FROM MICRO TO MACRO AND VICEVERSA A CONVERSATION BETWEEN AGUSTÍN PÉREZ RUBIO AND JOANA VASCONCELOS
AGUSTÍN PÉREZ RUBIO: I would like to turn this interview around. When we write a text or set up an exhibition, we are often weighed down by our historic vision. So rather than following the thread of your career, I would like to start back to front. I think we know each other well, we have worked together on a number of occasions, so I would like to start from the opposite end, with your most recent work. Right now you are producing a piece called Nectar, the project you submitted for the CCB. Yesterday you were telling me you were over the moon and that it’s always a treat to win a contest, especially when your piece is going to be shown at the Bélem Cultural Centre. However, you were also surprised by the news. I would like to know what the significance of this piece is going to be to you, as a Portuguese artist, and especially when your visibility has increased tremendously in less than a year, after the Venice Biennale, the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, etc. What does it mean to you to come home to your own city with a project like this?
JOANA VASCONCELOS: Clearly the CCB project is going to have a greater repercussion in the Portuguese context. It’s nearly like a Portuguese Venice, there isn’t a better spotlight in Portugal – with the exception of Serralves, which is exceptional. But the best place for contemporary art in Lisbon, the city where I live, is certainly the CCB. When I entered the contest I was running with a number of colleagues whom I respect and admire, all with extensive careers behind them, so I really wasn’t expecting to suddenly win. I submitted an idea I had previously worked on in Japan and in the Casa da Música, but the original idea behind the project had to do with Portugal and Portuguese culture: the bottle of wine. The bottle of wine never materialised as a project because here in Portugal no one paid me any attention. It appealed to the Japanese first and later to the French.
A.P.R.: But your piece for the Yokohama Triennale used bottles of sake, right? Was that due to the different context?
J.V.: Certainly. The project has a lot to do with the identity of alcohol use and the social problem it creates. In Japan, though it’s seldom talked about, there is a serious problem with alcoholism and sake. It is a traditional liquor, but the Japanese, especially in rural areas, drink an awful lot of sake in winter and that brings about a number of problems in the countryside. All this leads to tremendously complex situations that are never mentioned in Japan, whereas in Europe we talk about alcohol abuse as a condition that can be treated. The same applies to Portugal with red wine, or to Russia with vodka or France with champagne.
A.P.R.: There is one thing, for instance, that I find striking. If we compare this piece to other pieces over the past few years, this one perhaps has a far more globalised context. The gaze might be a revisitation of something you yourself mentioned. The piece is initially made out of that typical green bottle used for Portuguese wine, but this project (because it’s no longer just a
piece) expands. So is this a new approach? Had you ever worked in this way before? Where does this take you in terms of production, visibility, etc.?
J.V.: I think this is often the case. The more we travel, the more we compare. Now I’m in a position to compare my own country and social condition, the issues and advantages of Portugal against those of Spain or France. But there are things we share, the notion of globalisation having permeated our everyday lives. I can buy clothes at Zara in Japan. However, alcohol abuse, interestingly enough, despite being an issue in every country, displays a specific cultural identity. In a sense, that is what I have been working on. In the case of A Noiva, for instance, the issue is similarly international. It’s a discourse that, depending on where you are, might become a totally new discourse. That’s what happened in Istanbul, when I met a young guy who cracked up laughing when he discovered what the piece was made of. The thing is, in Turkey they tell girls that tampons cause infection and destroy your virginity. They don’t use them. You will never see a tampon, they are concealed. You won’t find them in a decent household. You can’t find them anywhere, except at the chemist. So an object that to me is perfectly banal, under a globalising discourse, turns out not to be in Istanbul, thus becoming a specific discourse.
Some objects carry an international discourse, as in the case of the candlestick. Across Europe, in the Middle Ages, there were always two candlesticks on the dinner table, to give light but also as a decorative element. So they became traditional. In Japan, however, they mean nothing, they have no function, it’s totally different. Light in Japan is different from light in Europe. That’s why I wanted to bring together an object that was European with an object that was entirely traditional to Japan. Now, in Lisbon that union works very well, because it brings together an object belonging to the rich with an object as banal as a bottle of wine. There’s a bottle of wine on every kitchen table in Portugal, whether it be rich or poor. What I try to get across is that these works are all ambiguous. If on the one hand we are talking about the particular, about identity, on the other hand we are talking about the general.
A.P.R.: Certainly, but for instance in Independent Heart, or all your pieces that have to do with Bordalo Pinheiro ceramics, or with crochet, which is also very Spanish, very Italian, very southern...
J.V.: Don’t think about crochet as something that is ours, it’s much more universal than you would imagine. Crochet is as Portuguese as it is German, or Chinese or Mexican. The identity of crochet is ours in terms of design and the use of colour. I can tell Portuguese crochet from Mexican because the colours they use in Mexico are different. That’s the only difference. The technique is international; it’s a fully globalizing language, relative to the women of the entire world. You wouldn’t think so, you think it’s only done in your own country. Everyone believes crochet is their own, but it isn’t.
A.P.R.: Coming back to the idea of how you carry out your pieces and their meaning: in all your work, in your universe, there is a taste for the spectacular, for over-dimension, a certain Baroque. By this I mean an approach that might have to do with size. In fact, there aren’t that many people working in that kind of format at the moment, with sculptures that are nearly on an architectural scale, and certainly not that many women. I would like to know to what extent the use of the object, which is rescaled and resignified, takes on a more general and less specific character. How do you move from the particular and from the object itself to the next object, one that is truly over-scaled?
J.V.: I think there is always a new awareness between the point of departure and the point of arrival, since I don’t see myself as an artist, in the sense of the “artist-as-sculptor”, who works the stone and focuses on the material itself. Today we are no longer as
interested in the material as we are in creation as such. That’s the major difference. In fact, I think people start off from an idea and seek out the material, rather than seeking out the idea in a given material. Any material is possible, any technique is possible, you can draw from fashion, from music, theatre, even from MTV, but the problem is, in the middle of all that, what makes this or that a work of art? That’s the big issue, because ultimately anything is possible. In my pieces, and now I’m referring to myself specifically, I test out all materials at hand and I work on the idea of series; a conceptual and pragmatic idea in this world of repetition we’re living in. What we do is to repeat the same thing over and over again, creating a false impression of versatility.
What I attempt to do, in this world of unbelievable consumerism, is to be extremely conceptual through repetition in itself. I choose a material, such as tampons, and I repeat it until it becomes an abstraction, somewhere between micro and macro.
A.P.R.: So you like to work on large pieces, rather than small and intimate pieces?
J.V.: No, I like to create a space for discovery, a first moment where you capture what is obvious in the piece, where you can consume it in the first instant. But as you come closer you discover there’s more to it and you start to deconstruct it. My pieces put across that first impression, what I call the “fashion gaze”. Those fifteen seconds of fame, (that’s MTV), and that is the time you have to see, because no one spends more than 30 seconds in front of a work of ark. We live in the fast lane and we consume art at the museum just like any other product. How are we going to have time for things unless the things do it for us? Most things don’t make you think. We consume without thinking. What I try to achieve with my pieces, whether they be large or small, is to spark off a thought process after the initial gaze. Of course, that requires time.
A.P.R.: In Ponto de Encontro, Burka or Passerelle, the act of moving in itself, the viewer-user’s interaction, is essential. None of them have to do with the object as such, but rather with the time in which the sculpture itself and the viewer’s sensibility are put into question. How do you involve the viewer in apprehending the piece?
J.V.: I try to generate situations where mental processes might happen. It’s about generating time. In a first instant, my work might come across as being just pretty, but there’s something behind that. I am of course aware of the beauty, because beauty is essential in gaining time. You would never approach something ghastly. If you do, you approach it with fear; that’s what happens with Burka. I face the same problem with Passerelle, it’s a piece one would like to stop.
A.P.R.: It’s a question of violence, of fear and of the ephemeral, a question of a loss of one’s identity.
J.V.: People have a fear; a fear of losing something.
A.P.R.: But I don’t think that happens in your sculpture. In your pieces there is precisely a certain fragility. You often ask yourself, “How long is this going to last? How long will it be there for? Couldn’t it just break?”. I think these issues are interesting within the pieces themselves, but when earlier you were talking about approaching an object, about that aspect of an object’s beauty, you must also be aware of the specific use of the object you’re choosing. These are minor domestic issues, so, what lies behind this or that piece? Why do you start building on an object that in itself is loaded historically, politically or contextually, more or less specifically? I’m sure you are also aware of how loaded most of your pieces are in terms of popular culture. Some works are made out of plastic items, things that are kitsch, household utensils, or Grandma’s crochet... How do you relate to that? It has been said that in your work there’s always a tension between hi and lo-cult. I
find it funny to say that your work is high culture, modern art. Of course it is high culture, because there’s an idea there, but in fact the idea is supported by lo-cult.
J.V.: Yes, that’s certainly true. I somehow manage to translate lo-cult into hi-cult. By combining something banal, something quotidian and worthless with the concept of modern sculpture.
A.P.R.: But here there is a much more critical resignification in terms of consumerism. Something social, but also historical and popular, right?
J.V.: Yes, it’s about democratising objects. Today there are objects, like the plastic forks I used in Coração Independente, that anyone can appreciate as being cool and trendy in restaurants, or even the café of somewhere as significant to modern art as the Tate. There are objects that have changed status in this way. Status – of people, of objects – changes, it isn’t static. Things that are banal today might belong in high culture tomorrow.
A.P.R.: Along those lines, I have a question. In many of your works, the discourse is, to my reckoning, so close to the limit that you don’t really know if what you’re doing is raising lo-cult to a status of hi-cult, or vice-versa, if you’re adopting an ironic or cynical point of view. To what extent are you focusing on Grandma’s crochet as something to be proud of, that idea of it being something Portuguese? Or, on the contrary, are you making fun of it through the concept of design? I think many of your pieces display a degree of ambiguity. How should we interpret that?
J.V.: In fact, that reading depends on each individual’s culture. The crochet pieces are great fun precisely because of that. Because the viewer might think, “Gosh, that’s just like the crochet back at home, just like my Grandma’s or my Mum’s!”. Then they think, “Actually, it’s in bad taste. But I like it because I find in it a certain identity, something I recognise. It’s like what I have at home, but now I’m seeing it in an artistic context. So, if it’s here, that means it’s good. Then why am I thinking it’s bad?”
A.P.R.: Now we’re moving onto a different terrain. For instance, some critics, even the text in this catalogue, often point out a certain coldness in your work, in the sense of a degree of kitsch. What is your opinion on that?
J.V.: No, no. I believe things have to generate a certain presence, they have to make a noise. When pieces are too static, too bold and perfect, they get on my nerves; they are too hygienic. On one occasion, a curator said, referring to that kitsch aspect in my pieces, “These works, the ones in crochet, are no good because they don’t look like works”. And I said, “Perfect. That’s just what I wanted.”
A.P.R.: Regarding those pieces you mention, I think they appeal to a different type of public, who see in that work that the handcrafted can outweigh the concept itself; it’s a task that won’t let itself be trapped by the idea. On occasions I’ve focused only on their beauty, but at other times I think that you have to go beyond that, to see them over time.
J.V.: Certainly, here again is the question of time. Handcraft gives you three things: time, repetition and then, when things are repeated over and over again, they become abstract.
A.P.R.: Yes, like a mandala, which is repeated, and at the end becomes an idea, it’s not even a sound...
J.V.: It’s noise.
A.P.R.: A noise that can even be silence, but it’s noise, like a sound.
J.V.: That’s it. That’s what I want to achieve.
A.P.R.: That brings me to another question. If in Coração Independente you use those small plastic knives and forks, in Néctar you use bottles, and in A Noiva you use tampons, does the choice of a given object affect the final result or not at all?
J.V.: Yes, it always affects the final result. For instance, from a historical point of view, the candlesticks, have to do with Duchamp’s bottle rack piece, but Duchamp’s piece always annoyed me because it’s a vacant piece, it’s ugly, out of scale and, on top of that, serves no purpose.
A.P.R.: It isn’t the first time you have done something related to Duchamp. For example, your urinals wrapped in crochet have a lot to do with Fountain; A Noiva also has to do with that...
J.V.: Yes, of course, but as I was saying, the bottle rack piece is ugly, cold, etc. But it’s a very intelligent piece. Duchamp, in my view, was a true master because what he did was to remove everything that was superfluous to the work: all considerations of taste, aesthetics, he freed the work of all that. He exposed the pure object, with no qualms. In doing so, he brought into play a load of things that were new to the art world: emptiness, ugliness, a lack of scale. He got rid of an important chunk, but at the same time brought in a number of new issues. To me, Duchamp’s emptiness and his degree of conceptualisation are no longer relevant today, because now we live within a multiplicity of ideas, of lifestyles, of encounters, of consumption and communication so vast that we can draw from what he did, but we also have to modify it.
A.P.R.: I find your relationship to Duchamp in nearly pathological in that you attempt to complete, duplicate or fill in his pieces, as you do for instance in Néctar, when you fill it with bottles or when you duplicate the urinals.
J.V.: It’s not about filling them out, it’s about raising issues. The problem isn’t the emptiness, it’s the multiplicity. Today we no longer live in terms of emptiness, we live in terms of a multiplicity of pro— blems, religions, cultures, globalisation, wars, sex. Today it’s impossible to find an empty moment. We are living in full moments where it is no longer possible to hold on to an identity. The artist is a multiple person, you yourself are a multiple person. I can’t say of myself that I am just a sculptor, nor that I’m 100 percent Portuguese; I’m a bit of everything, I’m the construction of an identity. I don’t identify at any stage with Duchamp’s idea whereby “this is this”.
A.P.R.: In line with that idea of multiple identity, an important part of your work has always had to do, on the one hand with a sculptural aspect, and on the other with an architectural aspect.
J.V.: That idea is very important to me. Most people, when they view one of my pieces, might think it’s just pretty, but few people believe my work carries a direct, well-constructed discourse on architecture, which I do think it does.
A.P.R.: Of course, really a sculptor – someone who thinks in terms of sculpture and objects – and someone who thinks about architecture, are people who, if they know how to work space, can reach a meeting point.
J.V.: But that isn’t common in sculpture. I see many people working on sculptures to show in a gallery space, but in my case it’s totally different. Twice I was invited to show my piece Passerelle, and on both occasions I declined when I saw the exhibition space. It’s a piece that has to be shown in a very specific way and there a very few places where it can work correctly. These pieces work well in very specific spaces and scales. The same applies to Burka. When we
installed it for the first time we realised it was missing a proper relationship to the architecture. I try to work with items that might be around the house, to conceptualise them, give them a new life and a new form, and then make them become a part of a larger object. There is a whole change of scale before that relationship to architecture can be established.
A.P.R.: In line with that relationship, or nearly feedback, between small and large, I would like you to tell me about your approach to design. You use objects that in themselves already carry a previous design. They are manufactured items that you transform into something different and you make that a work of art. So then what happens when a fashion brand, a brand of sports shoes or a furniture designer invites you to enter a different world, to recreate a part of your artistic work or of your conceptualisation so as to present something that is already an object in itself? People like Olafur Eliasson, Tobias Rehberger or Sarah Morris are working for fashion and design brands such as Louis Vuitton or Prada. How do you play with design? Do you feel comfortable working in that field? Is what comes out of that a work of art, or just Vasconcelos playing along to design?
J.V.: Well, to me it’s an exciting adventure, but there’s an aspect to it that I love and an aspect I don’t like at all. What I enjoy is the adventure of crossing over into a different world, a different theory, perspective, medium and people. That’s something I love. As well as the versatility the piece might have in the end; making people ponder whether or not it’s a work of art. On the other hand, what I don’t like is the craze with making everyone do something different. Versatility can be a game of intelligence, to see to what extent your mind can work in an unfamiliar medium, forcing you to exercise different skills; it’s like speaking a foreign language or drawing from a source within you that you don’t usually resort to. I think that is excellent. On the contrary, what I don’t like is the comparison between professionals working in different fields. That has nothing to do with versatility, because what matters today isn’t the medium, but rather what’s in your head. I studied design, jewellery and drawing, and all these things are there in my work. For example, I see the crochet pieces not as material, but as patterns; I select them and put them together as if I were drawing. People think I’m doing crochet, but that’s not the case. If you want to broaden your thinking, you won’t have the slightest interest in design or fashion; they are only means to produce. Objectively, I consider myself a terrible designer because I’m not interested in the direct relationship to objects, but rather in their interaction. All my work demands a degree of involvement, it needs the other body’s presence to be able to exist. My work is incomplete without the viewer, even in photographs it’s incomplete. Books to me are a void because there is no meeting point; if you don’t jump onto the Ponto de Encontro (Meeting Point), if there is no tension or violence, there can be no encounter. In that sense, I could consider myself a designer, because design fulfils the function of organising the world in relation to the body. A chair has to be comfortable, it has to have certain dimensions, and the whole must have a certain relation to the body. Design is an exercise in scales, but it is also purely fashion. All identity achieved through fashion is immediate; it’s the fastest way to obtain an identity.
A.P.R.: But what is your opinion on this blending of disciplines? Architects who design furniture, designers who present their objects as sculptures...
J.V.: What’s happening is that all our disciplines are tired of themselves, they have exhausted their materials, their techniques, their targets and even their public. People are bored, and they need to understand how other people are thinking and to hear different ideas. There is an unprecedented exchange between disciplines being established because what people want is to change their point of view, their materials, their objectives; as I was saying, an architect’s objectives, for instance, are different from those of a designer.
People love it, because it gives them a different perspective, despite the fact that design and functionality don’t necessarily go hand in hand. I think we are living in times when everyone needs something new.
A.P.R.: So what happens when someone like Zaha Hadid shows her paintings in a museum, or fashion designers who fancy themselves as artists start making sculptures or photographs and signing them? You are on the opposite end of the scale – an artist who at a given moment might produce a fashion image or design an object that can be sold. What is your opinion on these fashion designers or architects who attempt to anoint themselves as artists?
J.V.: I think there are better artists among the fashion designers than in the museums. To me what matters isn’t the medium, but what lies behind. The work, the idea of a work of art. We would have to start by debating what makes a work of art. There are works that are important and others that are not. There are films that are more important than the entire production of a visual artist. We no longer have that megaspace where the visual artist sits atop the pyramid of creation, as the freest or most open. I think the idea of the artist’s identity, the Mona Lisa, no longer applies; what we have now is the concept of a work of art.
A.P.R.: A typical feature of your work is that you often use everyday consumer objects that have to do with a domestic environment, and even with what is presumed to be a woman’s territory. Objects that have to do with the kitchen, with religious fervour, or that belong to the world of our grandmothers, like crochet. How do you react when your work is assimilated to a feminist practice?
J.V.: It’s very simple in fact. It’s all about a sexual issue. There are men and there are women; women have an inside and men have an outside. In physical terms there is an inside that you men don’t have and we do, and the truth is women work on the idea of the inside a lot more.
A.P.R.: But remember, sex is cultural!
J.V.: Precisely. That’s why the piece that best reflects that issue is the one I made for NMAC in Cadiz, called Ópio. It’s a football goal on the outside with a crochet net on the inside. Women are always working on the inside, on the crochet.
A.P.R.: But do you honestly think women are still working on the inside? Or do you think there’s something historical or cultural there, as with some of your objects, like you said earlier regarding the candlesticks?
J.V.: I think it’s physical. It has nothing to do with conceptual considerations. There’s an internalization in women that doesn’t happen with men, though that is also changing with women’s new place in the world.
A.P.R.: So, I ask ironically, is your entire theory based on a biological approach?
J.V.: No, it isn’t biological. My theory is feminist in the sense that women had lost themselves in the inside and are now discovering there are other things in life aside from their physical relationship to their sex. The predominance of sex is no longer the primary starting point in their lives. Women are more fragile, have less strength, men’s control over women is all based on physical strength, but also on the sexual act. There is always a domination of man over woman, whether it be physical or otherwise. But to answer your first question about whether I see myself as a feminist, the answer is no, because I want nothing to do with sex, I don’t want to hear about the limitation sex imposes on women.
A.P.R.: But feminism in itself is a social movement, a political movement.
J.V.: Yes, but we always start off from the assumption that women are underrated in society. And that implies putting sex first. It means accepting that we women start from a place that is behind that of men. I don’t agree with that. Physically it is true that we have an inside, that we are sometimes less strong, but today things are no longer controlled by an animalistic condition. Intelligence is in control. To me, intelligence is sexless.
A.P.R.: Then how do you react to the feminist reading of your work? J.V.: I do not find it interesting. A.P.R.: But do you understand that it might be there?
J.V.: Certainly. What I’m talking about is the lack of interest in the feminist discourse. What I try to do is to eradicate it by showing women how pointless it is to keep discussing the issue. My objective is not the cause of women, but thinking. And thinking has no colour or race or identity or age or gender. It has an evolution. Without evolution, there would be no thinking. What I try to do is to work so that my head can evolve.
A.P.R.: Earlier on we were saying that within the art world there are few people – and particularly in the new generations – brave enough to tackle large-format sculpture, but there is however a tradition of male sculptors. Do you think that within the art world there are still certain approaches...?
J.V.: The art world is the most conservative of all. It has the most restrictive rules and the most inflexible structures. The fact is that stands at art fairs haven’t changed in I don’t know how many centuries. Painting is still painting, it’s the only thing that can’t be copied. The truth is that when things start to change, the means change to accommodate. Today women have a much greater participation in the art world than thirty years ago. Of course, the impact of people who are working today will be seen in a very different light in the future, they will be aware that there are many women working in sculpture, all over the world, in Brazil, in France...
A.P.R.: I would like you to look back and tell me what you think of that girl who lived in Lisbon, who went to university and was in touch with Cabrita Reis in her beginnings. How do you see Joana Vasconcelos’ evolution in terms of her work, or even as a person? Do you think you are still in tune with who you were, or have you changed over the years? What has happened to the very context you grew up in?
J.V.: What has happened is that people think that my work has improved since my beginnings, but I don’t think so. I think my head is still the same. At the beginning I enjoyed less freedom, but over time I have gained a larger degree of freedom in terms of actions, movement, identity, space and scale. What I have achieved is the power to better portray what was already in my head. I look at my early work and I still like it just as much, I could have done it yesterday. But I always recall all the hardships I underwent in the beginning in order to make these pieces. Meeting Cabrita was very important in understanding that it could be done. He was the image of the person who, come what may, carries his work through. He didn’t care whether he had money or not, he just went ahead. His drive to work is what I share with him. That is how I have conquered the territory and the means to be able to carry out my projects. That is where the changes have happened.
A.P.R.: To wrap up, where will Joana Vasconcelos’ next step lead her? I think your most recent step has been to take your career onto an international
level, to work on a larger scale, covering more architectural projects or developing your projects for gardens. Where do you intend to take your career from here?
J.V.: Regarding my work, I could tell you exactly what I will be doing because I have lots of projects in mind, it’s just a question of finding the means to carry them out. In social terms, I don’t know. It depends. What I would like to do would be to work with places, whether they be indoors or outdoors, and to work with ideas; to contrast them with other people who also have them. Anything is possible, but there has to be an exchange with people, with ideas and places. Sometimes there are only ideas, and no place. I don’t always have them all, but I’ll keep moving forward.