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The Artist As Brand Manager: Joana Vasconcelos at Serralves
Bárbara Borges de Campos , April 13th, 2019 08:29

Bárbara Borges de Campos goes to Porto in search of "the Portuguese artist of our generation". What she finds is more like a glitzy shop window, devoid of real content

I went to see Joana Vasconcelos’s exhibition at Serralves to find out whether she was the Portuguese artist of our generation. Vasconcelos is a ‘pop’ artist, though not like Andy Warhol. She is the James Patterson of art, a bestseller. This is not to say I have a problem with art for the masses, or for that matter with Pop Art. But her formulaic, IKEA-packaged works feel lifeless and, at times, like products for a business Vasconcelos runs.

The exhibition itself is vast. It takes over the gardens and the main exhibition rooms at Serralves. It even expands outside, where Portugal a banhos (2010) is set, a 10-meter tall pool in the shape of Portugal. Indoors, A Noiva (‘The Bride’, 2005) is exhibited in the hall before the exhibition rooms. It’s one of Vasconcelos’s best known works, a chandelier made of OB tampons. It is also an excellent example of the dimension and conceptual basis upon which Vasconcelos has built her career. The whole of Serralves has been incorporated to host this exhibition – partly because of the scale of her works, partly because she is an established Portuguese artist exhibiting in Portugal.

Moving to the exhibition space, one can almost follow Vasconcelos’s career chronologically, starting with her early works, Sofá Aspirina (‘Aspirne Sofa’, 1997) and Cama Valium (‘Valium Bed’, 1998), both comments on modern pharmaceuticals and their connection to addiction. She also relates each drug to a household object suggesting the intimacy and mundane aspect of addiction. Further along, one can also find Vasconcelos’s Ponto de Encontro (‘Meeting Point’, 2000). A merry go round of sorts, it has ten different office chairs attached to a steel structure which rotates. The piece seems to suggest the circular and cyclical nature of office life, and of corporations themselves. The experience of going around on it is dizzying – one enters a daze, which is undoubtedly the objective: to mimic the numbness of routine.

Although the exhibition is very comprehensive and agreeable to walk through, the spaces at the Serralves are welcoming and pleasant so one feels anything can be made better by being in them, I still left feeling like I had listened to a cheesy best-of album. The artist happened to be present at the press-preview. Vasconcelos paraded her works as greatest hits, stopping by each work and mentioning what position they had reached in the “chart”. This translated into her explaining where the pieces had been successful. There was always a need to justify each work in relation to the public or how well it had been received – as opposed to what the artwork was, or what it said about art or her generation.

This was particularly noticeable as we stood by Lilicoptère (2012), a preposterously ostentatious helicopter whose material list is indefensible. So much so I can’t help but cite it: “Helicopter Bell 47, ostrich feathers, gold leaf, Swarovski crystals, gold covered seats, Arraiolos carpets, walnut wood, paint that imitates wood and lace trimmings.” Looking at the material list and at the sheer excess of the piece I kept waiting to hear an explanation, a robust conceptual standpoint. However, Vasconcelos dwelled on how ornate it was, only briefly commenting that it was a critique of consumer culture and affectation. She also made a point of explaining how well it had been received in Versailles and how it flawlessly related to the palace. This felt too little too late. After all, this is an artist who people often claim represents the people, whose popularity is connected to her simple pieces. This artwork is unnecessary and disconnected from reality. There is no substance to it. It is a flippant overly expensive piece that has no place in a society where inequality is widespread.

Could she have made a more interesting comment about the lavish Versailles? Wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to have something which contrasted with its ornateness? For instance, when Anish Kapoor exhibited at Versailles, his modern pieces were incorporated with the classical palace, all the while remaining powerful comments on Versailles itself, the reign it represents, and our contemporary society. Take for example Shooting into the Corner and Sectional Body preparing for Monadic Singularity. The first is a clear symbol for the reign of terror that followed after the French Revolution, but can also be read as an emblem of the constant tyranny colonising European countries practiced and continue to practice. The second, just by a mere reference to its possible relationship to the shape of a vagina, caused uproar and scandal. Those works do their own thing and did not need to submit to gratuitous pageantry.

Vasconcelos seems to have fallen into a pattern, repeatedly using the same formula: folk symbol + pop symbol + concept = work of art. For instance, in Marilyn (2011), the tin pots are the folk symbol, the pop symbol the high heel as worn by Cinderella, Betty Boop, Monroe (etc.), and the concept is a commentary on the representation of women and their role in society. These combinations are seeds of would-be art, but they need more consideration, to be watered and to be allowed to grow to full bloom. This formula also kills off unexpectedness and uniqueness, factors which separate art from craft. There is nothing in Vasconcelos’s recent pieces that announces originality or creativity, there is only a blueprint. I’ll be Your Mirror (2018), one of two new works, features an enormous mask for a masquerade ball made out of mirrors. Mirrors, according to Vasconcelos, are everywhere in Portugal (though, I have to say I don’t recognise them from anywhere). The mirrors are the folk symbol, the masquerade ball, the pop culture symbol, ostentatiousness and self-reflection are the concepts. And there you have it – a work of art!

This is very different from the video which accompanies www.fatimashop (2002). The video follows Vasconcelos as she drives to Fátima in a moped with storage, like the ones used by old market stall owners in Portugal. It’s playful, theatrical and unconventional. Taking the viewer on a pilgrimage where Vasconcelos becomes simultaneously a performer and an unwitting participant who is stalked and watched. The camera, which at times feels undercover, makes one feel like a detective (the Pink Panther theme song playing in the background helps), and the work gains a layer of voyeuristic tension. Like works by Sophie Calle, the viewer is forced to become an observer, the camera lens becomes a substitute for the eye.

Vasconcelos is popular. This will likely be the most visited Serralves exhibition in history. Her shows attract masses of people, even those outside of Portugal. I talked briefly to Enrique Juncosa, the director of Guggenheim Bilbao, who told me that her show there was the third most visited exhibition in the museum’s history, bringing in an astounding 1.2 million visitors. Popularity in itself should not be a problem. Popular art does not necessarily entail inferior art. But it becomes a problem when it interferes in the production of original art.

One can’t help but wonder whether this is fuelled by the art market, and the commercialisation of her work. By now, it seems her artworks have become no more than a commodity. Of the works displayed in Serralves, five have been either produced or coproduced with big corporations, from Johnson & Johnson to Bosch. Should contemporary art be intimately connected to funding from corporations? I don’t have an answer to this question, but it does make me uneasy envisioning a future where all art is sponsored as a form of capitalist venture or PR exercise.

Partly, the reason the exhibition got so much attention in Portugal was because of the internal problems at Serralves. The two former artistic directors, João Ribas and Suzanne Colette, confirmed to the Portuguese newspaper Público that neither of them signed off on the exhibition. So, perhaps, the decision to have this exhibition at Serralves was made by the administrative board. The same board which censored photos from a Mapplethorpe exhibition there in late 2018, a move which prompted Ribas to quit.

On the one hand, in not confirming they commissioned the exhibition the two ex-directors distance themselves from the “infamous” Vasconcelos. Ribas also points to the unnecessary importation of the exhibition from the Guggenheim, claiming Serralves is perfectly capable of organising an independent show especially for the Portuguese public. On the other, there is the administration, which seems to function without artistic direction, something odd seeing as Serralves is an a-r-t foundation and not just a business.

Vasconcelos is not the type of artist you like or dislike, you either love or hate her. I have met very few people who are in the centre. It is odd to see an artist that operates like they are the owner of a brand. Half-way through the preview, she even stretched out her foot to have it cleaned by her assistant, as if performing her branded status, the necessity of her image to be burnished and maintained. The hype must be constant.

Vasconcelos’s exhibition at Serralves is entertaining. So many of her works require interaction that you forget why you are there. It’s like you are at an amusement park or a casino. But finally the show represents the loss of the ability to think critically. Vasconcelos is the symbol of a disengaged generation.

Joana Vasconcelos, I'm Your Mirror, is at the Fundação Serralves, Porto, until 24 June