In a time when there is so much talk about unplugging, Joana Vasconcelos presents us with her PLUG-IN Exhibition in the buildings and surroundings of the MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. The exhibition brings us back to some of her memorable recent works and her long relationship with the EDP Foundation.
It was in 2000 that Joana received the New Artists Award organised by the EDP Foundation. Much has changed in her career since, with and without their support. There have also been changes at the old Tejo Power Station, which is now integrated with the new Museum designed by architect Amanda Levete. Inspired by this relationship, the Museum Director Joao Pinharanda curates the exhibition. Depending on your chosen trajectory to arrive at these contrasting venues, visitors will be welcomed in equal marvellous ways by two of Joana’s grandiose artworks right from outside.
As the audience approaches the old building, Tejo Power Station, the artwork “I’ll be Your Mirror #2” (2019) mingles with the environment’s architecture and emerges from their view. The several gold-framed mirrors compose a carnival mask that reflects the surrounding landscape’s light and beauty, gently encompassing their image as they approach the sculpture.
When arriving from the side of the new futuristic long building, with its fluid lines and shapes blended with the city panorama, art lovers will encounter the “Solitario #1” artwork (2018)—a behemothic ring composed of 110 car rims and 1449 whisky glasses. It represents luxury and solitude, although one can challenge this now that the piece is outside the Museum, becoming part of many romantic proposals and single aspirations.
Returning to the Tejo Power Station building, viewers can marvel at the “Tree of Life” (2023). It was created by the atelier artisans using recycled materials during the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020-21. It was first presented at the Saint-Chapelle de Vincennes in Paris through Joana’s participation in the Saison France-Portugal 2022 program. It has approximately 354 branches, 140.000 leaves, 10.000 illuminated by LEDs, and a structure 13 meters high, entirely hand-embroidered.
Joana maintains a stronger relationship with the country where she was born, as demonstrated through many vital partnerships and evidenced in 2024, once again through a new collaboration with Rocher Bobois and Christian Dior. Furthermore, you can contemplate a series of drawings of patterns and motifs used in many of her works and collections. Although the magnitude of the “Tree of Life” can mesmerise most visitors, it is only when they arrive inside the new building, in front of one of Joana’s large pieces—the biggest of her series, Valkyrie’s- that they are dazed.
The “Valkyrie Octopus” (2015) has many arms named after some of the most famous Lisbon neighbourhoods. It was specially commissioned for MGM Macau during the 25th Anniversary of the Macao SAR. A sculpture approximately 35 meters in length, 20 in height, 1200 kilos, and more than 4000 meters of fabric embroidery, with various patterns and LED Lights.
Spreading around the large area of the Museum, one cannot escape the feeling of how small we are in the middle of such grandiosity. The amount of detail, handcraft, and technology mixed is astonishing. At the same time, the excitement transforms into a calm, as if time has stopped, and once again, you are enchanted. Compelling visitors to walk around each part of the piece, admiring the thousands of details, lost in a trance.
What a unique experience, space and environment that is also being utilised by another of Joana’s projects – Corpo Infinito. A well-being lead initiative of the artist, since 2015, carrying Heart Chakra Meditations and Yoga with Art sessions regularly during the exhibition period. And just like that, after a few deep breaths, when we might start to think that there are not too many works on view, despite the number of steps attained, we access this other room with a few more impressive pieces.
From “Strangers in the Night” (2000), with its many headlights and allusions to the possibilities and adventures during the night, to the most recent “Drag Race” (2023). Over-adorned with ostrich feathers, a Porche 911 Targa Carrera carved linen woodworks by the St Martin of Tibães Monastery artisans in Braga, Portugal, and many fine gold and metal motifs. By blending those elements, visitors are transported to the different stories that are part of the creation of this piece. The luxury and lust, the association with Portugal as coloniser, and the inference of minorities’ realities with its exquisite details.
In the current times, marked by the looming threat of many wars and the distressing realities of Ukraine’s and Gaza’s destruction, to name only a few, it becomes essential to highlight artworks such as “War Games” (2011-23). This piece features a black 1960s Morris Oxford car adorned with toy rifles and strips of red LEDs externally, while the interior is filled with a myriad of colourful cuddling toys. It intertwines those vital elements and opens the audience’s mind to consider the many consequences of the decisions made by those in positions of power.
Crucially, amidst these powerful narratives, it is equally important to recognise that Joana’s transport us to a realm where vibrant colours abound, inviting us to reconsider our perspectives and celebrate life, equality, diversity, and inclusion, offering a compelling and meaningful journey for contemplation. As Joana says: “Art can bring us together without any frontiers. We are one human race, earth, and group interested in creation. That is joy, and I hope it will bring peace to the world.”
I met Joana just after the opening of the exhibition in London at the official launch of the REBOOT Conference in October at the Portuguese Embassy, before the next day’s event at the Philip Auction House. Once again, Joana welcomed a range of National and International speakers—a conference exploring the Critic Condition as a theme in its 3rd Edition.
Covering the activities of all participants, I could talk and congratulate her in person for her remarkable achievements of 2023 to date. Joana is among many artists invited to participate in a new project in France, in which she will design one of the 200 new artistic train stations. A project that should see its fruition in 2027.
Joana Vasconcelos’s works might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, she can be part of many dimensions and is “pleased to say that, in the end, no matter in which dimension or mediums, we all want to connect and bring awareness to the world.”
Joana Vasconcelos – PLUG-IN exhibition runs until 04 August 2024 at MAAT – Lisbon/Portugal.