7 Questions for Celebrated Portuguese Artist Joana Vasconcelos on the Surprising Symbolism Behind Her Multicolored Sculptures

The artist's exhibition, 'Through Mountains and Sea,' is presented by Tang Contemporary, Beijing.

Joana Vasconcelos. © Arlindo Camacho. Courtesy of Tang Contemporary.

Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971) has garnered international renown for her large-scale sculptures and immersive installations, which frequently take everyday objects as conceptual and material starting points. Though visually colorful and playful, Vasconcelos engages with prevalent contemporary themes such as consumerism, personal and societal identity, and the standing of women. Using humor, wit, and criticism, Vasconcelos’s work invites dialogues that traverse everything from current issues to historical precedents.

Currently, Vasconcelos is the subject of her first solo show in China, “Joana Casconcelos: Through Mountains and Seas,” presented by Tang Contemporary, Beijing, through August 6, 2023. Curated by Demetrio Paparoni, the exhibition features over 30 mixed-media works and monumental installations. The title and direction of the show are drawn from the imagery of the historical Chinese text Classic of Mountains and Seas, which has undergone several iterations but first appeared in the 4th century B.C.E.

We reached out to Vasconcelos to learn more about what went into the creation of the exhibition and her artistic process.

Installation view of “Joana Vasconcelos: Through Mountains and Seas” (2023). Courtesy of Tang Contemporary.

Your solo show, “Through Mountains and Seas”, with Tang Contemporary in Beijing recently opened. Can you tell us about the exhibition and the inspirations behind it?

To start off with, it’s my first solo exhibition in China and that makes me very happy. I have taken part in collective shows before and special installations, but to be able to present a vast selection of artworks at Tang Contemporary feels extra special. It brings together textile sculptures and pieces using tiles or ceramic, it’s great to see their dialogue within the concept “Through Mountains and Seas.”

What was the process like working with Demetrio Paparoni, the curator of the show?
I love working with Demetrio Paparoni. We met in Milan, as I was preparing my “Stupid Furniture” show, and we connected straight away. He is a prominent figure in the arts in Italy, but at the same time, he is very easy to work with. We share the same framework and connect on many different levels, from concept to fruition of the art experience. It’s always great to work with like-minded people, who share the same frequency.

Installation view of Joana Vasconcelos, Flaming Heart (2019–2022). Courtesy of the artist and Tang Contemporary, Beijing.

What do you want the experience of the show to be like for visitors? Is there an overall impression or primary takeaway you would like viewers to have?

I hope mainly to surprise and bring joy to whoever visits the show. I love it when people bring their own perspectives to my artworks and couldn’t be happier than to see them leave my exhibitions with a smile on their faces.

Your artistic practice traverses a wide range of mediums and formats. What does your creative process look like? Do you work from a fully formed idea or is it more intuitive and spontaneous?

It is very intuitive and spontaneous, really. My process starts with the decontextualization of everyday objects. From the domestic environment, first and foremost. I assemble them together to create a different reality and provide a whole different meaning to them. And while doing that, I reflect on women’s condition, the status quo, and why we do things the way we do.

Installation view of Joana Vasconcelos, Valkyrie Marina Rinaldi (2014). Courtesy of the artist and Tang Contemporary, Beijing.

Can you elaborate on the roles of symbolism and narrative in your practice and process?

Recently, I created a Wedding Cake for the Rothschild Foundation in England. It’s a massive sculpture, all produced in tiles and ceramic pieces, 12 meters high by 15 meters wide. And while we were producing it, I realized I have been working with the symbols of marriage for quite some time now. In early 2000, I created a chandelier using 14,000 tampons and called it The Bride, as I was reflecting on virginity and how the role of a woman changes as she gets married. In 2018 I created Solitaire, a huge wedding ring, created with automotive rim wheels and whisky glasses which came from the concept of luxury and status associated with marriage. And now the Wedding Cake! Mainly, bringing these elements into the public space I am inviting people to question the way we do things and the traditions associated with the symbols. Do they still make sense in this day and age?

Where do you most commonly look for or find inspiration? Any artists or movements—either historical or contemporary—that have helped shape your work?

In everyday life, all over the place, everything that happens to us is truly inspiring. Life is the biggest source of inspiration!

Installation view of “Joana Vasconcelos: Through Mountains and Seas” (2023). Courtesy of Tang Contemporary.

Can you talk about what you are currently working on now, or hope to work on next?

I am preparing a solo show at MAAT (the Art, Architecture, and Technology Museum in Lisbon), bringing together different artworks using electricity. It will be called “Plug In” and open on September 28. And I am working on another exhibition curated by Demetrio at the Uffizi galleries in Florence. It will be an amazing experience, creating a dialogue with so many geniuses of classical art. “Between Sky and Heat” will open the October 9 and I would love to have you there.

Joana Vasconcelos, Mistress Viúva Lamego (2015). Courtesy of the artist and Tang Contemporary, Beijing.

Joana Vasconcelos: Through Mountains and Seas” is on view at Tang Contemporary through August 6, 2023.

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