks after I leave. Marilyn, for example, does not simply take one feminine symbol (saucepans) and “empower” them by turning them into another (high heels), but leaves us with the question: Are these the only two options for woman, becoming an object in the private sphere or an object for the public’s gaze? Now place these shoes in a palace, in a throne room, in front of the thrones of absent queens. What sets of question does this “de-contextualization” raise? Most social and political work, important and provocative as it may be, can be didactic or opaque. Vasconcelos, however, has the amazing ability to take these issues of gender, power, and sexual violence and make an art object that is not a simple monologue, but attracts and invites exploration, dialogue, and questioning. In this way, they are works of philosophy.
I exit the palace elated, certain that I had seen something “true,” worthy of the name “art.” But how am I so certain of this? I rest upon a necessary condition, which might not only be proof of art, but proof of love. It is art if, upon my immediate encounter, I cannot help but audibly exhale, not as a shout, but as a whisper: “Wow.”