During last month’s Paris Fashion Week, Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri chicly reinterpreted the house’s 1950s codes. The scenography, however, tapped into another dimension entirely thanks to the creative vision of Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos installed a hallucinatory, stalactite–like sculpture that served as the undeniably bombastic backdrop for the Fall 2023 collection.
Ornamental, globular, and behemoth, Valkyrie Miss Dior towered 23 feet high and about 78 feet long, permeating the temporary Jardin des Tuileries space. Was it an alien landscape or the interior of some otherworldly organism? Maybe some some pan-national arts-and-crafts beast? Interpretation all depended on the viewer. But one thing was for sure: Vasconcelos has hands-down stomped all other contenders for “set of the season.”
The suspended piece was composed of steel cables, crochet, LED lights, fans, inflatables, and fabrics in 20 different Dior floral patterns. Vasconcelos is prone to super-size her work.
“I don’t do scale for scale’s sake,” the artist said, “ but to convey a message through a chosen object. My work is very much based in the decontextualization of everyday objects. Monumental scale is usually seen as male territory and there are some barriers to be broken.”
Valkyrie Miss Dior joins a pantheon of over 30 of the towering female warrior goddesses Vasconcelos has created for installations as far-flung as Macau to Bilbao (where she had a 2018 retrospective “I’m Your Mirror” at the Guggenheim). “They all have different themes, honoring women who made a difference in the world,” Vasconcelos explains, “just like the female figures from Nordic mythology would lift the brave warriors killed in the battlefield, bringing them to join the deities in Valhalla.” Valkyrie Miss Dior is an homage to the house founder’s sister, Catherine Dior, a florist and World War II French resistance fighter who was awarded the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur. Vasconcelos’s 2005 Venice Biennale entry The Bride, a baroque chandelier composed of 25,000 tampons, garnered her international attention.
The artist has found a true ally in Chiuri who has made explicit feminist overtures in all of her collections since becoming Dior’s first female creative director in 2018. A key tenet of her tenure has been to collaborate with female artists and allow them to realize their respective visions.
The Dior Valkyrie is just one highpoint for Vasconcelos this year. In April, she will have a solo show at Beijing’s Tang Contemporary Art followed by her Tree of Life installation in Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes. Her gargantuan Wedding Cake will rise at Waddesdon Manor, England in June, and then her next solo show opens in October at Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Italy. She took a moment to speak with us about Dior and explain her vibe.
Your work combines disciplines that overlap with fashion (sewing, knitting, working with textiles). Do you follow fashion and does it inform your work?
Fashion is a very important part of my life. I actually started showing my work at Lisbon’s Manobras de Maio in 1994, a catwalk for young creators, with a very counter-current, avant-garde and interventionist spirit. At the time I produced a series of wearable sculptural pieces in Styrofoam called the Bunis. A kind of colorful, organic, bulbous headwear, they represented a crossover between jewelry—which I studied—and sculpture.
Nowadays, a lot of my work is connected to the world of textiles and therefore it’s only natural that some clear affinities with fashion come across. The textile element is a common thread here, and plays a very important role, alongside the handcrafts that are also associated with the couture houses. As a matter of a fact, I question the male definition of noble materials in art. To me, textiles are as noble as iron, stone or wood – maybe even more so.
What really struck me about the Dior set was this dichotomy between handmade/ornamental and organic. I got the sense that this structure mimicked a life form. It was like a fashion show was happening within a body.
It’s interesting that you saw it that way. Many people asked if Valkyrie Miss Dior represented a plant, an animal or a part of the human anatomy, but they all saw it as a living organism. I have never really conceived it as a static installation, what really interested me from the very beginning was the interaction between the installation, the models and the audience, all coming together as a moving body, a sculptural choreography almost.
The fashion show added a facet to your art, this swirling performative fashion experience. Tell me about experiencing this firsthand?
This was not the first time I employed dance for an artwork. I did so last year with Valkyrie Martha at lille3000, presented with purposefully created choreography. This stems from my firm belief that art should be interactive, inviting audiences and/or other artists to join the process, touching it, feeling it and creating a dialogue with movement, music or other art expressions in a performative way.
The set heightened the collection because it also really contrasted it. Interstellar versus down-to-earth. What was it like working with Ms. Chiuri? Did your designs inform each other?
No, they were different processes altogether. Maria Grazia came to my studio in Lisbon last summer and we had a wonderful exchange of ideas. Maria Grazia is a major inspiration not only for her feminist stance but also for her valorization of artisanship, two causes which are also very close to my heart. So, when the invitation came, I showed her my Valkyries body of work and suggested that, first and foremost, we should pay tribute to a woman. Then I got carte blanche to create as I saw fit.
I was sent 20 fabrics from the collection and started to create the Valkyrie from there. They were all very floral and fluid, the colors ranging from red, blue, green, orange to yellow. I decided to choose a color, texture and different identity for each branch of the artwork. To enhance the colors of the fabrics, I added a little sparkle through sequins and embroidery.
Crochet is a technique which is also very present in haute couture, accentuating the concept of the contemporary revisiting of the past, bringing back memories which are present in each of us and carrying them into the future. It was a dialogue with absolute freedom, a great way to collaborate, creating the bridge between fashion and the visual arts.
There seemed to be a Wizard of Oz dramatic reveal, when this vague pre-show black and white constellation turned into this multi-hued organism. You’ve done large-scale projects before but this seems to have been a very Hollywood-style mega production. What was it like working with Dior on this?
It was amazing. They are very professional and overall it was a very respectful approach, where the creative process is honored every step of the way. The energy created throughout the different stages really shone through in the show, as everything and everyone came together.
I am very proud of this piece. It stands as a testimony of an amazing collaboration, of the great things that can happen when people get together and join efforts to create something bigger than the sum of their parts.
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