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Joy to The World: Joana Vasconcelos on her First Solo Show in Hong Kong




Portuguese visual artist Joana Vasconcelos on her first solo show in Hong Kong, working with Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri and memories of her long-term collaborator, the late Lord Rothschild. 

Portuguese visual artist Joana Vasconcelos doesn’t do things by halves. And to prove it she’s brought not just one but two colossal installation pieces to Hong Kong for her first exhibition in the city. You can’t help but feel immediately humbled by the works – riotous tapestries of patterned fabrics, materials, LED lights, pom poms, beading, fringe and frills – which debuted in partnership with Swire Properties during art week at Two Taikoo Place.  

“As part of Swire Properties’ placemaking effort, we’re committed to making art and culture part of people’s everyday lives, through curating a series of bespoke world-class arts programmes” explains Winsze Chung, General manager, Taikoo Place. “We’re amazed by Joana’s creativity and talent to transform textile materials into mesmerising and works in her own unique artistic language. Her artworks resonate profoundly with the conceptual ideas of space, people and wellbeing. This is very much in sync with our mindset for introducing diverse, thought- provoking and new genres of arts to the Taikoo Place office workers and the wider Hong Kong community.”

From left to right: Priscilla Li, deputy director, office (Hong Kong), Swire Properties, artist Joana Vasconcelos, Winsze Chung, general manager of Taikoo Place, Swire Properties

Vasconcelos, who first seduced the art world at the 2005 Venice Biennale with her epic chandelier The Bride, made from 14,000 tampons, and who took her 2008 Marilyn – giant stilettos made of steel pans – to the Château de Versailles, is known for her fantastical, absurd yet mesmerising installations that put smiles on the faces of even the most art-averse.

The two site-specific works for Hong Kong continue the artist’s mission to challenge societal perceptions of women, elevating craft techniques often undermined because of their associations with domesticity. Handmade in Vasconcelos’ Lisbon studio by her team of 60, the work took six months of knitting, sewing, and crocheting to complete. “Through my art,” she says, “I try to value that kind of work, emphasise it and give it a monumental look, so people say, ‘Oh my God, it’s just knitting,’ but it can also be viewed as something else.”

In Enchanted Forest, which isinspired by Hong Kong at night,visitors are immersed in a different world, navigating between floating bulbous structures lit by LED lights; “It’s craft versus Technology,” explains Vasconcelos. The second Valkyrie Seondeok, whose sprawling form and tentaclesoccupy the lobby of Two Taikoo Place, pays tribute to the first female monarch in Asian History. This piece is part of the artist’s acclaimed Valkyrie series, inspired by Norse mythological creatures who symbolise power and female strength, with each iteration named after a formidable woman.  

Valkyrie Seondeok is the latest textile sculpture to join Vasconcelos’ long-runnning Valkyries series and dominates the lobby of Two Taikoo Place

Although this is the first appearance of these works in Hong Kong, some visitors may recognise elements of the Valkyrie’s design and materials, as parts of the work were initially commissioned by Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri as a set for the brand’s autumn/winter 023 womenswear show. The collaboration proved to be a natural fit between the two artists – Chiuri is known for incorporating feminist slogans into her designs. “She champions women’s History and values like I do,” says Vasconcelos.

Titled Valkyrie Miss Dior, the installation honoured Christian Dior’s sister, Catherine, who helped him in the early days of building the brand. “She loved flowers, therefore all these pieces and the patterns designed are all inspired by floral motifs, which inspired the earliest floral patterns of Dior,” explains Vasconcelos. “It’s all connected to this idea that you can recreate life and patterns and aesthetics from a magical dimension.” The work turned out to be the perfect complement for Chiuri’s designs, which often lack razzle dazzle, and was lapped up by the fashion community.

Models walking for Dior autumn/ winter 2023 featuring Vasconcelos’ installation Valkyrie Miss Dior

Vasconcelos is exhibiting more worldwide, particularly in Asia. Last year she presented her first major solo exhibition in China at Tang Contemporary, Beijing, with an installation inspired by dragons from Chinese mythology. And In 2022, she was commissioned by MCM Macau to create her largest Valkyrie to date, a spectacular octopus-shaped work suspended from the mall’s central plaza. This piece, perched atop an 8-metre-high aquarium, features kaleidoscopic tentacles that span the length of the space, using fabrics that instigate a dialogue between Portuguese and Chinese cultures.

“What’s interesting about my work is that I can show it all over the world and still connect with the local culture,” she says. “The truth is, magic still happens and even if you have a different background or culture, you understand the feeling that’s inspired by these pieces without needing to put too many words into it. That’s what I really enjoy, it’s the universality that my artistic work can have and how people connect with it.”

Her most ambitious oeuvre to date, known as “the impossible project,” was unveiled in England last summer. The 12-metre-high Wedding Cake sculpture occupies the grounds of Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, a fabulously ornate French-style chateau built in the 19th century by Ferdinand de Rothschild to house his extensive art collection. At the time of the project, the estate was overseen by Jacob, the fourth Baron Rothschild, who during his lifetime served as chairman of the National Gallery and oversaw grants directed to enhancing British arts and heritage. Vasconcelos regarded Rothschild, who died earlier this year at the age of 86, as a kindred spirit. “He was a very sensitive, intelligent and unique personality,” she says. “It wasn’t only a privilege to work with him but to also know him personally. He was someone who truly believed in magic and in creating new dimensions in the world.”

Vasconcelos’ Wedding Cake installation at Waddesdon Manor (Image: Getty)

While Vasconcelos had initially presented her concept to other collectors, Rothschild was the only one open to it. “He was like a soulmate in the realm of art – it’s rare to meet someone who understands you right away and who wants to share that rush of creation and adventure. Nobody else understood the project, but he did.”

Affectionally dubbed the “gâteau in the château”, the colossal sculpture took more than five years to construct, using 25,150 glazed ceramic tiles in pastel green and pink that resembled icing. Completed with a gold staircase and a wedding chapel, the fantastical pavilion was adorned with mythical mermaids, frolicking dolphins and winged cupids. Despite its overtly kitsch style, it was a critical success, hailed as an “absurd slice of joy!”

Despite such an epic body of work behind her – one that continues to grow in both scale and ambition – Vasconcelos could easily be resting on her laurels. So what’s her motivation to keep making larger and more challenging works?

“It’s simply what I do,” she says. “Of course, I know how to do other things, but nothing challenges me as much as this. After the Wedding Cake, I said to everyone, ‘Just wait and see what I’ll do in Hong Kong!’ It’s the thrill of the next project, the fresh invitation and the latest opportunities that excite and inspire me to do something new and unexpected.”

(Hero Image: Joana Vasconcelos immersed within Enchanted Forest)