Beyond amazing: Joana Vasconcelos at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

My last post described a recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Some of the sculptures displayed there can be seen in traditional galleries while others are to be found in the open air, in a magnificent parkland landscape of hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens. The undoubted highlight of our visit was Beyond, a temporary exhibition by celebrated Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971).

Here’s how the Park’s website describes Joana’s work:

Joana Vasconcelos creates vibrant, often monumental sculpture, using fabric, needlework and crochet alongside everyday objects from saucepans to wheel hubs. She frequently uses items associated with domestic work and craft to comment from a feminist perspective on national and collective identity, cultural tradition and women’s roles in society

Sounds a bit wild and wacky, doesn’t it? I’m happy to say that the exhibition fully lived up to its billing. Joana Vasconcelos’ creations are amazing, a true delight in a year that’s been painfully grim.

There was an early indication of what to expect as we drove up to the car park: a multi-coloured rooster towering nine metres above startled visitors. It’s called Pop Galo [Pop Rooster] and is inspired by the Barcelos Rooster (aka the Portuguese Rooster.)

I’ve never been to Portugal and the legend of the Barcelos Rooster had therefore passed me by, but research for this post tells me that it’s regarded as the embodiment of the Portuguese spirit and love for life. Always vividly coloured, the Barcelos Rooster is a cultural icon and the unofficial symbol of the nation.

In Portugal the Barcelos Rooster is traditionally rendered as a colourful piece of pottery. Vasconcelos has fashioned hers from no fewer than 17,000 glazed tiles, creating a monumental and unforgettable artwork. Stunning!

And while we’re on the subject of monumental artwork, Solitário [Solitaire], is also pretty damned impressive. Standing seven metres high, it comprises golden car wheel rims topped with a huge diamond crafted from crystal whisky glasses, all fashioned into a stridently ostentatious engagement ring.

The website explains that Solitaire shouldn’t be seen as a blingy blot on the landscape but is, rather, a piece of caustic commentary on modern societal values. It says: “representing the stereotypical ambition of our society to acquire wealth and material possessions, the work unites symbols of luxury – cars, jewellery and alcohol – which bridge social classes.” So now we know!

Joana Vasconselos was born in Paris but lives in Lisbon, and trained initially as a jeweller before becoming a sculptor. The change of direction has enabled her to develop her craftsmanship on an altogether grander scale. In her world big is most definitely beautiful, whether outdoors or in.

And moving along to one of the indoor galleries, another of Vasconcelos’ startling pieces is Marilyn, a pair of oversized silver stilettos made entirely from hundreds of stainless steel saucepans.

The work’s title references Marilyn Monroe and is, in the words of the website, “[a commentary] on social conventions [highlighting] the division between women’s traditional domestic and contemporary public roles.”

Another work to be seen in one of the indoor galleries is Red Independent Heart #3, based on the Heart of Viana, a well-known Portuguese emblem symbolising life, love, friendship, honesty and generosity. It stands over three metres high and hangs from the ceiling, slowly rotating. As it turns, expressive and melancholy Portuguese fado songs play in the background, speaking of love, loss and the conflict between emotion and reason.

The piece is made entirely from red plastic cutlery which have been shaped and manipulated until its individual components are barely recognisable.

I’m not sure how I feel about plastic sculptures – there’s way too much plastic in the world already. But let’s give Vasconcelos the benefit of the doubt, and assume the thousands of items making up her Red Independent Heart are recycled cutlery that were otherwise destined for the nearest dump.

Plastic features in another of the works that make up the Beyond exhibition. At four metres high, Tutti Frutti dominates views of the landscape in which it sits. It’s made from plastic moulds of apples, pears, strawberries and croissants – all suspended from a stainless steel frame. Portuguese children apparently use these moulds at the beach to make a local version of sandcastles.

Tutti Frutti is one of those sculptures that can’t fail to raise a smile – who can resist such garishly whimsical frivolity? But beneath it all is a serious message about modern society’s tendency towards overindulgence and superficiality. The artist proclaims that the seductive moulds beguile and captivate unwary onlookers, who fail to spot the hollowness at their heart.

Of course cynics might argue that this is a metaphor for all of Joana Vasconcelos’ work, but I say “to hell with cynics!”

And finally, take a look at I’ll Be Your Mirror. Standing over three metres high and composed of countless elegantly-shaped mirrors, this work presents the classic Venetian mask as we’ve never imagined it before.

Masks have traditionally offered a hiding place, and never more so than in this year of Covid-19. We all wear masks at the supermarket these days, and behind each I see someone just like me, lying low and hiding from the virus. Mirrors, mirrors, everywhere…

Joana Vasconcelos’ work will not be to everyone’s taste. Indeed you may find it crass, pretentious or even banal – this reviewer for one was clearly unimpressed.

I will admit that her sculptures don’t magically reveal the meaning of life. But for god’s sake, they’re fun aren’t they? And don’t we all need a bit of fun in these dark, dark days? For me these monumental pieces are genuinely joyful, they have a “wow factor” and – if you so choose – they can make you think about stuff in a slightly different way.

If this is art, then give me more. Joana Vasconcelos, you are beyond amazing.

Welcome to Yorkshire Sculpture Park

It’s been described as “Britain’s first and finest sculpture park,” an open-air gallery where works by many of the world’s most renowned sculptors are displayed in a magnificent parkland landscape of hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens. It is a truly inspiring venture, and has without doubt been the highlight of our Covid year. Welcome to Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Travel is one of our passions and we’ve always spent as much time as possible exploring other parts of the UK, and visiting countries on every continent bar Antarctica. However 2020 has been painfully different, courtesy of official travel restrictions and our own innate caution in the face of a cruel and unusual virus. This year we’ve not strayed far from home.

But there’s been one unexpected bonus of the Covid chaos: we’ve had both the time and the incentive to make day-trips to places within reasonable driving distance of Platypus Towers. Yorkshire Sculpture Park has been in our sights for several years, but we’ve never managed to squeeze in a visit. Finally, this year, we got around to it…and what a brilliant place it proved to be.

Bretton Hall dates from 1720

Yorkshire Sculpture Park opened in 1977 on the 500-acre (200 hectares), 18th-century Bretton Hall estate in West Yorkshire. The Palladian mansion at the heart of the estate dates from 1720. In 1948 its owner sold much of the estate to the local council, and a year later the mansion became a training college for teachers of art, music and drama.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1977, one of the lecturers at Bretton Hall College suggested siting sculpture in the estate’s grounds. The proposal was to open-up the Bretton estate landscape to the public for the first time, and provide artists with a canvas upon which to explore the challenges and opportunities inherent in mounting sculpture in a natural, open-air setting.

And thus was born Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The college is no more – the mansion is being converted into a luxury hotel – but the sculpture park goes from strength to strength.

Promenade by Anthony Caro, with Bretton Hall in the background

In addition to some permanent installations, Yorkshire Sculpture Park has a programme of world-class, year-round temporary exhibitions. Many of the pieces are displayed in the open air, while others are spread across six indoor galleries. 

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is an independent charitable trust and a registered museum. The website describes its mission in these terms:

YSP’s driving purpose for 40 years has been to ignite, nurture and sustain interest in and debate around contemporary art and sculpture, especially with those for whom art participation is not habitual or familiar. It enables open access to art, situations and ideas, and continues to re-evaluate and expand the approach to considering art’s role and relevance in society. 

SOURCE: Yorkshire Sculpture Park website, retrieved 11 November 2020

I’m all for widening participation, and our visit quickly showed us that Yorkshire Sculpture Park is working hard to deliver on its ambitions. It is a truly inspiring venture, and has without doubt been the highlight of our Covid year. In my next post we’ll take a look at a stunning temporary exhibition by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. Meanwhile, here’s some other stuff that caught my eye when we visited in September.

Buddha by Niki de Saint Phalle

Buddha, by Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), is a monumental work standing over three metres high. It dates from around 2000 and is fashioned from a glittering mosaic of coloured tiles, glass, mirrors, and polished stones.

Saint Phalle was born in France, grew up in America and started out as a fashion model. She later studied theatre and acting in Paris, before giving it all up to become an artist. I’m tempted to say that if this is what a self-taught artist can achieve there’s still hope for me, but plainly I’m kidding myself. In my book, this is a decorative masterpiece.

Octopus by Marialuisa Tadei

And talking of mosaic masterpieces, what about Octopus by Italian artist Marialuisa Tadei (born 1962). Dating from 2011 and with a spread (leg-span?) of over five metres, it stands 1.3m high. The glorious beast seems to slither across the parkland, watching the visitors through twinkling, inscrutable eyes. It’s made from coloured, hand-cut glass affixed to a sturdy, stainless steel skeleton. Superb!

However Incongruous by the Raqs Media Collective

The third installation that particularly caught my eye is a rhinoceros rendered in the form of a carousel ride. It’s called However Incongruous, which sums it up nicely, a rhino wearing a yellow saddle apparently grazing contentedly on the lawn of an English country estate.

The Raqs Media Collective based its 2011 work on Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhino. The German painter and printmaker generated his creation from descriptions alone, without ever having seen the animal in the flesh. I wonder what he would have made of the Collective’s three dimensional reinterpretation of his woodcut?

Litter by Leo Fitzmaurice, and litter by a careless visitor!

The final work I want to feature on this whistle-stop tour is Litter by British artist Leo Fitzmaurice (born 1963). Its intentions are noble, to highlight the excessive debris and waste mankind discards on a daily basis. The Park’s website describes it as “a playful interpretation of rubbish bags with their handles tied in such a way that at a glance could be rabbits grazing.”

However what really made me chuckle – and shake my head sadly at the same time – was that amongst the enamelled, cast bronze rubbish bags was a real plastic bag, presumably discarded by a careless visitor. You can see it clearly in the photo above. Don’t they say that life imitates art?

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So there we have it, a brief introduction to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Having finally – some 40 years too late – made its acquaintance, I know we will be frequent visitors in the future. We barely scratched the surface of the collection this time, and are looking forward to finding some more masterpieces scattered throughout the picturesque pastureland, woods and trees, as well as re-visiting a few old friends.

I wonder if there will still be plastic bag lurking amongst the Litter when we next pay Yorkshire Sculpture Park a visit?

Brave New World or Paradise Lost? – Our town’s new library

Our town has a new library. It’s been open since early August, but the UK’s National Libraries Week (5 -10 October) seems like a good time to check it out. For years – no, decades – we’ve wished to see the old library replaced. Hopefully it will prove to be worth the wait.

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The old library was a converted stone-built domestic property – The Hollies – dating from the first half of the 19th century. Located within the Belper Town section of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, it had loads of character. But despite the best efforts of the staff it was a woefully inadequate public library, a hotchpotch of small, knocked-together rooms spread across two floors. “Compact” would be one way to describe it, but I prefer “cramped, uncomfortable and incapable of measuring up to 21st century expectations.”

The old library (photo taken 2005)

Ideally, Belper’s new library would have been purpose-built, but space for new-build projects is at a premium in the World Heritage Site area. And anyway, libraries aren’t seen as a priority these days, in a society which seems to believe that the Internet and mobile phones are the answer to everything. In the circumstances, I suppose we should be grateful that the project went ahead at all, albeit in another converted building.

The site of the new development is the former Castle Blouse factory, operated by the Nottingham Manufacturing Company for the production of blouses and hosiery. The building became a storage facility for Rolls-Royce engines during the Second World War and, in 1947, was taken over by the celebrated confectioner Thornton’s. Here, yummy chocolates and other confectionery goodies once rolled off the production lines in vast quantities. Thornton’s abandoned Belper many years ago, and a new use was required for their land and buildings.

The new library (ignore the frontage stretching into the far distance on the right!)

Cometh the hour, cometh the council. Parts of the factory were flattened, to be replaced by a relocated care home and a health centre. However the oldest factory building was retained, to be converted into the town’s new library.

* * *

As we approach the new library we take stock of its appearance and potential. Externally the architect has done a good job, broadly sympathetic to the building’s industrial past and in keeping with the spirit of the World Heritage Site. So far, so good. But what about inside?

A masked member of staff greets us as we enter, asking for our names and contact details as part of the government’s Covid-19 Test and Trace strategy. However there seems to be little chance of catching anything here. The place is almost deserted, just a couple more staff and one other member of the public who scuttles out soon after we arrive.

The timing of the new library’s opening is disastrous, and you’ve got to feel sorry for the management and local staff. This project has been in the pipeline for years, and nobody could have predicted it would come to fruition when the country is in the throes of a pandemic.

Computers wrapped in bin bags, and no chairs…not much chance of public internet access here today! Sexy curved shelving – but the “island” units interfere with sightlines.

Elsewhere in Derbyshire the county’s library service is working hard to extend and promote its digital offer – eBooks, online storytimes and the like. But here at Belper the team face a different challenge, to entice users to try out an unfamiliar library building which is currently unable to live up to its potential due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

It’s clearly not “business as usual” today. Covid-19 is still deterring many people from venturing into public spaces like this, the computers are wrapped up in what looks like bin-bags, and seating is limited. More disturbingly, all books returned to the library after being borrowed are set aside and quarantined for three days before they are put back on the open shelves.

Exposed rafters and beams, and bare brickwork, celebrate the building’s industrial past

So, through no fault of the staff our first visit here is not the relaxed, welcoming experience we’d hoped it would be. We have the place to ourselves as we start to explore the Brave New World of Belper Library

Although the positioning of the original windows tells us this was once a two-storey building, the first floor has been stripped out entirely. The roof soars high above us, revealing exposed rafters and beams. Combined with the bare brickwork, the underbelly of the roof pays due homage to the building’s industrial past.

White “island” shelving units, but wooden wall-mounted units. Why?

But, and it’s a big but, the place seems a bit small. In order to cram more books into the available space they’ve opted for head-high “island” shelving, which interferes with sightlines and counteracts the airy sense of space which should result from the soaring roofline. And where are the public meeting rooms, a vital resource for the modern public library, welcoming shared spaces where community groups can get together to explore culture, literature and learning?

But it’s the children’s section of the library that disappoints me the most. It’s not big enough, feels austere and clinical, and lacks both colour and character.

In my view the most important part of any public library is the children’s area. More than ever in this digital age we have a duty to encourage youngsters to explore and enjoy the written word, to develop their language skills, and to experience the power of story. I worry that the dazzling white shelves and uninspired furnishings will struggle to achieve this.

The children’s area: austere, clinical, lacking colour and character

Perhaps I’m being too harsh? The library is clearly an enormous improvement on what the town has had to put up with for the previous 80 years, and we’ve not seen it at its best. In the post-Covid environment (whenever that is!) I’m sure the staff will work hard to make it fly, and I wish them well in their endeavours.

But this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something brilliant for culture and learning in Belper, to create a new, vibrant community venue, and it seems to have slightly missed the mark. I leave the library feeling a trifle underwhelmed, debating whether, when I write this post, I should somehow weave “Paradise Lost” into the title of the piece.

Sadly, I won’t be spending as much of my retirement in the library as I’d once imagined.