The woven dreamscapes of Joana Vasconcelos
The universe of Joana Vasconcelos is entrancing. It is as though you have been plunged into a world of dreamlike apparitions which make you question your understanding of history and society. Her landmark retrospective at the Patinoire Royale in Brussels — the first ever held in Belgium — was well earned. In 2012, she became the first female artist to occupy Versailles, where her tampon chandelier courted controversy. Her "A Noiva" was the first work to be shown in the 2005 Venice Biennial, which for the first time ever was curated by two women: Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez.
Joana Vasconcelos is disconcerting on every level. It was a surprise to see her arrive exactly on time for our meeting, and a surprise that she was so gracious and accommodating during the private view of her exhibition. Those unfamiliar with Vasconcelos’ work will be blown away by “De fil(s) en aiguille(s)” which is set in the vast, 19th-century Patinoire Royale — a former ice rink. All the works on display in the exhibition were made specifically for the space.
The first surprise visitors encounter is Valkyrie, a 75-foot sculpture suspended from the ceiling as though in flight. In Norse mythology, the Valkyrie are virgin warriors in the service of the god Odin, who unleash death on the fields of battle. Vasconcelos subverts this myth of deadly angels of death by transforming her Valkyrie into floating hybrid creatures dressed in iridescent finery. The Valkyrie in question — Material Girl — is dressed entirely in delicate, pink trimmings. The assistants in Vasconcelos’ studio are numerous and come from all over the world, each bringing with them traditional techniques from their country. Joana explains to us that her Indian assistants are very gifted at crocheting, and that the Indian way of crocheting differs from the Portuguese technique that we see in other pieces. The same is true of the lacework, the assemblage of stones and the threaded pearls. These artisanal techniques remain largely unknown to the general public. Nowadays, this artisanship is threatened by the risk that it will not be passed down and the work given instead to industrial machines.
Material Girl (2015). Photo courtesy Anne Greuzat
On the upper floor, we find the more intimate works. Enameled, earthenware animals (created in the studio of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro at Caldas da Rainha in 1885), which Vasconcelos has covered entirely in crocheted material. Snake, cat, horse’s head, crab, bull, wolf, frog… each has a powerful symbolism and is connected either to a universal fear (serpents, geckos) or a cultural tradition (bullfighting) to which the spectator can react with revulsion. Vasconcelos domesticates these animals and “cages” them in these delicate, crocheted nets — which employ a technique from the Portuguese Azores islands.
The delicacy of the crochet is testament to the richness of this century-old technique, passed down from mothers to daughters in the twilight in mediterranean interiors. Joana Vasconcelos moves this technique out of an intimate space into the full light of day, and in doing so pays homage to the generations of women who have passed it down from one generation to the next. The works in the exhibition demonstrate to the viewer that lace, often considered to be nothing more than out-dated interior decoration, is rooted in artisanal expertise and therefore must be considered an art in every sense of the word. So don’t be so hasty to throw away your old doilies...
Conselheiro (2014) and Magritte (2016). Credit photo : © Unidade Infinita Projectos
There is a more intimate register to Vasconcelos’ Boxes series, in which showerheads, mirrors and taps are coated in mosaics, pearls, crocheted fabric and other textiles. The bathroom — intimate space par excellence — also emerges from its hiding places. The same goes form Oopsy Daisy, a double-urinal in cotton crocheted in the shape of daisies. The wry Duchampian reference is clear.
Vasconcelos explains that each of her works bears a precisely chosen title, even if at first it appears to bear no relation to the piece: hence the unlikely named Aurélia the crab, Flâneur the snail, and the two frogs Brel and Flandres. Her crochet mirrors are named Petit Sablon or Coudenberg (after the Brussels districts) to indicate, according to the artist, that the work was produced for Belgium.
Before leaving, Joana mentions to us that she also happens to be a karate champion!
Courtesy Anne Maniglier
Joana Vasconcelos, « De fil(s) en aiguille(s)»
La Patinoire Royale, Brussels, until March 25.