Recognizable from a distance, an imposing chandelier displays a candid cascade of glistening pendants. When stepping closer to it, the viewer is surprised. Appearing at first to be made of glass or crystal, the thousands of pendants are in fact immaculate feminine tampons. Its shine results, after all, from the reflection of light upon the transparent plastic wrappings of the thousands of tampons composing The Bride; a work thus titled in order to expose the imposition of a hypocritical and repressed feminine sexuality to the corrosive action of irony and ambiguity.
This work marked the beginning of Vasconcelos’s international career, when it was shown within the exhibition Always a Little Further, at the Venice Biennale, in 2005. Moreover, something unexpected or unusual usually happens when it is about to be shown, such as its censorship at her solo exhibition in Versailles, in 2012. This moment, in particular, shows how contemporary the work continues to be, as it continues to create a tension. Tampons exist since the 1930’s and the sexual revolution happened 50 years ago, and still, today, we are bothered by these objects and by the concept of female liberation.
Henry Martin: What is your favorite art work?
Joana Vasconcelos: One of my all-time favorite works of art is Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625), housed at Galleria Borghese. What draws me in is its life-sized scale and how it narrates the story in one moment, through a masterfully dramatic swirling motion that depicts Apollo and Daphne’s reaction to her conversion from human into tree. Its representation of movement in a whirling manner not only makes the tension inherent to this mythical moment felt, as viewer is also led to circulate the work and experience all details from all angles, giving the work interactive characteristics.
My favorite contemporary artwork is Nam Jun Paik’s Moon is the Oldest TV (1965). For me, it is one of those landmarks – not only of contemporary art, but of art practice in general. The idea of using a TV as an artistic medium was completely groundbreaking, blurring the boundaries between high art and mass culture (which is something I also do through my work as an artist). It rejects the common functionality of a TV, creating an allusion to a natural occurrence (the different phases of the moon) through the direct manipulation of television’s technology, becoming an object that is somewhere between painting and sculpture.
The ultimate ‘masterpiece’ would be Picasso’s Guernica. It is a symbol of the concept of freedom and freedom of creation put into practice. Although it raised various and contradictory reactions when it was first presented (some considered it lacked a political compromise or a more positive view of the future), this work has become a paradigm of art history and contemporary art because it was a turning-point in relation to freedom of expression. Moreover, it registers a very important and particular moment in history – and this is, in the end, any artist’s great responsibility. I see the artist’s role as one who is responsible for the representation of their ‘tribe’, of registering the behaviors of the society in which they inhabit and that may be studied by others in the future, just as Picasso did with this great work. It is also in this mission that I am focused on as an artist.
Henry Martin: How do you work?
Joana Vasconcelos: My creative process is based upon the appropriation, decontextualization and subversion of pre-existing objects and everyday realities. I am inspired by everyday life and my perspective is led by a critical observation of the world around me. I am oriented by my condition as a woman and as a Portuguese woman, but always thinking in global terms. I work the global through the local, in the sense that I work a lot upon various traditions and techniques that can be identified as Portuguese, such as crochet, but are in fact found all around the world. Working these items, along with a resort to everyday objects such as cooking pans or tampons, is part of my conceptual and visual language because I believe these carry with them an impressive potential for signification. We think to know them well, but these can always acquire a new signification when challenged to serve concepts or to question the world.
I work with a big team, we are now more than 50 at my studio. Different works will bring on different challenges, but, to sum up, the work process usually goes as follows: The process begins with an idea, which is sketched in my notebook. I then take this sketch over to the architecture and engineering departments, who, using 3D drawing software, draw the sketched work in order to better understand how it will work, its different views and perspectives, etc. There is also a meeting with our producers to discuss the schedules and materials. Once the materials are settled, the architects make final technical drawings of the work to better comprehend the dimensions it will achieve, how much material is needed, how much it will weigh. In the end, this final drawing, with all the detailed technical data, is passed on to our craftsmen to be produced, and I supervise the whole process, from the beginning until the end.
Title: A Noiva [The Bride], 2001-2005 / Materials: OB tampons, stainless steel, cotton thread, steel cables / Dimensions: 600 x Ø 300 cm / Collection: António Cachola Collection, Elvas, Portugal / Other: Work produced and restored with the support of Johnson & Johnson, Lda. / Picture credits: Luís Vasconcelos/Courtesy Unidade Infinita Projectos, Venice Biennale, Arsenale, Venice, 2005