Portuguese contemporary artist invited to install giant artwork in Macao. The Chinese debut of Portugal’s most successful contemporary artist took place recently when businesswoman Pansy Ho challenged Joana Vasconcelos to install her largest ever work of art in Macao.
She adorned the 17th century Palace of Versailles in France with plastic pots and cutlery and the mythical Arsenal of Venice in Italy with tampons. But it was in Macao that contemporary artist Joana Vasconcelos exceeded herself with Valkyrie Octopus, which she has left anchored to the Grand Plaza of the MGM.
“It had never occurred to me to do something for such a large or special space as a casino, it was a very unusual proposition,” the artist told Macao magazine.
As she walked on the Portuguese cobbles in the lobby of the hotel-casino-resort decorated with replicas of facades of Lisbon’s most important buildings, Vasconcelos talked about her biggest work of art to date.
She said she was surprised when Pansy Ho, daughter of Stanley Ho and Macao casino and hotel entrepreneur, visited her studio in the Portuguese capital last year and invited her to design a large piece of art for MGM Grand Plaza. “If you get the opportunity and the privilege, you should visit the studio of this brilliant woman,” said the co-president of the MGM company at the inauguration on 15 March a year later.
Pansy Ho asked Vasconcelos for a piece of art that would fit in with the space, whilst interacting with the giant aquarium that was being installed in the meantime.
The artist settled on a Valkyrie. For years, Vasconcelos has created art inspired by Norse mythology representing war goddesses who, according to legend, flew over the battlefields and gave life to the brave men who died in combat.
“She brought them back to life and that is a concept that interests me. What these pieces do is bring new life to these spaces,” she explained.
According to the artist, she was given complete freedom. It was unlike her experience a few years earlier in Paris, when her sculpture entitled The Bride (A Noiva), a chandelier made of tampons, was not allowed to be exhibited in Marie Antoinette’s bedroom in the Palace of Versailles.
“Here I had total freedom. The only thing they asked was that I take into account aspects of Chinese culture, so we talked with a feng shui master who advised us on the colours. The chosen colour palette was light colours and pastels that relate to the aquarium, along with gold and silver. They are colours that I don’t normally use but here they made perfect sense because of the lack of light,” the artist said.
At night, the luminous quality is enhanced with dozens of LED lamps transforming the sculpture by “combining the manual with the technological side, which gives the piece a second life in the dark”. Just like on the seabed.
Getting to work
About 50 people were involved in assembling the Valkyrie Octopus in the MGM Grand Plaza over ten days. It was a job that had to be done at night, because many people walk through the area by day to reach the casino and different areas of the building.
The piece was entirely hand-made in Vasconcelos’ studio in Portugal, using “Nisa” crochet techniques, knitting and other techniques. The work took about ten months; in the final four months, the team was dedicated exclusively to the project.
The Valkyrie with eight legs – a lucky number in China – is 35 metres long, 20 metres high and weighs 1,200 kilos. It is made from 4,000 metres of cloth of various colours, patterns and textures, decorated with thousands of beads and LED lights powered by 3,100 metres of electric cables.
It is the largest work designed by the artist to date. In addition to the central structure, Valkyrie Octopus has three Tetris tiles that represent three Lisbon neighbourhoods – Chiado, Madragoa and Alfama.
Vasconcelos designed the patterns, which are related to the facades in the Grand Plaza. The Viúva Lamego ceramics factory, which has worked with artists since the 1930s, made the hand-painted pieces.
“The idea was to anchor the work to the space. At the same time, these are elements of urban architecture where people can sit and interact.”
Memories of Macao
“My grandmother lived and was happy here in Macao in the 1950s. I have an uncle who was born here and so Macao is part of my imagination,” says Vasconcelos.
Her grandfather was a military man and the artist recalls her grandmother telling stories of the “beautiful life” she had for a few years in the territory. Her grandfather loved the casinos, could cook Chinese food and even gave his future wife a Buddha, purchased in China, as a wedding gift.
Joana grew up, just as her own three-year-old daughter is now, between museums and airports. She was born in Paris during her parents’ exile from the Portuguese regimes and was three years old when they moved back to Portugal in 1975. She spent the rest of her childhood in Linda-a-Velha, a suburb of Lisbon.
Joana Vasconcelos’ father was a photographer, owned a print works and edited magazines and newspapers. Nowadays he accompanies his daughter, is her official photographer and was by her side for this interview. Her mother made drawings and historical restorations at the Ricardo Espírito Santo Foundation. Joana has a sister who designs and makes jewellery; she had another grandmother who was a painter and a grandfather who worked in antique shops.
It’s easy to see how Joana’s interest in art happened naturally and was encouraged by the family. She took her first steps in artistic creation at the António Arroio technical and vocational school in electrical engineering, antique embroidery and numismatics. There she met her husband and now business partner – architect Duarte Ramirez.
She then studied for seven years at Ar.Co. – Centre for Arts and Visual Communication, in Lisbon, where, as she repeatedly says in interviews, she studied to become an artist. To make a living, she gave out gifts on skates in a hypermarket and worked in public relations for a night club in the Portuguese capital.
The very first art that Vasconcelos was involved in was a martial art. She used to do karate and even took part in competitions. She left the sport because of a knee injury but has kept its teachings in mind – concentration, dedication, tolerance, courage, strength and team spirit.
Vasconcelos began working on projects for opera and in 2004 took part in her first group exhibitions. In 2000, she won the EDP Award for new artists. These days she is no longer just Joana Vasconcelos. She is a Foundation, a brand, a factory filled with staff of Portuguese, French, Cape Verdean and other nationalities.
“I always bring several things with me; I bring some artifacts from Portugal, items made in Nisa, in the Azores, Portuguese fabrics, things we do well in Portugal. We are known for textiles and our ability to manufacture things. My team is multicultural despite actually having a strong Portuguese side, particularly the work done with the artisans of Nisa which is clearly visible in this piece (Valkyrie Octopus) in various parts.”
A certain “je ne sais quoi”
Vasconcelos’ creative process is multi-faceted. One of its features is to carry things over from the private to the public sphere. The artist takes lace, pots, embroidery and tampons out of the domestic world.
In 2002, she created a Burka with seven skirts underneath, in an allusion to the traditional dress of women in the Portuguese fishing town of Nazaré. In 2006, she won the Berardo Foundation Sculpture Prize with Néctar, a candlestick made from bottles of sake exhibited in Japan.
The artist has also developed a creative process of appropriation, de-contextualisation and subversion of objects and everyday realities that she uses to depict a latent Portuguese feminine identity. In 2006, she coated urinals with crochet as a tribute to one of her major inspirations, the forerunner of the Dada movement and conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp.
Since the mid-1990s Vasconcelos has created sculptures and installations that reveal both a sense of scale and mastery of colour, as a critical view of contemporary society using aesthetic currents such as pop and nouveau réalisme.
There are those who accuse her of being kitsch. Her best-known works include Marilyn, a pair of high-heeled shoes made with stainless-steel pans, and Independent Heart (Coração Independente), a traditional heart from the Portuguese town of Viana do Castelo, usually made into jewellery, made from plastic cutlery. The artist receives her criticism with grace.
She says that “kitsch” assumes that an object is not useful or is distasteful – but crochet, for example, was once used to protect furniture in Portuguese homes and was the “only form of expression for many women who could not do anything else” in a predominantly macho society.
“As I usually say, artwork can only go where the world allows it and I just go where my work takes me. And my work has brought me to Macao and has led me to many distant places in the world. That means that other cultures accept my work and internationally many people appreciate what I do. I think what I do deserves to be shown in places as extraordinary as this,” she said.
Vasconcelos, a woman of superlatives, became internationally known after taking part in the 51st International Art Exhibition – Venice Biennale in 2005, where she returned eight years later with another project that stood out: Trafaria Beach (Trafaria Praia), a boat decorated with tiles, cork and textiles.
In 2012 she was the third artist – after Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami – to breathe “new life” into the Palace of Versailles. About 1.6 million people visited the exhibition, a record for the last 50 years in France. Another exhibition at Ajuda Palace (Palácio da Ajuda), viewed by 232,000 people, was the most visited ever in Portugal.
In collective exhibitions from Manchester to Tel Aviv, Palma de Mallorca, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Istanbul or Stockholm, there are works by Vasconcelos in public and private collections around the globe. The nearest to Macao was, until recently, at Amorepacific in Seoul.
Now, as well as Valkyrie Octopus, which is on display until the end of October at the MGM, the artist will also have “a show in Beijing with Dior”. Her work, made from hundreds of perfume bottles at the invitation of the fashion house, has already been shown in Paris and Shanghai. In addition, she mentioned exhibiting in Hong Kong at the Pearl Lam gallery, as well as other projects in Macao.
“Let’s say this is the first step on a long journey,” said the Portuguese artist. “All the baggage I bring along with me is important and Macao will obviously influence my future and upcoming work. At heart, I’m an artistic rover who fills her bag with a variety of cultural experiences and, if I carry on like this, I’ll carry on experiencing new cultures and enriching my future.”
The Joana Vasconcelos Foundation was set up two years ago to preserve her work and create scholarships for arts students. It has set up several protocols in Macao because the artist wants to “continue to establish this relationship with Lisbon and Macao, to make it strong and lasting”.
In Portugal, the foundation seeks to help at a time that “is not easy for culture”. “We’ve created a kind of air pocket in a very troubled ocean,” said the artist, who believes that the lack of state support for culture is “very serious”, as is the fact that there is no minister of culture or an established cultural policy.
Concerned about the future of many people, especially the younger generation, Vasconcelos believes the drain of talent is a matter of survival. “I hope this is a temporary situation. I think the country is making an effort to get out of it and I have become part of that effort myself. So I do what I can within my means.”
The artist will continue her tour of the world, which started at Art Stage Singapore 2015 in the city-state with her piece Tetris 17th Century. In Brazil, she took part in an exhibition at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Sao Paulo, in celebration of 100 years of the creation of the first “ready mades” by Marcel Duchamp. She is now preparing to participate in the celebrations of 450 years since the founding of Rio de Janeiro with her project Pop Galo. A seven-foot Barcelos cockerel covered with tiles and LED lights will be installed on a beach on 10 June, the Day of Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities.
By Filipa Queiróz in Macao
Photos by António Sanmarful and Luis Vasconcelos
Courtesy Unidade Infinita Projectos