INTERVIEW: JOANNA VASCONCELOS

NO SEX AT VERSAILLES!

Versailles has ventured into contemporary art. Following, among others, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, it is currently the Portuguese artist Joanna Vasconcelos who has livened up the palace’s lavish rooms with her fantastic and colorful creations. However, she did so not without problems, as some of her works deemed too sexual. Strange, as sex was one of the royal French court’s favorite past times.

Joanna Vasconcelos’ world is playful and colorful, and often entirely made of cloth. That is certainly the case with Contamination, a giant doll-like creature especially conceived for the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo. Tons and tons of different fabrics were needled together into a fairytale snake that slithers in and out of the museum to cover floors and ceilings. It is a monster, if yo like ,albeit the good-natured and lighthearted kind, for it invites you to touch, sit and jump.

Crawling over such a giant doll is not quite your everyday experience in a contemporary art space, which generally features cold white walls and solemn silence. It arguably reminds you more of a kindergarten. But then again, what to expect of an artist who brought Portuguese crochet, lace making and embroidery back into the realm of art. Vasconcelos has used lace and crochet to, for example, cover ancient Greek sculptures or, in the case of Versailles, the lion statues that guard the entrance, thus stripping them of all their masculine ferociousness and giving them an unexpected feminine touch.

Born in Paris in 1971, but having spent most of her life in her native Portugal, Vasconcelos over the years has created a child-like dreamscape in which she rules as queen supreme. And the child inside her is no doubt a girl. To illustrate my point, take her Marilyn sculpture, a giant glittery and shiny shoe, inspired by the pair of heels the one and only Marilyn wore when she famously walked into an air vent and, oops, encountered all kinds of problems holding her skirt down.

Vasconcelos likes to create such huge objects and present them out of context. Perhaps that is why her work fits so well in the hurly burly world of the Versailles, where kitsch once truly was art. So, at Vasconcelos’ current show at the Versailles one can, among other works, admire a giant tea pot in the palace garden, the Lilicoptère–a helicopter-like structure made of pink ostrich feathers – and three Valkyries, the female Nordic warrior gods, riding the ceilings.

Only one work troubled the Versailles management: The Bride. One of Vasconcelos’ most famous works, which was first presented at the 2005Venice Biennale, The Bride is a 5-meter long candelabra, or chandelier, made of some 25,000 white tampons.The artist had hoped to decorate both ends of the Hall of Mirrors with The Bride and Carmen, which is also shaped as a chandelier, but predominantly black.The two would symbolize the good and the bad, the virgin and the whore, such was the idea.

 

My work has developed around the idea that the world is an opera, and Versailles embodies the operatic and aesthetes ideal that inspires me.
— JOANNA VASCONCELOS

"But this was not to be,” the Portuguese artist told French daily Le Monde.“ Apparently they are sexual works and not appropriate at Versailles. As if there had not been any number of women at the Versailles, and so many sex-related stories!" Indeed, ever since the palace was built by Louis XIV, it has been known as a hotbed of affairs and intrigues, as the way to power and riches often led through the bedroom. The French Sun King himself set the tone. He was hardly married to Maria Theresa of Spain or he fell in love with the Louise de La Vallière, the first in a long line of lovers, and even longer line of illegitimate offspring. If he was bad, his successor, Louis XV, was worse. He ruled for almost 60 years, once established a brothel in the palace’ gardens, and fathered at least 30 illegitimate children.

The last Louis however, was a different story altogether. In 1870, aged 15, he married Marie- Antoinette, yet was not able to perform in the bedroom until 7 years later. No one knows exactly why, yet surely public pamphlets such "Can the King do it? Can't the King do it?" hardly lifted the poor King’s confidence. To compensate for her husband’s lack of affection, Marie Antoinette soon spent her days gambling and shopping.And although the Queen of France, unlike her male counterpart, was expected to remain purer than pure, she had her fair share of lovers as well. Who can blame her?

If Sofia Coppola’s cinematic take on Marie Antoinette’s life is to be believed, the child-like Queen, who loved colors and flowers, sugary sweets and champagne, surely would have loved Vasconcelos’ work, which is a feast for the senses. Marie Antoinette and the many women who once “ruled” Versailles were in fact Vasconcelos’ main inspiration.

“My work has developed around the idea that the world is an opera, and Versailles embodies the operatic and aesthetic ideal that inspires me, ”Vasconcelos said.“ When I stroll through the rooms of the Palace and its Gardens, I feel the energy of a setting that gravitates between reality and dreams, the everyday and magic, the festive and the tragic. I can still hear the echo of the footsteps of Marie-Antoinette (...) Interpreting the dense mythology of Versailles, transporting it into the contemporary world, and evoking the presence of the important female figures that lived here, while drawing on my identity and my experience as a Portuguese woman born in France, will certainly be the most fascinating challenge of my career.” 

ArtEli Rezkallah