The Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos has unveiled her latest monumental installation Tree of Life (Arbre de Vie) (2023), towering 13m high in the deconsecrated Gothic chapel of the Château de Vincennes in Paris. Created during the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020-21, the work draws inspiration from the Greek mythological figure of Daphne, who transforms herself into a laurel tree to escape the amorous pursuit of the god Apollo.
Speaking at the inauguration of the site-specific sculpture in late April, Vasconcelos discussed the work's feminist message, its painstaking creation during the pandemic and her own position as one of the few female artists working at monumental scale in the public realm.
Vasconcelos first conceived the idea after seeing Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 17th-century sculpture Apollo and Daphne in the Galleria Borghese in Rome in 2016. "The fact that [Daphne] decides not to marry Apollo, and she'd rather be turned into a tree than to marry him speaks of the will to go against the rules and establishment ideas like marriage," she says. "It's a myth of independence and a myth of self-determination and I think that's very important."
Tree of Life is covered in 110,000 hand-stitched and embroidered fabric leaves, fungi, mosses and lichens, stumps and branches, all created by the artist's team in lockdown out of materials that were already in the studio.
"We couldn't spend much money; we knew what was going on and had no idea what the world would bring us after [lockdown]. So I said, 'let's recycle'," Vasconcelos recalls. "We used all the fabric we had, and we started with the leaves."
The process of recycling also speaks to the value of climate consciousness, a theme which the artist sees echoed in the apocalyptic imagery of the chapel's stained-glass windows.
The work was originally commissioned by France's Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN) as part of the Saison France-Portugal 2022 programme of cultural collaborations between the two countries. A structural issue discovered during the installation of the sculpture delayed its inauguration for several months. Tree of Life will remain on view at the Sainte-Chapelle until 3 September before moving to Lisbon; there are further plans to install iterations of the work in locations around the world.
Vasconcelos has created many large-scale public sculptures, and is preparing another ambitious commission for Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire this summer, a 12m-high ceramic pavilion called Wedding Cake. However, the field of monumental sculpture remains a man's world, she tells The Art Newspaper.
"There are not many of us [women sculptors] and we have now lost Phyllida Barlow who was a great," Vasconcelos says. "You have to have all these relationships with architects, engineers and construction companies, so it's a very male world and it's not easy for a woman to thrive. I am honoured that I have that privilege but at the same time it's not easy."
• Arbre de Vie by Joana Vasconcelos, Château de Vincennes, Paris, until 3 September