Inside the Romanesque-style Church of San Clemente in Venice is a sight to behold: Joana Vasconcelos’ large-scale installation Madragoa (2015) is situated nearby the altar with its gigantesque form in fabric portraying a flaming heart suspended from the ceiling. For centuries the church was home to a monastic settlement until 1844 when the island was used to house the mentally ill. Interesting to Vasconcelos’ work is the fact that the asylum was for women. Madragoa was previously shown at MGM MACAU in 2015 as part of the exhibition Valkyrie Octopus.
In Venice it becomes a site-specific work whereby a big heart has been added in order, says the artist, “to make a connection between the earthly, concrete nature of the work and the heavenly and spiritual nature that the church it inhabits.” The flaming heart is also emblematic of the same image used commonly in Christian iconography. The work also relates to the storied trade routes that connected the east and the west. Its structured and large-scale appearance has been inspired by the dramatic façades of historic buildings in Lisbon.
“The relationship that can be established regarding the elements used, such as the tiles that take inspiration from the blue and white ceramics that were characteristic of China and became very fashionable in Europe during the 16th century, relates to the trade routes that connect Macau and Venice as well as Lisbon,” says the artist. “It’s about this great point of connection between Europe and the Orient.”
Joana Vasconcelos. I’ll be Your Mirror. 2018. Mirrors. Courtesy of the artist
The work is one of three by Vasconcelos in the exhibition What are you hiding? May you find what you are looking for? Curated by Nina Moaddel, the show’s theme is in response to the 58th Venice Biennale’s title as selected by curator Ralph Rugoff - May You Live In Interesting Times. Similarly, works by Vasconcelos reference both the popular culture of her home country and present debates regarding issues of migration and identity in contemporary art.
“The exhibition’s title is one of the three purported Chinese sayings which seem to have double meanings,” explains Moaddel. “While sounding like a blessing, May You Find What You Are Looking For is meant to imply that people often ‘look for’ things that they don't really need, playing on the illusion that they will be happy when they reach their goals and dreams.” The idea of “looking for” something thus references the idea of greed or inadequacy. The title offers also a pun. It’s as if Vasconcelos is desiring us to look in the opposite direction and consider the needs and aspirations of society rather than just our own. At the end of the day, society is not just about what one is “looking for.”
Other works displayed on the pristine grounds of the Kempinski Palace include the scintillating I’ll be Your Mirror (2018), a giant Venetian carnival mask made of mirrors, inviting viewers to look through the work’s Gulliver-like mask, from the inside or from the outside, without ever losing sight of their own image. The work was recently displayed in Joana Vasconcelos: I’m Your Mirror, a solo exhibition dedicated to the artist’s work at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 2018.
Joana Vasconcelos. Madragoa. 2015. Courtesy of the artist
A short walk away and one will encounter the artist’s iconic Betty Boop (2010) high-heeled shoes part of her renowned shoe series. Crafted out of silver saucepans, the work glows in the sunlight and is at once playful and deeply feminine, referencing the discrepancies of the contemporary woman’s private and public dimensions. “[The work] confronts us with the beauty and elegance that is demanded by social conventions, and, yet also speak to how household tasks and the domestic life continue to be associated with the female sphere,” says the artist.
Sprawled out in various locations on the Isola di San Clemente, Vasconcelos's work is in direct response to Rugoff’s theme, providing, as Moaddel notes, “a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times’ highlighting art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking.” Like the works in the Venice Biennale, Vasconcelos’s art challenges existing habits of interpretation and thought in order to reveal new ways of reading otherwise mundane images and objects.
The exhibition runs until 1 November 2019 at San Clemente Palace Kempinski Venice, Isola di San Clemente
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