- la Biennale di Venezia
Glowing, dangling, rude, ornate, touchable, limbo, womb, octopus, underwater , oasis, cave, under the covers, guts, stomach, bowels, phallic, protrusions, sagging softly, drooping, testicular, camp, voluptuous, decorative, proud, and joyful.
These some of the words I think of whilst sitting inside the blue fabric lined installation created by Portuguese artist Joana Vaconcelos. The installation is just part of a larger piece entitled ‘Trafaria Praia’, a floating artwork, and a pavilion which is moored in a prime location on the shore besides the entrance to the Giardini.
The artwork is based on an original ‘Cacilheiros’ which is the Lisbon equivalent of the Venetian vaporetto (commuter boat), making a symbolic connection between the two cities. The cacilheiros, like the vaporetto, is a passenger vessel for ordinary folk, going about their daily activities. Thus the act of ‘pimping-up’ a cacilheiro as the Portuguese pavilion, raises the status of public object to that of an elite custom-built prize, as well as parodying the billionaire yachts which arrive in Venice at the time of the Biennale. They too have disco fairy lights and cocktail parties, but they just simply aren’t as interesting.
The exterior of the boat is covered with a coat of blue and white tiles (a traditional Portuguese craft material called azulejos) depicting a landscape of Lisbon as seen from the river. The work takes its inspiration from another large-scale panel of azulejos entitled ‘The Great Panorama of Lisbon’, which depicts the city before the legendary earthquake of 1755 and is a quintessential expression of the baroque-style golden age of azulejo production in Portugal. This outer seal transforms the vessel, geographically referencing its place of origin and proud sponsors of the project.
The interior of the boat is a fantasy space. A fabric installation envelopes the walls, ceilings and floor with a mix of blue and white, silvery, tasselled, crocheted and sown, textured and patterned. The room instantly has a calming influence. Relaxing whilst discovering the detail and exploring the beautiful bulges of this cave is joyful thing. In fact this is the reason I think this work is truly revolutionary, because it gives me joy.
Quite a bit of contemporary art is senselessly banal and tedious. Obviously some subject matter requires serious treatment, and therefore needs sombre appreciation. However a lot of conceptual art is unnecessarily boring as a false ruse to appear thoughtful or profound. The word ‘fun’ is one that we associate with child-friendly entertainment, not contemporary art. Art that is rich in humour or joy has been pretty absent from the art world for a long time, and yet it seems that Vaconcelos’ work at the Biennale might be a growing area of practise to turn this around.
The work feels more like a piece of public art than ‘gallery’ work. Mixing ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture is also part of the work, e.g. the disco tunes being played on the upper decks upstairs, followed by a talk about contemporary Portuguese art, or by elevating traditional craft to installation art status. The work thus subverts elitist art institutions on two fronts, by masquerading as a luxury yacht and by the internal synthesis of influences.
‘Trafaria Praia’ might be made of soft furnishing and pretty designs, but there is nothing ‘soft’ about the strength of this work. All too rare in the Biennale, all too rare in contemporary art in general, Vaconcelos’ work combines joyfulness with a multi-layered critique of cultural hierarchy, and is an original indeed.