Joana Vasconcelos, Trafaria Praia, 2013
Given that this is the season on sparkly lights, it seems timely to remind myself about Joana Vasconcelos’s Trafaria Praia, the Pavilion of Portugal at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Part art installation, part ferry, this was an unusual space even for Venice. Vasconcelos transformed a Lisbon ferry into an installation that made regular tours of the lagoon. The boat was moored close to the exit of the Giardini – one of the two main Biennale sites and home to many national pavilions – but those who timed their visits right could take a short trip around the lagoon on the Trafaria Praia.
Given more time, I suspect I’d have enjoyed the trip well enough but the pressure of trying to see everything I want to at biennale is such that time based works are inevitably tricky and this is a city where being on land is the novelty so my visit to Trafaria Praia was restricted to visiting the boat at its mooring point. Until I boarded the boat I’d kind of forgotten about the excess of Vasconcelos’s work but, even if it’d been really fresh in my mind, nothing of hers I’ve seen before would have quite prepared me for this.
Trafaria Praia (interior view), 2013
Decommissioned as a ferry in 2011, the Trafaria Praia has been reworked inside and out by Joana Vasconcelos. On the outside, blue and white tiles – traditional in Portugal – depict the city of Lisbon. Inside, in a darkened space, Vasconcelos has created a blue wonderland from crochet, blue and white fabrics – stitched and stuffed to form weird shapes in a space in which tentacles often obstructing one’s path – and fairy lights.
Vasconcelos’s use of textiles, stitching and crochet, familiar from other works of hers I’ve seen, seems rooted in the craft techniques traditionally deemed women’s work here transformed into an art practice that also references narratives and histories both real and imagined. It’s hard to know quite what we’re looking at here. This is installation as all-consuming space; in a sense I felt swallowed by the space. But it’s also an easy work to enjoy without really engaging more deeply. The work talks about the connections between Lisbon and Venice, dig deeper and it suggests all manner of other narratives but it’s perhaps that bit too easy to stay with the superficial prettiness: a cross between Aladdin’s cave and the belly of the whale that swallowed Jonah with some bizarre undersea creatures thrown in for good measure. All this and twinkly fairy lights. What’s not to like?