PARIS — Joana Vasconcelos is feeling torn. The artist is gearing up to pull an all-nighter to equip her monumental installation at Paris department store Le Bon Marché with LED lights while the Left Bank institution is empty of shoppers. But part of her just wants to go check out the shoe department on the first floor.
“It’s the first time I’m doing a show in a place where I usually shop,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. I want to go look at some shoes, but here I am giving an interview.”
If that makes her sound frivolous, Vasconcelos doesn’t care. Her whole career has been about crashing the art world boys’ club with feminine obsessions. The Portuguese artist made her debut at the Venice Biennale in 2005 with a piece called “The Bride,” a 20-foot-high chandelier strung with more than 25,000 tampons.
And over the last 10 years, she has unleashed her monumental textile sculptures, which she dubs valkyries after the female warrior deities of Norse mythology, in locations as prestigious as the Château de Versailles and billionaire François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice.
Last year, they were shown at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao as part of a retrospective of her work titled “I’m Your Mirror.” The show at Le Bon Marché, which is owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is part of an annual tradition that started in 2016 with an exhibition by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Each of the valkyries is named after a historical figure connected to the exhibition location. Hence, the tentacular white-and-silver creature that has temporarily overtaken the atrium of Le Bon Marché is called Simone — which could refer either to philosopher Simone de Beauvoir or to Simone Veil, the politician who pushed forward the law legalizing abortion in France.
“I often use the identity of women who were warrior women, strong women who conquered their place and played an important part during their era, in their country, in their culture,” explained Vasconcelos, who was born in Paris.
Over the last decade, she has seen attitudes toward her work evolve, as female energy has gradually garnered respectability and acceptance in the previously hermetic art world. The #MeToo movement notwithstanding, she believes she has contributed to that cultural change.
“I’m part of the process whereby people’s way of looking at women is changing. That’s what my work is about,” she said.
“A lot of things have evolved since I started out. Today, people request the valkyries. Collectors used to say, ‘I’m not really into the textile pieces. They’re too female — too Penelope,’” she recalled, referring to the wife of Odysseus in Homer’s “Odyssey,” who spends her days weaving as she waits for her husband’s return.
“I always had the feeling that the femininity of my work bothered them. A lot of men didn’t accept what I was showing at all,” she said. “People would come up with all sorts of excuses for not showing them, saying they would get damaged, or that conservation was too complicated.”
Even after her Versailles show in 2012, Vasconcelos continued to struggle.
“People still find them incredibly troubling. There is this massive volume, this intense femininity and sensuality, and textiles are very disturbing. People want noble materials like steel, concrete, glass or wood — not clothes. Clothes are not serious: it’s fashion, and fashion isn’t contemporary art,” she said.
“They would say to me, ‘What are you doing? You can’t mix fashion and contemporary art.’ Yet that’s exactly what my pieces do — they bridge those two worlds,” Vasconcelos said. To wit, her Lisbon studio is a melting pot where engineers and architects rub elbows with seamstresses and embroiderers.
As it has done with previous participating artists, Le Bon Marché commissioned her to create a white installation to coincide with its traditional “mois du blanc” (or white month) seasonal sale of home linens, established by founder Aristide Boucicaut in the early 20th century.
Vasconcelos designs her sculptures on location, responding to the energy of each space. “It’s as if the piece came into Le Bon Marché, stopped and said, ‘OK — I’m going shopping,’” she said with a laugh. “She’s come to hit the sales and she’s going up the escalator, and if she takes off again, she might just take the whole store with her.”
The artist is a fan of fashion and accessories, which she likes bold and playful, like the oversize silver loop necklace she’s wearing — which matches her metallic brogues and nail polish. Just don’t ask her to join a knitting circle.
“I get invited to a lot of knitting and lace workshops, textile fairs where groups get together to crochet for hours, and I just hate it — not because I don’t enjoy the techniques, but because they are cornered in a domestic dimension,” she explained.
“I’ve done the opposite: I’ve taken those techniques and shown the world they are just as valid as steel or wood, and that they can communicate in a much more intimate way because they are materials we’re in contact with every day in our homes, our kitchens, our bathrooms, on our bodies,” Vasconcelos added.
“Fabric is much more intimate than wood. You don’t wear wood, marble or stone, but with fabric, there’s a tactile element, a magical, protective element. I use that intimacy to bring the audience closer to the work,” she concluded.