Walsall, UK

Joana Vasconcelos

The New Art Gallery

The young Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos gained broader recognition when one of her major works, A noiva (The Bride), 2001, was included in the 2005 Venice Biennale: At the entrance to the Arsenale hung an outsize chandelier, an elegant structure, nearly twenty feet high, in which the artist had replaced the traditional crystal pendants with cotton tampons—around twenty-five thousand in all. By associating an object characteristic of sumptuous palatial salons with the traditional bridal gown on one hand and taboos of feminine sexuality on the other, Vasconcelos created a powerful metaphor for contemporary womanhood, still captive to the dictates of a phallocentric civilization.

This work, installed in the large foyer of the New Art Gallery Walsall, where Vasconcelos brought together a broad selection of her output for the first time, encapsulates the artist’s technique and subject matter. Vasconcelos examines identity in terms of gender, class, and nationality, and to this end, she employs symbolically resonant consumer goods, bordering on kitsch, in order to produce sculptures that comment ironically on daily life. The rhetoric of these works is based, further, on their ingenious and meticulous elaboration—with artisanal features—as well as their visual power. Finally, their titles, which often show a sophisticated manipulation of language, also contribute to the multiplicity of meanings that the works engender, leaving the viewer entangled in a myriad of implications.

Another of Vasconcelos’s best-known works, Coração independente vermelho (Red Independent Heart), 2005, is the second in a group of three similar sculptures inspired by the Viano do Castelo heart, a filigree pendant traditionally made in the town of that name. For the first work in this series, the artist re-created one of these delicate pieces in large scale, utilizing not the usual gold but the humblest of food accessories, yellow plastic cutlery. The version shown here is made of red plastic utensils, while a third incarnation is black. Suspended from the ceiling, the plastic heart revolves constantly, accompanied by a recording of Amália Rodrigues, the diva of fado, singing a song with the same title as the work.

Other works on view illustrated Vasconcelos’s more recent techniques: hand knitting and the use of crocheted pieces found in flea markets. Valquíria excesso (Valkyrie Excess), 2005, is an undulating, colorful, and voluminous construction in cloth hanging from the ceiling; Passerelle, 2005, is a motorized rack from which hang a group of ceramic dogs of a type often found in Portuguese homes—as the rack turns, the dogs bump into one another, eventually falling to pieces on the floor. While these works explore popular imagery and are thus in line with her long-standing practice, Jardim do Éden (Garden of Eden), 2007, which Vasconcelos created specifically for this show, expands her interests. Here, containers of artificial plants, lit by fiber optics, create a colorful landscape. In questioning the impact of technological progress on nature, Vasconcelos explores a new dimension of her already politicized view of the world.

Miguel Amado

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.