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Step inside Joana Vasconcelos stunning Lisbon exhibition

A view of MAAT with I’ll Be Your Mirror on display
A view of MAAT with I’ll Be Your Mirror on display Copyright Bruno Lopes
Copyright Bruno Lopes
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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MAAT Lisbon is exhibiting six of the Portuguese artist's most astonishing works - right on the banks of the Tagus river.

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Joana Vasconcelos’ work is well known globally, thanks to her acclaimed shows at the likes of the Palace of Versailles and at the Bilbao Guggenheim, but her display at Lisbon’s MAAT gallery might be the most impressive yet.

The Portuguese capital’s iconic Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology is playing host to Vasconcelos’ latest exhibit, Plug-In, which features six works - all so different that they’ll likely appeal to everyone.

The solo show highlights some of the Portuguese artist’s - best known for her large-scale installations - most notable works, as well as some newer pieces.

As the name Plug-In suggests, the exhibition opens a conversation for visitors between technology, the contemporary arts - and electricity heritage.

MAAT is the perfect place for such a show - it’s made up of the former Tejo Power Station as well as a more recent building created by Amanda Levete Architects.

Árvore da Vida - or Tree of Life - in all its glory at MAAT
Árvore da Vida - or Tree of Life - in all its glory at MAATBruno Lopes

One of the most visually stunning pieces is 2023’s Árvore da Vida - or Tree of Life.

Situated in the heart of the Tejo Power wing of the gallery, the vast installation has to be seen to be fully understood, such is the scale.

Inspired by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne in the Villa Borghese in Rome, Vasconcelos took pointers from ancient lore.

The tree, which features ​​140,000 hand-embroidered leaves, represents the mythological figure which Greek goddess Daphne became when, fleeing Apollo's amorous advances, she decided to transform herself into a laurel tree.

Vasconcelos sees this work as a parallel to the creation of the Tree of Life, which took place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Confined to her studio, she asked her team to create the leaves and they all feature unique motives, making it a truly unique piece.

Some 13 metres tall, it has previously been shown in the Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes in Paris church, installed to celebrate the Cultural Season between Portugal and France in 2022.

A car like you've never seen before: Drag Race (2023)
A car like you've never seen before: Drag Race (2023)Bruno Lopes

One exhibit that has never been seen before is 2023’s Drag Race.

A car like you've never seen before, the Porsche 911 Targa Carrera is decked out in inimitable Vasconcelos style.

The artist took inspiration from visits to the Tibães Monastery in Braga - well known as the greatest exponent of marine motifs in gilded woodwork in all of Portugal - and to the Coach Museum, nearby in Lisbon.

The result? A Baroque-influenced design, with a particular focus on gilded woodwork.

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Alongside Vasconcelos’ team, artisans from the Ricardo Espírito Santo Silva Foundation contributed in the process of gilding, wood treatment, engraving and engraving.

It is, Vasconcelos explains, a celebration of hand craftsmanship.

Also on display are some pieces from her instantly recognisable car-themed ​​oeuvre.

The fluffy interior of War Games...
The fluffy interior of War Games...Daniel Malhao

2011’s War Games has a personal history for the artist. The classic Morris Oxford was given to Vasconcelos to practise her driving skills. Soon, she elevated the vehicle to a true work of art - and one with a deeper message than you might expect.

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The car is jam packed with hundreds of soft toys and other mechanical animals which make noises and movements. It’s hugely contrasted with the dark exterior which is covered with plastic rifles and red lights which switch on and off constantly.

With this unusual piece, Vasconcelos puts festiveness and war side-by-side, a commentary on the contrasts between dreams and nightmares and the journey from childhood to adulthood in a difficult world.

...contrasts with its far darker exterior
...contrasts with its far darker exteriorBruno Lopes

Turn away from War Games and you will see Strangers In The Night - but you will have heard it first.

2011’s work is accompanied by the song of the same name, sung by Frank Sinatra and played on a loop in the gallery.

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It’s a very visceral piece of art, a comment on the often seedy underbelly of European nightlife.

2011's Strangers In The Night is a holistic art experience - with the eponymous Sinatra song playing on repeat
2011's Strangers In The Night is a holistic art experience - with the eponymous Sinatra song playing on repeatBruno Lopes

Featuring a peep show booth and continuously flashing headlights, Strangers in the Night’s message is one of men seeking the cheap and fortuitous love of a woman. The women, though, are subjugated - but, interestingly, absent from the scene.

And now for something entirely different…

As well as worldwide recognition for her car-based works, Vasconcelos is also noted for her Valkyrie installation.

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2015’s Valkyrie Octopus is huge - taking up metres upon metres of space in an open gallery area.

Simply vast: 2015’s Valkyrie Octopus on display
Simply vast: 2015’s Valkyrie Octopus on displayBruno Lopes

These enormous sculptures are inspired by female figures who appear in Norse mythology who would bring brave warriors back to life from battlefields to join the deities in Valhalla.

It’s nearly impossible to count the amount of different fabrics, crochet and ornamental trimmings used in this Octopus, but Vasconcelos has made sure to show the importance of skilled craftsmanship and arts and crafts into the 21st century.

Originally commissioned for the MGM Macau casino, it’s a comment on the relationship between Portuguese and Macanese traditions and uses sumptuous fabrics throughout, which give an air of Silk Road heritage.

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Valkyrie Octopus - a fusion of modern art and traditional crafting practises
Valkyrie Octopus - a fusion of modern art and traditional crafting practisesBruno Lopes

Head outside of MAAT and you’re in for a treat, with two gigantic installations.

First up is 2018’s Solitaire. Exploring the theme of desire, it sits on the banks of the Tagus river which runs through Lisbon and passes MAAT - and you really can’t miss it.

At a distance, it appears to be merely a representation of an engagement ring, albeit one fit for a giant. Its meaning, though, is far more complicated than mere love and romance. Instead, it’s also a visual picture of consumer society and the perceived importance of power and status.

Look closely and you will see Solitaire is made up of some 110 golden car rims, which make the ‘ring’ - and is topped off with an inverted pyramid of 1,450 crystal whisky glasses - which appear as a giant diamond.

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2018’s Solitaire: not just a giant engagement ring
2018’s Solitaire: not just a giant engagement ringBruno Lopes

With this combination of two of the most stereotypical symbols of modern day luxury – cars and diamonds – Vasconcelos makes the audience question male and female roles in modern life.

When you reach the last exhibit, I’ll Be Your Mirror - from 2019 - you’ll likely be thinking a great deal about the show and perhaps even your own role in modern society.

You’re in luck - the piece features 510 hand mirrors alongside 255 baroque bronze mouldings in the shape of a colossal Venetian mask, meaning you can stare at yourself while pondering the meaning behind it.

Vasconcelos created I’ll Be Your Mirror as a commentary on the role of artists in society while establishing a - literally - reflective dialogue with the surroundings.

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Reflective art - literally - with I’ll Be Your Mirror
Reflective art - literally - with I’ll Be Your MirrorBruno Lopes

She says she hopes visitors will realise “there is only reflection when there is parallelism” while taking in the installation.

With another nod to the wider cultural world, its title is based on Lou Reed’s song of the same name, performed by the Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967.

Having won Energias de Portugal’s (EDP) first ever New Artists Award in 2000, it’s something of a homecoming for Vasconcelos.

EDP hosts the work of some of Portugal’s greatest creatives across both of MAAT’s distinctive museum buildings - now known as MAAT Central and MAAT Gallery - and, as you would expect, this one in particular is electric.

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Plug-In runs until 4 August, 2023 at MAAT, Av. Brasília, Belém, 1300-598 Lisbon

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