PARIS — Ten years after taking over the Palace of Versailles with its massive textile sculptures in an exhibition that drew a record-breaking 1.6 million visitors, Joana Vasconcelos is back in a different historical location, a stone’s throw from Paris – this time with a different kind of monumental one Installation .
The Portuguese artist is presenting at the Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes, a towering Gothic chapel set in 14 of a 2,450-hectare forest.
Vasconcelos developed the concept for the Galleria Borghese in Rome, where the tree would reflect Apollo and Daphne, a Baroque marble sculpture by Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It refers to the Greek myth of Daphne, who transformed into a laurel tree to escape the lustful advances of the god Apollo.
The feminist artist, who sees the tree as a homage to Daphne’s gesture of independence and self-determination, kept the project alive during the containment of the pandemic by having her team work on the sculpture’s textile leaves. “In two years we embroidered 70,000 sheets,” she recalls. “It was a thing we could do from home and anyone could help.”
After the exhibition in Rome failed, the curator Jean-François Chougnet suggested that the sculpture be taken to Vincennes. “I expanded the project and completely adapted it to the Sainte-Chapelle,” says Vasconcelos, who more than doubled the tree’s height to just under 43 feet and ended up using 110,000 leaves.
Its rich palette of reds, browns and golds is reminiscent of the chapel’s stained glass windows, known for their vivid colors and depictions of flames. The work is also inspired by Catherine de’ Medici, who oversaw the decoration of the chapel in the 16th century to assert her power as a woman at the time.
Paris-born Vasconcelos remembers coming to the Vincennes forest as a child. These days, the forest is under threat from a project to extend the Paris Metro line into the suburbs, which environmentalists say will require thousands of trees to be cut down.
For the artist, the “Tree of Life” speaks not only to the issue of sustainability, but also to themes of renewal, family and our connection to the universe – issues she is grappling with amid the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic. Vasconcelos said she was touched by the analogy of the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh comparing people to trees.
“We connect with our roots to the earth through our feet, we have a trunk that is our body, and then we have our spirit and soul that connects to the sky,” she says. “If we don’t take care of these three dimensions, we are not balanced. And so I was like, ‘OK, that’s exactly how I feel about this project.’”
The embroidery on the leaves, based on a traditional Portuguese technique, is reinforced with glass beads and LED lights, explains Vasconcelos ahead of the opening of the exhibition, which has been postponed several times due to logistical problems related to the impact of the pandemic. The sculpture should now be on display next spring.
“It shines very brightly in this spiritual ambience of hope and transformation,” she says. “It’s going to be a wonderful project, a beautiful piece – not a piece that’s very mechanical or industrial, but more of a poetic and spiritual work, and it’s right for a moment like this.”
She doesn’t seem to be the only one who thinks so: both Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri and Indian designer Rahul Mishra have referred to the tree of life in their recent haute couture collections. Vasconcelos compares it to the way trees communicate through their roots.
“This kind of information that the trees send to each other and connect them together is something that we humans have forgotten. And when you see people like Maria Grazia and me and other artists and people talking about the same thing, it means it’s still working, this connection between people,” she says. “We need to be more aware and more connected to save the planet.”
Vasconcelos, who is also working on a collaboration with a major luxury house, originally studied jewelery design and drawing and has always had a close relationship with fashion.
Her work utilizes materials and techniques long reserved for the domestic sphere, and she has exhibited in both leading museums, such as billionaire François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice, and in retail outlets, such as Le Bon Marché, the department store of French Luxury Group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
She recently returned to her roots with an exhibition of sculptural necklaces at Esther de Beaucé’s Minimasterpiece gallery in Paris. “She has such a beautiful collection, I just want to buy everything,” she enthuses. “If that goes well, we’ll do something else. It’s not my goal to be a jeweler, but it’s always fun to do different things with different people.”
Looking back on her journey from working on the body to creating large scale installations in public space, Vasconcelos reflects: “I went from finger to public space, from micro to macro space.”
Her next project is her most ambitious yet: a permanent outdoor installation called The Wedding Cake in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor in England, the historic Rothschild family estate. “You can actually go inside the wedding cake, go on top of the wedding cake and become the figure on top, so it’s a crazy project,” says Vasconcelos of the ceramic tile texture.
Like the “Tree of Life”, the project was also associated with logistical hurdles, but the artist is undeterred. In fact, she’s about to add another layer of complication to her process by planning to turn her Lisbon studio, where engineers and architects rub elbows with seamstresses and embroiderers, into an open space and museum.
“One of the things we’ve discovered over the years is that when people come to visit, they’re blown away by the studio itself. It’s not about me or my work personally, it’s about the studio as a family, as a unit, as a school, as a place to share knowledge,” says Vasconcelos.
She sees the 50-person workshop as the modern equivalent of the bustling ateliers of old masters like Rembrandt and Rubens.
“We’re in the historical lineage of the big studios that have always been around,” she explains. “Most studios today are non-visitable and heavily digitized. They rely on computers and we don’t. We depend on the craft, so we are different and more connected to Rubens’ studio than to a contemporary studio and that makes us unique.”
Her recent induction into France’s prestigious Order of Arts and Letters has made Vasconcelos even more determined to push her work forward, no matter how much turbulence she experiences.
“Having that recognition means I’ve done something well and that’s really good, but I also see it as a transition and the moment where we have to move on and people believe it’s worth it, everyone day to keep trying. That’s what I do, you know — every day I try my best,” she says. “It wasn’t easy, but it was a pleasure and that’s why I’m very thankful to have this life.”