Joana Vasconcelos (born in 1971) is one of Portugal’s best-known contemporary artists and is widely exhibited internationally as well as within Portugal. You may not know her name, but it is likely that you have seen some of her art, as it is hard to miss! She takes everyday objects and transforms them into something else in a surprising, funny or shocking way. Her most famous work is A Noiva (The Bride, 2001-2005) which put her on the international scene in 2005 when she exhibited it in the 51st Venice Biennale. It is an enormous five-metre high white chandelier that goes from ceiling to floor over two floors and from a distance it looks like it is made up of thousands of white beads, but close up I was shocked to see that it is made entirely of tampons.
Other commonplace objects that she has used include green wine bottles which she has used to create two giant candlesticks in Néctar (Nectar, 2006). I have seen this on display in the Buddha Eden sculpture park in Bombarral and in the formal garden of the Serralves Park in Porto and in both settings they were graceful structures that looked like they belonged in the beautiful grounds.
Another sculpture where functional objects are used to create something surprisingly elegant is the seven-metre high engagement ring called Solitário (Solitaire, 2018) which is made up of gold-coloured alloy wheels with a diamond on the top created from crystal whisky glasses. (It’s not surprising to learn that Vasconcelos studied jewellery design as part of her art course at the Centro de Arte e Comunicação in Lisbon.) The ring merges seamlessly the stereotype of what men and women are seen to desire (fast cars and whiskey for men and a diamond ring for women).
I’ll Be Your Mirror (2018-20) is another elegant work made up of oval mirrors, many with Baroque-frames. The mirrors are arranged into the shape of a carnival mask, symbolizing how we disguise our true selves and how that image is reflected back at us.
The two giant silver stilettos in the work named Marilyn (2011) caught my eye from a long way away and made me laugh when I realised they were made of saucepans and saucepan lids! There is a clear feminist message in this work, where the symbol of a woman’s domestic role (the saucepan) is used to create the symbol of artificial beauty (the stiletto): both of which could been seen as images of women’s oppression.
On a lighter note, Tutti Frutti (2019) is an unsubtle comment on excess, represented by a huge ice-cream cone made of hollow plastic moulds in the shape of croissants, apples, pears, strawberries and blackberries.
In contrast, a slightly disturbing work is Call Centre (2014-16) in which 168 black dial telephones are arranged into the shape of a pistol, a symbol of masculinity and power interconnected with a means of communication. The accompanying symphony of ringing phones composed by Jonas Runa adds to the unsettling sensation.
My favourite work of Joana Vasconcelos has to be the large-scale teapot with its intricate wrought ironwork, Casa de Chá (Tea House, 2015), which I discovered unexpectedly in the grounds of Portugal dos Pequenitos in Coimbra. On a similar theme is the equally intricate Pavillon de Vin (Wine Pavillion, 2016), which has vines growing around the wrought iron wine jug.
Portuguese crafts, traditions and recognisable symbols recur in Vasconcelos’ work ranging from the Barcelos cock depicted playfully in the Pop Galo (Pop Cock, 2016), an enoromous version of the famous cock decorated with Portuguese tiles, and the Viana heart recreated in Red Independent Heart (2013), a three-metre high revolving heart made of red plastic cutlery that is accompanied by the Fado songs of Amália Rodrigues, to smaller works that include traditional crochet, including three animal heads (Conselheiro (Advisor, 2014), Mustang (2014), Destemido (Fearless, 2019)), based on ceramics created by the 19th-century Portuguese ceramicist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, and a statue of Diana (2020), the Roman goddess of hunting, all enclosed by delicate crochet. In Big Booby (2018) a common-place Portuguese crocheted potholder is enlarged and made into an abstract object. In Love in a Box (2015) traditional Portuguese Viúva Lamego tiles and crochet are combined to make an artistic joke; ‘love’ literally is in the box.
One of Vasconcelos’ most ambitious works is Valkyrie Marina Rinaldi (2014), an expansive piece that fills an entire room in any art gallery. Based on the female characters from Norse mythology who decide which soldiers would live or die during a battle, the Valkyrie Marina Rinaldi is given a modern twist by being dressed in various colourful fabrics and named after a clothing store for curvaceous women.
Another work on a grand scale is Finisterra (2018), which is a 3D version of an abstract painting in which the pattern is made of fabric-covered pillows in a frame. Unlike the traditional static paintings which it refers to, this one is literally bursting out of the frame.
In contrast the final work that I am including from a vast and varied catalogue doesn’t have the intricacy of Vasconcelos’ other works, but is unmissable wherever it is positioned; it is a full-size swimming pool in the shape of the outline of Portugal and named Portugal a Banhos (Portugal Swimming, 2010). When I first saw it it was placed upright on a roundabout outside the grounds of the Serralves Park and I initially thought it was an advertisement for a swimming pool supplier, until I realised what the shape of the pool was and, like most of her work, it left me with a smile on my face.