Her name is associated with large-format artwork. After the success of the Valquíria installation, which served as the setting for the Dior fashion show, other challenges await. In France, until September, she will be presenting the Tree of Life, and, on June 8th, she will be opening, in England, the Bride’s Cake, an enormous sculpture twelve meters high and three stories high.
For Joana Vasconcelos, size matters! All her works have a large format in common. A world-renowned plastic artist, her work, of which A Noiva, the five-meter chandelier made from sanitary plugs (in 2005), or the giant shoe made from pots and pans (from 2010) are just two examples, is done in an XXL scale. Still enjoying the international recognition of having been chosen to create the setting for the last Dior show, Joana Vasconcelos continues to shine abroad. Here she is in France and England with two huge installations.
A tree and a cake
Tree of Life is on display in the chapel of the Castle of Vincennes, in Paris, and is a life-size tree whose leaves, in various shades, are embroidered and, when seen up close, are impressive for their detail. Árvore da Vida is a monumental textile sculpture thirteen meters high, with 354 branches and more than 110,000 hand-embroidered leaves, in many of which the traditional technique of Viana do Castelo was applied.
The Paris-born Portuguese artist drew inspiration from the work of Bernini Apolo e Dafne, from the 17th century, which depicts the mythological tale of the nymph who chose to transform herself into a laurel tree to escape the amorous advances of the god Apollo. Joana Vasconcelos thus conceived the transformation of the laurel tree that Dafne became.
“To be faithful to Dafne’s beauty and sensuality, we created an elegant and sumptuous tree. Emerging from the floor of the Sainte-Chapelle, the work establishes a dialogue with its dazzling surroundings, using warm colors and lots of gold. We started to embroider leaves at home during confinement and ended up creating a textile sculpture that pays homage to Dafne’s powerful gesture of freedom in a scenario of imposition”, says the author, who is enchanted by the light in the chapel, whose stained-glass windows help to make it shine all shades of textiles used in this work.
Her most ambitious project to date is, however, Bridal Cake, inaugurated on June 8, at Lord Jacob Rothschild’s Waddesdon Manor, in England. It is a sculptural pavilion twelve meters high and has three floors, resulting in a huge cake covered with more than 25 thousand Portuguese tiles by Viúva Lamego, with 170 years of History, in light pink, green, and blue, and decorated with 1238 ceramic pieces, also Viúva Lamego, with waterfalls and even a lighting system.
It is undeniable that we are facing an architectural delirium, but also facing a sculpture that appears in the middle of the gardens of this property as a fresco house, which celebrates the wedding feast. “I’ve been tackling the topic of love throughout my career for nearly thirty years, but this is my biggest challenge to date. Many artists have their ‘impossible project’ and this is mine. A work of this scale would only become possible with the vision and encouragement of an extraordinary and generous patron. Lord Rothschild saw his dream potential, believed in my team, and gave us the means to realize it. A cross between pastry and architecture, the work of art is only complete when two people meet on top of the Bridal Cake. Which is, above all, a temple to love”, declares Joana Vasconcelos.
This wedding cake is inspired by the Baroque buildings and ceramic traditions of Lisbon and, as it is housed in Waddesdon Manor, it becomes part of the significant collection of historical and contemporary sculpture assembled by Lord Rothschild.
The Valkyrie Scenario
It was precisely thanks to the recognition of her large-scale work that Joana Vasconcelos received an invitation (yet another) from Dior. Maria Grazia Chiuri, the creative director of the French luxury house, asked the Portuguese artist to create the backdrop for Dior’s fall-winter 2023/24 show. The huge installation brought the collection to life and enchanted the guests, the press and the critics present there. The textile sculpture was handmade, was 24 meters long, seven meters high and weighed over a ton. The work, a reinterpretation of a Valkyrie, a warrior from Norse mythology, with several bodies and branched arms, was embellished with knitting, wool crochet, embroidery from Viana do Castelo and gemstones from Paris. From the Dior ateliers, twenty fabrics from the collection arrived in Lisbon, which were used simultaneously in the show and in the installation. For Joana Vasconcelos, this sculpture, called Valkyrie Miss Dior, “celebrates the dialogue between the bodies present, the clothing inhabited and the space in question, between haute couture and the visual arts”, in an unprecedented work between two fields. “The plastic arts have never crossed paths with fashion in this way, there can be a piece, there can be an interaction, but at this degree of scale, this close collaboration that is starting from the same material in two different directions, I think it has never been done”, she stated. A job that made her happy and which is part of a continuity with the Maison, since, in 2019, she reinterpreted the iconic Lady Dior bag, with an LED heart and, in 2013, she created the piece J’adore Miss Dior, with hundreds of branded perfume bottles to make a giant bow. Far from imagining that one day she would work for the House founded by the mythical Christian Dior, Joana Vasconcelos says: “Fashion is an important part of my life. For someone who, like me, started advertising, far from imagining that one day he would show his work at Manobras in May 1994, this collaboration with Dior is the realization of a dream”.
Art, humor, and irony
In 2012, at the Palace of Versailles, Joana Vasconcelos had already presented a gigantic Valkyrie in one of the enormous galleries of the royal building. Already there, she had surprised by the size of the work made in wool crochet and by its fantasy dimension, and the exhibition was even the most visited in France in 50 years.
All are unanimous in recognizing that Joana Vasconcelos combines art, humor, and irony in a natural way. Born in 1971, she is an artist recognized worldwide for her monumental sculptures. Her work incorporates everyday objects, establishing a bridge between the private sphere and the public space, questioning the status of women, the consumer society, and the collective identity itself.
International acclaim came in 2005 at the Venice Biennale with A Noiva. It was once again talked about, in 2013, with Trafaria Praia, the first floating pavilion in the history of the event, to represent Portugal. In 2018, she became the first Portuguese artist to have a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
Beyond size, the artist is deeply influenced by her country’s artistic traditions, so the way she combines materials in her works also reflects international influences on Portuguese culture over the centuries. All with a strong interactive component, since the dialogue between the work and the public is… intentional.
How did the invitation to create the setting for the Dior fashion show come about?
Through the brand’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who challenged me to design a new piece using twenty fabrics from the autumn-winter 2023/2024 collection.
What did this invitation mean to you?
It was a unique, unrepeatable honor and challenge. My connection to fashion comes from the past and has been expressed through a dialogue that I have been establishing between fashion and the plastic arts. The contact between the different creative universes is very stimulating for me.
In general terms, what was that facility?
Valkyrie Miss Dior is a textile, organic sculpture that pays homage to Catherine, the original Miss Dior, sister of the House’s founder and his muse. She was a brave woman; a great defender of freedom and she also had a great passion for flowers.
Are you going to show it again to the public?
We hope so, the Valkyries are not created to remain closed in the atelier, but to spread around the world like the figures of Norse mythology where they seek inspiration, who flew over the battlefields bringing brave warriors back to life, to join to the deities of Valhalla.
There are two more projects in hand…
One is the Tree of Life and the other is Bridal Cake.
What is all about?
The Tree of Life represents the transformation of the mythological figure of Daphne, portrayed by Bernini into Apollo and Daphne, one of the most beautiful sculptures in the world. It was created for the Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes, is thirteen meters high and has more than one hundred thousand leaves that the craftsmen on my team embroidered by hand during confinement. Like Daphne’s cry of self-determination, it represents overcoming confinement and is an ode to freedom. The Bolo de Noiva, on the other hand, is an immersive sculptural pavilion twelve meters high, made from tiles and ceramic figures of the Widow Lamego for the Waddesdon Manor of the Rothschild Foundation. A cross between architecture and pastry that is, above all, a temple to love.
Where are they displayed?
The first opened on April 17 at Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes in Paris. The second opens its doors, on the 8th of June, in Waddesdon Manor, England.
By: Alberto Miranda
Photos: Arlindo Camacho, Lionel Balteiro and Rights Reserved