The (Terrifying) New Feminist Art That's Taking Off in Tel Aviv

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Eitan Buganim

Currently suspended in the Tel Aviv Museum is an installation called “Lusitana,” created by Portugese sculptor Joana Vasconcelos. The body of Lusitana is covered in various colored cloth patches. She is a Valkyrie, a female figure from Norse mythology. Her body winds its way down four flights of an open space that makes up the “waterfall of light.” Her tail and huge limbs spread in all directions, reaching into exhibit spaces on all levels of the museum.

Vasconcelos’ Valkyrie is powerful and terrifying, yet light and amusing at the same time. This work, designed especially for the Tel Aviv Museum, is part of a series of Valkyries that Vasconcelos started to work on in 2004. In Norse mythology, these female figures determine the outcome of battles, helping some warriors and hurting others, deciding who shall die. They also accompany the fallen heroes to the halls of Valhalla. The Valkyries, who have gone through many transformations over the years, are entities associated with battles and death, as well as salvation and grace.

“The Valkyries, they save the brave ones who died, so they bring them alive, so there’s hope in the Valkyries, there’s like a new life, a new start, and so I see them in that perspective,” says Vasconcelos. “They are goddesses who are warriors at the same time.”

Vaconcelos was aware of the controversial standing of Nordic goddesses in Israel, where they are known mainly through the Valkyrie Brunhilde, who plays a central role in “The Ring of the Nibelung” opera saga composed by Richard Wagner, so beloved of Hitler. “I think museums save cultures, and they save the brave warriors of art who are the artists of course. And so in a way, in the poetic way, it’s like the world can be saved with art,” says Vasconcelos, adding that “museums today, they are no longer the box or the safe house that they were before. They’re not the keepers of only one culture. Museums today, they are open to other cultures and to the dynamics of the world that allows somebody from Portugal, which is so far away from here, to be part of your culture too, and to come and visit you, and that’s the way of the world.”

Darling of Biennales
and collectors alike

Vasconcelos was born in Paris in 1971 but grew up in Portugal. Her exhibitions have been shown all over the world, representing Portugal in the recent Biennale in Venice. In 2005, she presented her work “The Bride” at the Venice Biennale. It consisted of 25,000 tampons making up a huge chandelier. Since then, she has become the darling of Biennales and collectors alike. She is the first female artist to present her work at the Versailles Palace, as part of a contemporary art exhibition that has been held there since 2008. Previously, only male artists such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami had participated.

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'Lusitana,’ in Tel Aviv Museum, by Portuguese sculptor Joana Vasconcelos.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
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'Lusitana,’ in Tel Aviv Museum, by Portuguese sculptor Joana Vasconcelos.Credit: Shy Adam
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'Lusitana,’ by Portuguese sculptor Joana VasconcelosCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

This Portugese artist is represented by several galleries across the world, usually working to order, trying to fill a particular space, which she tries to connect to through her work. She avoids creating an object that fills a space or decorates it, but rather strives to create art that becomes part of the ambience of the building her work is shown in, reflecting people’s motion and connecting to local art collections and the spirit of a city. “You can look at it [the Valkyrie] from different angles, from different points in the building. You have four floors that you can look upon this piece, so that gives it a dynamic and gives it a power which is completely different from the traditional thing about sculpture, which is that sculpture should decorate architecture, or in a way its confined to a space in architecture, so there’s a power in architecture over sculpture.”

She used a similar approach in her most recent exhibition at the Biennale, in which the spectator moves along on a ferry that was brought from Portugal.

Vasconcelos doesn’t build her gigantic sculptures by herself. They are based on taking possession of and altering ready-made objects. For the current exhibit, the artist came to Tel Aviv for a few days, wandering in the museum’s spaces, talking to the curator, making a few sketches and returning home. Her image and mode of operation are far removed from the archaic one of a struggling artist in an attic. She has a studio in Lisbon with 43 employees, including engineers, seamstresses and public relations people.

‘I’m not a factory,
I’m a studio’

She insists on not calling her fancy studio a factory, which would suggest mass production or duplication. “I’m not a factory, I’m a studio, as it has always been – Rembrandt had a studio, Rubens had a studio, Velasquez had a studio - all these studios were built with only one purpose: to create amazing objects, since back then, since the 14th century and before, studios were places where people would learn from each other’s techniques, and they would create something amazing. It could be a painting or it could be a sculpture. My studio is the same. All the people who work with me, they know different things and learn from each other and that’s completely different from a factory, because factory workers, they know all the same technique and they work in a production line, and here it’s completely different. Everybody knows something different from each other, and everybody adds something different to the piece because their knowledge is different, so in a way it wouldn’t be possible to make all these pieces without everybody who works with me.”

Lusitana, the Tel Aviv Valkyrie, is made of cloth from Israel and Portugal. Her name refers to a Lusitanian woman, part of the tribe that gave rise to the Portugese nation. “The name reflects the development of gender identity within Portugese culture and tradition,” explains the exhibit’s curator Ahuva Yisrael. “Vasconcelos develops authentic Lusitanian traditions, such as domestic Portugese handicrafts, in order to create a spectacular, colorful and sensuous exhibit that commands and penetrates the space that has been created by the contemporary digital architecture of the building.”

Her present Valkyrie is the largest she has made to date, a clear representative of the feminist spirit that animates her work. “This is a very feminist piece because it’s all done with fabrics, it relates a lot to women, but it has the scale of a very powerful and male object. Normally sculptors are men, and so having the power to make something that has the same strength as a man with iron would make and with, you know, what I call male materials such as stone and clay and iron and bronze and stuff like that, and that gives us a sense of power. Suddenly these pieces are very light but they look very strong, but they’re done with a different kind of material, so in a way they connect with women very easily, because it’s like transforming the domestic environment into a sculpture, it’s like bringing everything you have at home and throwing it away and doing something else. And you know you could put all of your clothes and all your fabrics and everything that you have in the house and become a sculpture, so there’s a freedom in this piece that normally women don’t have.”

To mark one’s era

In addition to exhibiting in museums, Vasconcelos shows her work in unexpected spots such as hotel lobbies, a soccer clubhouse or the Gucci fashion house. Beyond the usual twists and turns of art, she tries to connect with the viewers of her work in a direct manner. She hopes people will touch the Valkyrie and become familiar with her. The artist’s role has always been, she believes, to mark his or her era and connect to the future. “The first artists in the world had to represent their time and to send a message to the future – we do exist and we did this, okay? So they’re a reflection of the tribe. And that’s the role of artists – we need to reflect our own time, to think of it, and it’s a great privilege and an honor to be given this task of reflecting our time, that’s what we do, we reflect our time from different angles…”

On the other hand, the artist is a celebrity.

“The celebrity aspect, it’s not important,” she says. “What’s important is that my tribe or my community or whatever you want to call it, they decided that I was fit enough to represent them so you can call it fame because you’re looking at the accessory, which means not the important part of it. The important part of being famous is not the fame itself, it’s important that people gave you [the opportunity] to continue doing what you’re doing, and that’s the important part of the job, it’s not being on TV or giving interviews, that’s not important.”

Together with her studio partners, Vasconcelos does everything according to the spirit of the times, including sculpting, photographing, videotaping, performing and creating gigantic structures using an impressive array of materials. She is rooted in the tradition of sculpting, but all her art starts with an idea, not from handling the raw material.

“I start by the idea and then I find the right materials to do that idea, to produce that idea, so the material has not the same importance as before in other sculptures. For me the material is a part of the process, but it’s not the most important part. Because the most important part for me is the concept, and then I develop the concept finding the right materials so it’s starting by another part, not by the material itself. Like Richard Serra, he always works with iron and iron and iron so you know that you’re going to find iron, then he adds to the iron a concept, an amazing concept and it’s amazing, an amazing work, but you know that when you’re going to see a Richard Serra show you know what you’re going to find. That’s why I have a studio, because I have many good technicians in different areas, because I can allow myself not to be that technician.

“I’m not the specialist, as artists were before me,” she says, “so in a way that allows me to open my horizons and to pick up different materials and we create something new, because all these objects they never existed before, it’s the first time that we’re trying them, so every time we have problems, every time you’re breaking boundaries and you’re going further, so in a way you never know what’s going to happen, so it’s also an adventure.”

'Lusitana,’ in Tel Aviv Museum, by Portuguese sculptor Joana Vasconcelos.Credit: Shy Adam
Portuguese sculptor Joana Vasconcelos at Tel Aviv MuseumCredit: David Bachar

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