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Portuguese artist shows struggle in making large installations


LISBON, Portugal — A former nightclub bouncer and black belt karate instructor, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos is not afraid of the challenges posed by her latest lavish creation.

The 51-year-old, known for her large, in-your-face installations, is now making a ceramic wedding cake 12 meters high and 15 meters wide for exhibition in England.

“The Wedding Cake” is largely made of Portugal’s famous ceramic tiles called “azulejos”. Vasconcelos uses them in pastel pink, green, blue and yellow in her most ambitious outdoor project to date.

And she enjoys the fight. “Every day you know something is going to happen and something new is coming and you have to solve problems,” she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “It’s a very dynamic and living thing.”

Her drive to make “The Wedding Cake” come true has already lasted five years, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, since she first told British investment banker Jacob Rothschild. He wanted it for the gardens of Waddesdon Manor in South East England, where weddings are held.

Rothschild, says Vasconcelos in her studio in a former riverside boathouse in Lisbon, became her “partner for this crazy journey.”

Vasconcelos has built its reputation over the past two decades. Her signature features are large, flamboyant pieces that juxtapose the high brow and the low brow, draw on Portuguese handicraft traditions, refer to women’s perspective, and have an unobtrusive sense of humour.

She impressed the international art scene at the 2005 Venice Biennale with “A Noiva” (The Bride), a five-meter (16-foot-tall) chandelier made from 25,000 wrapped tampons.

Her 2009 “Marilyn” is a giant pair of stiletto shoes, well above the head, made of stainless steel pans and lids.

A mass-produced ceramic German Shepherd dog is encased in an intricate piece of crochet, crafted by women in Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores.

In 2012, Vasconcelos became the first woman and the youngest artist to exhibit at the Palace of Versailles, attracting 1.6 million visitors. Four years ago, she became the first Portuguese with a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Bilbao.

“The Wedding Cake” will have three levels, with stairs for people to walk up. Placed in a wooded area, it will also have water features and lighting.

After the various parts of the installation have been transported to England by truck, the work to assemble everything begins. The unveiling is tentatively scheduled for the end of May.

Meanwhile, Vasconcelos is also working towards getting her 4th dan in karate – another test of her mettle.

“If you’re not a fighter, you can’t do karate,” she says.

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