Portugal is a country of about 10.5 million people on the western-most coast of Europe. It is bordered by Spain to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Portugal has a long history of colonial power, giving up its last colony, Macau, to China in 1999. Its former colonies include Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Macau, among others. In more recent times, Portugal has suffered severe economic turmoil. In 2011 Portugal received a €78 billion bailout from the European Union followed by unpopular austerity measures. Portugal’s government is a unitary semi-presidential republic with a prime minister and a president. The capitol, Lisbon, is also the largest city in Portugal. It is on the coast and happens to be the westernmost city in Europe. It is bisected by the Tagus River, with downtown Lisbon on the north side and the industrial districts on the south side. Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Western Europe and has a long history of exploration, trade, and other sea faring traditions. Lisbon is the cultural center of Portugal as well with dozens of museums and historical sites and large tourism industry.
Portugal’s pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale was called the Trafaria Praia. It was created by artist Joana Vasconcelos and curated by Miguel Amado. The Trafaria Praia is a Lisbon ferryboat, or cacilheiro, which was decommissioned in 2011. Once used to transport passengers back and forth across the Tagus River, the Trafaria Praia was transformed into Vasconcelos’s floating pavilion, which docked near the Giardini in Venice and sailed around the lagoon at regular intervals throughout the Biennale. The large scale assisted readymade consists of multiple layers of artwork and symbolism. First there is the boat itself, which in Lisbon is a symbol of the blue-collar workers who use the ferry travelling across the river for work. The boat also represents Lisbon’s relationship to Venice, “which evolved through trade, diplomacy, and art…examining three fundamental aspects they share: water, navigation, and the vessel.” By creating a floating pavilion, Vasconcelos is deterritorializing territory—metaphorically circumventing the power struggles that so often mark international relations.” The outside of the ship is covered in azulejos, handpainted tiles, that depict the modern skyline of Lisbon. The interior of the ship contains the work Valkyrie Azulejo. The space is covered from ceiling to floor in textiles in varying shades of blue. Large crocheted irregular forms wrapped in led lights intrude upon the space emphasizing the body’s relationship to the space. An overall immersive experience is created and the space has been compared to the bottom of the ocean or the belly of a whale.
AT THE BIENNALE:
Overall, Portugal’s Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale was successful. Trafaria Praia represented Portugal as well as Venice. Cacilheiros are recognized in Portugal as a political symbol of the middle class. The ship also represents Portugal’s relationship to Venice. Portugal’s Ministry of Culture usually provides funding, and this year provided €150,000; a fairly modest amount, especially when compared to other countries such as the U.S. Portugal was additionally funded by corporations and other donors. Also, Portugal does not have a pavilion at the Giardini, as they have only participated since 1950. So, the fact that Portugal was able to have a pavilion in the immediate vicinity of the Giardini shows Vasconcelos’s ingenuity and the success of this pavilion. While Vasconcelos managed to represent Portugal and Venice and question the power structure of the Biennale, she also successfully represented her own artistic style. Valkyrie Azulejo is an extension of her previous Valkyrie series. Valkyrie Azulejo is not only a beautiful visual experience, it also has feminist connotations, like much of her other work. The use of textiles and crocheting, typically thought of as a women’s medium and craft, is given legitimacy as a high art by Vasconcelos. The artist was presumably chosen because of her experience at the Biennale and her international recognition.
Joana Vasconcelos was born in 1971 in Paris to Portuguese parents. She currently lives and works in Lisbon and studied at Ar.Co. in Lisbon. In addition to Portugal’s Pavilion, Vasconcelos contributed a piece to Glasstress, a collateral event showcasing glass art. She became globally recognized after her participation in the 2005 Venice Biennale. Her piece A Noiva, or The Bride, was featured in the Arsenale. It large chandelier made entirely of tampons. In 2012 Vasconcelos was the first woman to hold a solo exhibition at the Chateau de Versailles in France. Among the pieces exhibited was Marilyn, a giant pair or stilettos constructed from pots and pans. She also exhibited Golden Valkyrie from the Valkyrie series. She often uses ready-made materials that are associated with women and transforms them into large scale sculptures. She has been exhibiting work since the mid 1990s and currently has work in Portugal, Spain, Italy, the U.K., and Israel, among others.