Text by Emma Sumner
As visitors to Manchester Art Gallery walk through the main entrance they are currently greeted by two proud and magnificent lion marble sculptures which have been encased in a delicate black crochet net. In her most ambitious UK exhibition to date, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos has taken over Manchester Art Gallery. An artist known for her humorously exuberant large scale works which re-appropriate the domestic object through the use of craft techniques usually associated with female labour, Vasconcelos’s boldly coloured works playfully challenge the traditional narratives of women’s status in society.
There is no mistaking that Vasconcelos has arrived, her work adorns the gallery’s exterior and internally permeates the collection and decorative art galleries through site responsive interventions, while the major exhibition spaces are now filled with her machines. The exhibition is a combination of new works reacting directly to Manchester Art Gallery’s collection and the city’s rich heritage whilst other previous bodies of work enjoy their first UK showing. Given the monumental scale of the exhibition and the freedom Vasconcelos has enjoyed, it felt apt to catch up with her and find out more about her work and what her influences are.
Emma Sumner: For those previously unaware of your work, I wanted to get a sense of what it is that makes you tick as an artist, what it is that influences and drives your work?
Joana Vasconcelos: Its pretty much what you can see here in Manchester. Every time I go to a new place I find a new culture and different references; colour, tastes and different ways of living. All of this nurtures me and inspires me to do my next work as I often buy things that I can use in other pieces or that are found in the local culture. For instance I was in Tel Aviv when I was planning on this show here in Manchester and I bought things to use in the pieces for this show, so the cultures and places I visit inspire me; everyday life, the domestic environment and all of the simple materials that exist inside our houses. I’m not inspired by anything in particular but many things in general and of course here in Manchester, the cotton industry and Manchester’s heritage inspired me to do the Britannia piece – A newly commissioned site specific installation which takes over Manchester Art Gallery’s atrium – ; and of course the building itself inspired me.
ES: What were your first thoughts when you where approached by Manchester Art Gallery?
JV: I was really happy. I’ve showed in Birmingham before, which was a completely different space and a much smaller show and I exhibited different pieces but I loved the experience. To do another show in the UK is a way for me to experience another city and to continue the work I had done previously here in the UK. It makes a lot of sense to go away and come back to places, as when you come back to a country you always look at the culture differently, learn more about it and interact with it in different ways. If I hadn’t done my previous shows in London and in Birmingham, I could not have done what I have done here in Manchester as I know so much more about the UK and its culture from my previous experiences.
ES: So your previous exhibitions in the UK, but also internationally such at the 55th Venice Bienniale in 2013 and your solo show at the Château de Versailles in 2012, have all had an influence on what you have done here in Manchester?
JV: Yes, of course! If I had not done Birmingham I wouldn’t be doing this show now. Everything is connected and of course the London shows that I did were very important to be able to do this show too. So in a way, everything is connected and makes part of a whole.
ES: Manchester has a world class collection of both fine and decorative art. How has this influenced the work you have done here and how did you select what works you wanted to interact with?
JV: First of all, I was amazed by the quality of the paintings in the collection, and I was like oh my God what am I going to do, there are so many things, but it was quite easy actually. I came to look round the galleries and I saw things that connected directly with the things that I have at home, such as the William de Morgan and Pilkington tiles in Gallery 5. When I saw the three nudes in William Etty’s ‘The Sirens and Ulysees’ I was like, Arrgghhh Big Boobie – A large work in Gallery 3 which playfully responds to William Etty’s The Sirens and Ulysses 1837 -. You really need to come, to see the space, to meet the pieces and to understand the environment and what is important and what is not and to connect you need to be open to learn something about the culture and that’s what I did.
ES: Manchester’s textile industry has had a big influence on the work you have produced for the exhibition and I wondered how, as you researched this history it might have altered your thought processes and how you made the works…
JV: I did a lot of research but learned a lot from the people at the museum. You always know something about a place, but by meeting the locals you learn something much more real and that’s what happened here, everyone told us stories about Manchester which enlarged and enriched our knowledge. Of course I knew about the cotton industry but I know a lot more now and by learning about it I wanted to connect with it using the knowledge I already had. But that’s the point of what I do; to learn something new and to make connections with the knowledge I already have.
ES: You say that the title always finishes your pieces and I wondered if this was also true with the title of this exhibition.
JV: I think this title is the best title ever; all of my pieces and all of my shows could have the title Time Machine! In a way this title brings together everything I’ve been doing for almost twenty years now; it’s the right title for the right show. I’ve been doing a lot of exhibitions recently and this is a combination of all of my other shows that I have done in Venice, in Paris in the UK. Time Machine is like a re-examination of all my thoughts and the duality between times.
ES: This is the first time you have been able to do everything in one show, so what are you going to do next?
JV: I’ll do next what is asked of me. I’m going to do a gallery show and a park sculpture then I’m going to do a show in Mahout and in Shanghai and one in Oslo. I’m going to do everything I’ve done here but in smaller parts.
Image: Bond Girl 2014, Concrete statue, acrylic paint, handmade cotton crochet. Collection of the artist. Image © Manchester Art Gallery.