Consuming devotion: Joana Vasconcelos
The familiar notes of Ravel’s Boléro strike a strange discord in the silently sacred space of the art gallery. The music is playing in the room next door; the soundtrack to an unseen film. The Boléro crescendos to its finale and the music dies away. After a moment of quiet the invisible band strikes up again, this time to the tune of The Pink Panther. All the while a small Piaggio tricycle van rests sentient in the centre of the room, surrounded by an eerie halo created by phosphorescent religious statuettes.
This is the work of Joana Vasconcelos, a Portuguese artist who made her name in 2005 when she exhibited a twenty-foot high chandelier made from 25,000 tampons at the Venice Biennale. Time Machine, her first major show in the UK, deals with the same contemporary issues of femininity, faith and consumerism. www.fatimashop (2002) is an immersive installation which is displayed alongside the accompanying video, Fui às Compras (Gone Shopping). Peer into the open boot of the vintage tricycle van and you will see that it is a mobile altar piece, stocked with mass-produced figurines of Our Lady of Fatima, a popular Portuguese Catholic icon.
Choosing the title twelve years ago, which comes from the name of a website selling religious products, Vasconcelos perhaps felt that she was partaking in a passing phase, stamping her work with the zeitgeist of the age. The title proved a prudent choice, however, for today it is arguably even more pertinent than it was a decade ago. By removing the location suffix from the end of the web address, the artist affords her work a universality, allowing it to be associated with any country or faith.
Vasconcelos talks of the “inconsequential interaction between religious spirituality and consumerist materialism,” yet her juxtaposition is anything but inconsequential; it questions the nature of contemporary faith. During the Renaissance, an altarpiece or devotional image may have been specially commissioned, perhaps from a specific maker for a specific family or individual. Today, as Vasconcelos succinctly shows, objects of faith and personal contemplation are not imbued with the spirit of human hands but with the mass-produced monotony of the machine. Capitalism and the consumerist society have appropriated faith for their own, producing endless cheap plastic rosary beads, statuettes and pictures to be purchased by the faithful.
www.fatimashop is not a tribute to Our Lady of Fatima then, but rather a shrine to money itself. Mass-production threatens and challenges our very notion of faith: is it something to be shared with the millions of people who believe, or a personal endeavour divorced from the beliefs of others? The phosphorescent glow of the statuettes alludes to this, with each individual figure emitting its own light but the overall effect only achievable by the whole. A light in the darkness is inextricably linked to the concept of religious salvation yet Vasconcelos creates a harsh and eerie artificial light which repels rather than appeals. Whether this repulsion relates to consumerism or to religion itself remains calculatedly ambiguous.
Fui às Compras, the accompanying film, continues to challenge the idea of pilgrimage and devotion. Vasconcelos drove the tricycle van and its precious load around Portugal herself, filming its journey. In one sense this is a particularly religious act, for the artist recorded her every move. In another, it strongly alludes to the pilgrims who have visited Mecca, Jerusalem, and Lourdes for millennia, bringing with them the ‘baggage’ of faith, as Vasconcelos might term it. More pertinent is the fact that these ancient pilgrimage sites have today been turned over to tourism and the consumerism that their spirituality engenders.
Maybe the act of pilgrimage confers faith upon otherwise meaningless mass-produced objects. Buy a Fatima from a shop and it is faithless; take it on a journey and it gathers faith, memories and a history around it, an inventory of meanings. It is the same for the objects in our museums which are valued for the intrinsic worth of their historical stories rather than their materiality or aesthetic appearance. The two separate rooms which house these works in the exhibition corroborate this view, for they mirror the dichotomies between the faithful and the faithless; the empty and the full; the whole and the individual.
The de-contextualized music of Vasconcelos’ film readies the viewer for this reassessment of faith presented in www.fatimashop. As a woman, Vasconcelos is able to associate herself with Our Lady of Fatima and appropriate the religious iconography for herself. We think of the Virgin, the saintly woman, the faithfully dutiful maternal wife. All three are rejected, for Vasconcelos is the mistress of her own destiny. In her hands, Fatima becomes a normal woman, trapped and strangled by the vestiges of faith. Like Vasconcelos herself, she is not to be judged at first sight.