How do you appropriate a vessel designed for other uses than the one you have in mind? In transforming an old ferryboat — a cacilheiro, as they are called in Lisbon — into a floating gallery, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos offers her own take on this and other questions. In the context of the Venice Biennale, for which she undertook the project, she also grappled with a problem that faces all artists who are asked to represent their country: how to manage the exhibition of their work in the overdetermined, even negatively connoted decor of national pavilions. Portugal’s case is more complicated still, as it is the only country with a significant artistic and cultural tradition not to have its own building, either among the 29 Giardini pavilions or anywhere else in the city.
In light of these questions, Vasconcelos’s charming and somewhat touristy proposition — the boat leaves the quay with visitors every day for short excursions on the lagoon — is much more significant than it first appears. By recycling a vessel typical of those that navigate the Tagus and by mooring it on the Riva dei Partigiani — in other words, right next to but outside the Giardini (and thus free of charge) — Vasconcelos imports fragments of vernacular Portuguese culture into Venice, at the heart of contemporary art, and revisits the relationship between artists and the sites and history of the Biennale.
Vasconcelos is not a renovation expert. She mainly creates monumental sculptures, such as the series of giant metal teapots that she began producing in 2010, referencing a passage in Alice in Wonderland, and the huge pair of high-heeled pumps made of gleaming stainless steel pots and lids, titled Marilyn (AP) (2011) and exhibited in the Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors in 2012.1 1 - Joana Vasconcelos Versailles, Château de Versailles, June 19 to September 30, 2012. See the artist’s website: www.joanavasconcelos.com/menu_en.aspx. What, then, motivated the renovation of what was once a ferry into a pavilion for the Venice Biennale? What artistic statement does this renovation make?
Built in 1960 and in use until 2011, the Trafaria Praia was named after a suburb on the south shore of the Tagus from which it transported workers to and from downtown Lisbon on a daily basis. Such ferries, the only means of crossing the river before the first bridge was constructed in 1966, had become the symbol of to-and-fro travel in the region. By renovating and breathing new life into the cacilheiro, Vasconcelos brought some of Lisbon’s everyday life into the heart of the Venetian lagoon and its bustling art scene. But that isn’t all.
About thirty metres long and 7.5 metres wide, the Trafaria Praia was first repaired and repainted in a shipyard in Portugal before being towed to Venice, where artistic production on the ferry-cum-pavilion began in earnest. Outside, the windows on the main bridge were obscured and a fresco in traditional ceramics portraying a panoramic view of Lisbon was made to run the entire perimeter of the boat. The darkened space inside was transformed into a gallery whose walls and naval architecture were completely covered with crocheted-cotton pieces that had been made communally in the artist’s studio. Thus, the work of the shipyard labourers, the ceramicists, the women creating traditional crafts — and, indeed, the artist’s own work — are all brought together, side by side, with no attempt at continuity. The effect is to erase the distinction between art and handicraft, major and minor arts, while suggesting the issue of the gendered division of labour.
Vasconcelos represents not so much her country as its traditional culture, a culture that she uses as the starting point for the conception of her works. Precious objects, ceramic trinkets, patchworks, and embroideries are in fact the basis of her work. In 2009, for instance, she appropriated large ceramics by the famous late-nineteenth-century Lisbon artist and craftsman Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro to create a series of sculptures representing lobsters. In the same vein, she commissioned a specialized ceramics shop with the creation of the vast fifty-by-two metre Lisbon panorama bedecking the Trafaria Praia. Like another eighteenth-century panorama of the city to which it refers, it was produced using the traditional technique used for azulejos, highly refulgent earthenware tiles usually painted blue. But whereas the Trafaria Praia’s panorama represents the city today, its model2 2 - It may be seen at Lisbon’s Museu Nacional do Azulejo. represents Lisbon before the sadly notorious earthquake of 1755, which almost completely destroyed the capital and instigated its gradual economic decline. The interval between the two panoramas suggests at once destruction and reconstruction, permanent seismic threat and life that goes on; it also underscores the value of traditional popular art as a form of recollection or study of the past.
In counterpart to this work is the refitting of the boat’s interior with a decor that is also artisanal and dominated by the colour blue, but which reveals a more feminine universe than the exterior. As in the belly of a whale, passing through opaque curtains, one enters into this dark and mysterious place, lit here and there with small LEDs and populated with peculiar crocheted shapes. This technique, which Vasconcelos uses throughout her work, whether to cover ceramic objects or to produce soft sculptures, places her alongside other women artists who have striven to highlight the expressive value of manual activities traditionally devolved to women, from Annette Messager and her stuffed sparrows clothed in woollen vests (Les Pensionnaires, 1971 – 72) to Rosemarie Trockel’s knitted Cogito, ergo sum (1988). Unlike these artists, though, Vasconcelos tends to reconcile the masculine and the feminine by bringing them together within surprising objects. Her Lilicoptère (2012), for instance, in a way prefigures her work on the Trafaria Praia: this means of transport, here supremely virile in the form of a military helicopter, is coquettishly personalized with pink ostrich feathers, lace, and crystal. With the Trafaria Praia, though less exuberant, the process is similar. The renovation of a vessel in a shipyard and the work of ceramicists are juxtaposed with the activity of crocheting that the artist and a team of associates have pursued in her studio for the last decade. All of these elements of popular culture are thus displaced, both literally and figuratively, and reinvested with other meanings within a more contemporary artistic reflection.
Indeed, another aim of the ferryboat’s renovation is to answer the question of Portugal’s pavilion, a kind of roaming ghost exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Although the choice of a boat refers to the country’s glorious seafaring past — Portugal had drawn commerce away from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic in the fifteenth century and thus put an end to Venetian hegemony — it also creates a deterritorialized territory that reflects Portugal’s paradoxical situation at the Biennale as a country that still has no appointed place there. For the last three Biennales, the national pavilion was situated at the Fondaco Marcello, a former palace refurbished to house exhibitions, but isolated from the others and difficult to access. In 2007, Mozambican-born artist Angela Ferreira had in fact installed within it structures that recalled the prefabricated houses that Jean Prouvé had designed for Africa in the 1950s, thus using architecture to question Europe’s colonial past.
But at the same time, this absence of a pavilion solves problems posed by the legacy of old, backward-looking architecture that artists in the Giardini pavilions must confront. One recalls Hans Haacke’s radical intervention in the German pavilion in 1993: his installation consisted of the building’s ruined floor, which he had destroyed in reaction to the neo-classical architecture so dear to the Nazis sixty years before. This year, several artists have transformed their pavilions to accord with their own convictions: Australian artist Smiryn Gill, for instance, opened all the roofs of the building to suggest the tropical habitat of Malaysia and Australia, where she produced her works. Venice’s spells of bad weather were thus invited into the pavilion, scattering leaves and rain, with the result that some of the works on paper became detached from the walls. These traces of nature brought a great deal of poetry to the exhibition. Sahah Sze draped the pseudo-Greek architecture of the American pavilion in a network of scaffolding, temporary constructions, plants, and beautiful cardboard pebbles. With her floating pavilion, Vasconcelos follows in the footsteps of this approach by which artists appropriate their exhibition spaces with often overpowering prestige.
With the renovation of the Trafaria Praia and its conversion into a floating pavilion, the artist thus temporarily solves the issue of Portugal’s national pavilion, choosing a boat instead of a monument and popular culture instead of an official point of view. But she does so gently, without contention, just as she had tactfully mocked the grandeur of Versailles with her exhibition at the château in 2012. It remains to be seen what will become of the ferryboat after the Biennale and where the Portuguese pavilion will be installed at the next one. . .
[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]