Joana Vasconcelos’ The Bride turned heads with her chandelier made of tampons at the Venice Biennale alongside The Guerrilla Girls in 2005. Five years later, the Centro Cultural de Belém was filled with giant and colourful textiles in her first retrospective exhibition in Lisbon. In the following year she took part in the collective exhibition The World Belongs to You at the Pinault Foundation/Palazzo Grassi in Venice and was the first woman and the youngest artist to exhibit at the Versailles Palace. Shortly after she had an anthological exhibition at Palácio Nacional da Ajuda in Lisbon and represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale 2013 with Trafaria Praia, a ‘cacilheiro’ boat floating through the beautiful canals. She had a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao last year and currently her work can be seen at the Serralves Museum in Porto until the 24th of June.
Joana welcomed Prinçipal at her studio in Lisbon and drew as we talked.
Your connection with fashion is evident since the beginning of your career — jewellery, textiles, performance. How did it all begin?
Initially I had only participated in student exhibitions which took place in Serralves in 1996. That same year I also had the opportunity to prepare a project completely by myself for Manobras de Maio. I decided to participate in this fashion event because what I was doing at the time was multifaceted: some drawings of pieces that were pretty much like sculptures, but weren’t exactly sculptures, because they were wearable, such as millinery pieces that were also jewellery. I was in the Ar.Co advanced course and preparing the final year project that was a mixture of sculpture, jewellery and fashion. Obviously someone studying jewellery has important work related to the body, the same for sculpture, both disciplines explore the body’s multiple dimensions and are also connected to fashion. There is no difference for me. With jewellery you concentrate on an intimate scale — the upper body, face, ears, neck — a scale that can be reached by the hand. Fashion is more personal, you have the whole body. Sculpture widens the scale and has a relationship between the body and the work, domestic, if you like. The next step was architecture and relating with public space. So far my body of work has always explored all these dimensions. Jewellery gives you your very own way to design things, drawing is the way you see it and both are very important in fashion. I did not study fashion, but I did study fashion. It is interesting, because I also never studied sculpture, but the discipline is the same, it is the medium that changes. So I transferred that approach from jewellery and fashion to sculpture: my textile pieces are made as a collection. The truth is, I’m a sculpture stylist very close to fashion, because I work with textiles exactly as a fashion designer does, with the same techniques and fabrics and the piece is presented in a particular way.
I decided to participate in this fashion event because what I was doing at the time was multifaceted: some drawings of pieces that were pretty much like sculptures, but weren’t exactly sculptures, because they were wearable, such as millinery pieces that were also jewellery.
Whereas people from the arts can do one thing their whole life — which is ok — fashion people are obliged to restructure, reformulate and reinvent themselves and be much more dynamic. This fascinates me.
… And they also have the ‘wow! moment’.
Yes, it has a ‘wow! moment’ of being exhibited and communicated, it just does not fit the human body, doesn’t have a programme. The big difference is that conceptually I am the one who sets the rules, there is no fashion coordinate, or fashion show, or season, or subject, or timing. There is a logic, a market, a bunch of things in fashion that are different. But I don’t have to follow the rules of fashion, I don’t belong to the fashion world, but I do conceptually. I get along very well with the fashion people.
You have also participated in fashion shows.
Yes, several shows, but mostly what nurtures me conceptually is keeping up with what the fashion designers are doing , because they have a very interesting dynamic and pace. Whereas people from the arts can do one thing their whole life — which is ok — fashion people are obliged to restructure, reformulate and reinvent themselves and be much more dynamic. This fascinates me. Fashion people have to create every six months. The artistic timing is completely different: an annual exhibition is fine. But I have created my own dynamic, a pace of exhibiting that is very close to that of fashion. It is natural that throughout my life I have grown closer to people with a life rhythm similar to mine. I do around 30 exhibitions per year, which is similar to doing fashion shows every six months.
It is curious to think that you got your break at Versailles, where a lot has started related to fashion history.
True. And then I ended up showing my pieces at Le Bonmarché in Paris and was part of the Louis Vuitton art collection. These days, you don’t have that separation between high and low art, it does not make any sense, there is a kind of a constant contamination. Currently, I am doing a Dior bag, I have made an installation for the perfume J’Adore and worked with Max Mara and Chanel. I have been working a lot with fashion and in a very direct way: I was in fashion shows with Filipe Faísca and I walked for Ana Salazar. My connection with fashion started early and has been constant. At the beginning of my career I made jewellery for Fátima Lopes’ shows. I learned a few things from working with her: wake up every day and be ready, she always began the day flawlessly, it was a fashion attitude, be ready, be alert so that things go well. In the arts, things will be done eventually, but this follows other timeframes. Art pieces have a non-consumerist timeframe, fashion very much lives on that first ‘wow! moment’. I am very close to a designer called Julien Macdonald and he tells me, “Your pieces are not thrown away never to be worn again, they hang on a wall forever.” The pace of fashion consumerism truly is terrible because it is immediate and there isn’t much value given to things. The bad part of the arts is the sense of “let’s see what happens”. But works are viewed and analysed with a different eye and given respect in another way. I am also friends with Stella McCartney and she always wants to collaborate, but I tell her, “I’m not going to do bags and t-shirts with you!” Either I do a collection or a catwalk, but the timing is tough, because doing a piece for a show takes me a lot of time. I can only make the pieces a year from now and by then she will be thinking of another collection! The other day I was with her and thought: this is a very fast pace. My pieces have to endure in time, I have to work with a certain care and follow the same precepts as for haute couture. Valentino, Galliano and the guys from Dior all say that I have a couture atelier. And it’s true.
Craft features strongly in your work.
The handmade has its roots in couture: those embroidered pieces from Dior and the little flowers that Karl Lagerfeld used to do — when I think of all those women embroidering, it makes me delirious. It is not like ready-to-wear that gets made in a factory and you don’t see how it happens. I am around the production, like Karl, I saw him at Chanel going to the ateliers to check on the details. It is essential to ensure that the craft is present. If you lose that know-how for handcraft, you also lose identity, and that is a part of what we are. Here we preserve knowledge and techniques and pass on the baton. Everything is made with a lot of care, because if you stop knowing how to do things and entrust a machine to do them, one day you won’t be an artist anymore.
You work a lot with industry. With whom do you work and how does an artist engage with companies? Do they understand you?
It is funny. Most of the time they don’t understand my ideas at all, but when they start to see results they think, “Maybe this has something to do with us”. The truth is, every time I have worked with big companies, such as Bosch, Swatch, Bayer, Silampos, it is always interesting to see how the industry and the craft can learn things together. The industry is programmed to be quick, productive and profitable. They are interested in what can be efficiently replicated. For example, with Silampos they told me, “We have to change the production line to make your pans, because the industrial line have one type of handles and the domestic line have another, so the machine and the moulds are different.” I wanted all the pans to look the same so that they would make a beautiful heel [for Marilyn, 2008], so I had to explain this to them and watch how the industry adapts. It is a very pragmatic field, if you have a problem, you have to solve it and not waste time, either it works or it doesn’t. They’ve always helped me where they could. That practical side “me encanta”.
You have a great love of textiles. This is a very strong industry in Portugal.
Oh yes, I love them a lot. I should have studied textile design at school but at that time I didn’t have that clairvoyance. When I was a kid I had a dream (that was never fulfilled, unfortunately) of having a weaving machine at home. I was one of those annoying girls doing macramé bracelets. Textiles attract me, so I was always doing those little bracelets, little embroideries, little mats. In school I was good at crafts, the more textiles, the better. There is kind of a physical relationship with the material, so the use of textiles began very early in my work, as did my relationship with the national textile industry. The first piece where this was clear is Wash and Go (1998), produced with the sponsorship of Coll Internacional, which is now part of António Cachola’s collection. That was the first company in Portugal to produce tights and they offered me a huge stock from that original collection, which was very curious because it reflected the colours of fashion from the late 1970s, beginning of the 1980s. Today Wash and Go is almost like a time capsule and was in the most important exhibitions in my career. Over the years there were pieces like Fashion Victims (2001) and the Pantelminas series (2001–04). Then I started doing the Valquírias (2004) which became iconic as textile pieces. They stand out as they dialogue directly with the architecture they inhabit, filling and contaminating spaces that have been left empty by the design of the building. Usually suspended from the ceiling, they present an explosion of craft techniques and organic forms that face the cold and straight nature of most of the architecture. In January 2019 a protocol with ATP (Textile and Clothing Association of Portugal) was formalised, but that collaboration started a year prior, when I did Valquíria Egéria for the central hall at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao that was supported by Somelos, More Textile Group, Tintex, LMA and TMG. This partnership was magnificently materialised in Simone, a Valquíria created for the iconic Le Bonmarché Rive Gauche in Paris, the oldest and most recognised department store in the world, and shown from January to March 2019. Simone, mostly comprised of Portuguese textiles, was on display in the windows merging with the most desirable and luxury products on the planet, but still stood out due to the sublime and technologically advanced Portuguese materials. For Simone we also had a great support from Estamparia Adalberto who produces the silk scarves that we design for museum shops and from which the profits go to the Joana Vasconcelos Foundation. Another thing to consider is that our home environment is lined with textiles, all aspects of our life. It is extraordinary because textiles have many different functions in our lives, but yet they are not regarded as very important. What I do is take that material and give it value and I’m not afraid to use it in different capacities. Fashion only sees textiles related to clothes and dressing, but there are also home textiles (I love the word!), a whole universe, even in cars, public transport, in the office. I use interior decoration textiles and give them a public space that is, ultimately, the space of sculpture.
This is so natural and done with so much dedication in your work. It is as if you erected an altar for it so that people can like it too.
I love the concept of noble materials. What are noble materials? Iron, copper, stone, because they are linked to the public space, to sculpture. Textiles are organic and thus perennial, they are destroyed in the public space, they have a more intimate or inner nature. But textiles perform so well, because they are very versatile. They are malleable and colourful, something bronze is not. The so-called noble materials are mostly industrially sourced. When I started thinking about large-scale public space, big halls, I thought, “Wait, I can use textiles here in a monumental way.” So that’s what I did in Versailles with “As Valquírias”. You create a relationship between the material and the place. In traditional sculpture you develop a technique and a material. The sculptor will spend their whole life working with a material, such as iron, bronze, stone, or light (I am thinking now of James Turrell). Textiles allow me to do many things and you can trade materials: more decorated, lighter, thinner, thicker, there are infinite combinations. To liven things up, I decided to use LEDs in my “Valquírias” to join the organic textiles to the technology of light.
You always wear Portuguese designers, why?
Always. Meeting Ana Salazar, Tenente, Fátima Lopes, Dino Alves, Filipe Faísca, Alexandra Moura, I have professional relationships and friendships with fashion designers. They understand textile and work with great creativity and I share this dynamic. And it was always very curious to see, season to season, what these friends of mine were doing. We all started in Manobras de Maio and it’s funny that I kept closer to this group than to the arts one, because we share working with textiles, the study of matter and its presentation, those thirty seconds on the catwalk, the ‘wow! moment’. That moment has been explored by many arts, design, music and others. “Has it worked?” Okay, let’s move on. But when you approach my pieces, you have a more introspective and conceptual moment closer to the arts.
If your job is who you are, you talk about where you are and people around you.
You have a love of Portuguese identity, of the ‘bibelots’ and ‘napperons’, the prints, the tiles, the iconography. Why is it important for you to talk about Portugal?
If your job is who you are, you talk about where you are and people around you. Historically we experienced the 25th of April [the Portuguese revolution ending the dictatorship] and I was born in Paris, but I was forced to come here. I found it interesting to analyse my origins and think of how it brought me something new, to question who I am. I’ve been thinking about politics, traditions, relationships with space, with the world, how you position yourself, how you travel. I live it, whether or not I’m a Portuguese artist. My ambassador friends say that I play a role similar to theirs, and it’s true, in cultural terms I’m an ambassador for the country.
But you did not follow the path of nostalgia, you gave it colour, joy, self-esteem.
Just never be afraid to look for or to open your cupboards and take out your crochet. People come to me and say, “Hey, do you put crochet on the table? That’s corny”. Portugal went from being old school to wanting to be the most modern on the planet, because we had an immense need to catch up for the time that we lost, to keep up with the times. To be corny, or not, is something that is created. Do not deny your past and your identity. Wanting to be modern is ridiculously modern. There is a paradoxical side that I do not understand. I was watching the Freddie Mercury movie, it’s so cool because he changes his name, everything, and then he comes home. Gandhi said, ‘So much to go back home.’ Returning home is accepting who you are. Deep down we have to make peace with who we are, but we cannot throw everything away and make believe. It’s about balancing the books and identity, just accepting.
I began to realise that it was very important to me where I came from. This sensibility can be seen very early on in my work.
You may have a very leafy tree, but if the roots are not equally strong, it will not last long.
It is a mental poetry that shapes me immensely: the presence of water, the sights, the wind, the light.
Now due to the tourism boom in Portugal there is an appreciation of Portuguese identity, because we are seeing ourselves through the eyes of others. But you’ve seen this before.
Yeah, and you know why? Because I had to leave Portugal very fast and pursue an international career, otherwise I could not thrive here. And the further I went, the more distance I had to be able to look, the more I realised the value and the fantastic things that we have. Do Norwegians have this? No. We have it. The crochet in Belgium? Ours is much better. I began to realise how good we are and I began to ask myself, “Am I going to buy crochet in Venice? Will I work with ceramics in Limoges?” But these are not my things or my colours, I began to realise that it was very important to me where I came from. This sensibility can be seen very early on in my work. I made a piece called “Plastic Party” for which I ordered Tupperware from America, and the people were very nice, super advanced, “artist, young girl, let’s send her what she wants!” And they sent a beautiful box full of Tupperware in all colours. But when I looked at them I thought, “There is something here that is not quite right, they are all so baby pink, green ... I want a dry green”. Domplex made containers with the Portuguese colours in Leiria. I sent the Tupperware back to America and went to Domplex. “A sculpture with plastic boxes, but what is this?” (Laughs) Actually, it was much more complicated, but when I saw that olive green in my hands I thought, “Hey, that’s it!” (Laughs). Likewise, the colours of the wool have to be from Brancal, not the French wool company. You may have a very leafy tree, but if the roots are not equally strong, it will not last long. The roots you do not see are the deepest ones: your country, your family, your identity.
It is curious that now that the world mingles, talking about the origin of people almost seems like discrimination, but it has never been so important to look for these roots.
It will become increasingly important, because globalisation brings you the problem of lack of identity. You have to think more about who you are, because it can quickly disappear.
What is absolutely unique about Portuguese people?
A very particular poetry. In music, writing, arts, fashion, cinema, theatre, dance, there is a kind of way of telling or reporting or speaking about things — and Pessoa is of course the paradigm. In writing it is quite visible and you can see it in a new generation of Portuguese writers. We have a capacity to project into the infinite, dimensions that are difficult to describe. I do it in a more “materialistic” way, but my colleagues such as Carlos Paredes also do it in writing and music. It has to do with the sea and you can say that there are a lot of cities connected to the sea, but it is not the same. Whether it be Barcelona or Istanbul, the way our city slides into the sea, as if sliding into infinity, is something you only have in Portugal. It is a mental poetry that shapes me immensely: the presence of water, the sights, the wind, the light. A geographical dimension, they are physical things, they cannot be explained. We share a geography which we think about, each one of us in our own way. And it is completely different from the rest of the world. ♥