About the Commission: Trafaria Praia

Portuguese Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale
May 21, 2013 3:49AM

Project’s Rationale

Trafaria Praia is Vasconcelos’s proposal for the Participation of Portugal at the 55th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia. Her project addresses the historical relationship between Portugal and Italy, which evolved through trade, diplomacy, and art. Lisbon and Venice have many commonalities; both cities played key roles in broadening the European worldview during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, redefining the imago mundi by establishing networks between East and West. Trafaria Praia looks at the contemporary contact zone between the two cities by examining three fundamental aspects they share: water, navigation, and the vessel.

Vasconcelos constructs an allegorical correspondence between an iconic Lisbon ferryboat, the cacilheiro, and the picturesque Venetian vaporetto. Cacilheiros carry passengers across the River Tagus on a daily basis. Their customers are primarily commuters who live in Lisbon’s southern suburbs and work in the city. Until the building of the main bridge into Lisbon in 1966, these ferryboats were the only means of public transportation between the city and the south bank. Thus, they have always had blue-collar and middle-class associations and are a well-known, politically charged social symbol in Portugal. 

Floating Pavilion

Vasconcelos has brought to Venice an actual cacilheiro, the Trafaria Praia, and is presenting it as the Portuguese pavilion. This particular ship was decommissioned in 2011, and in the past six months it has undergone major transformations in a shipyard on the outskirts of Lisbon. In Venice, it is moored next to the Giardini’s vaporetto stop and sails around the lagoon at regular intervals. Rather than a conventional pavilion with a fixed location, then, Vasconcelos offers up an idealistic floating pavilion. She is deterritorializing territory—metaphorically circumventing the power struggles that so often mark international relations.


Vasconcelos is also presenting the Trafaria Praia as her art. Informed by Marcel Duchamp’s “assisted readymade,” she has changed the object without removing its functionality. On the outside of the ship, from prow to stern, she applies a large-scale panel of azulejos (tin-glazed, blue and white, hand-painted ceramic tiles) that reproduces a contemporary view of Lisbon’s skyline, from the Bugio Tower to the Vasco da Gama Tower. The work takes its inspiration from another large-scale panel of azulejos, the Great Panorama of Lisbon, which depicts the city before the legendary earthquake of 1755 and is a quintessential expression of the baroque-stylegolden age of azulejo production in Portugal. Vasconcelos has made other works that involve covering objects in azulejos; in doing this she evokes the material’s frequent deployment in architecture.

On the ship’s deck is an environment made of textiles and light. This also echoes past works by Vasconcelos, such as Contamination (2008–10) and the series Valkyries (2004–ongoing), in which organic, often colorful forms hanging from the ceiling interact with the surrounding architectural elements. This new work consists of a complex medley of blue-and-white fabrics all over the ceiling and walls, from which crocheted pieces, intertwined with LEDs, emerge to create a compelling effect. The installation suggests a surreal, womblike atmosphere or the deep ocean—something out of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, perhaps, or the Bible story of Jonah and the Whale. It envelops visitors, eliciting both an intellectual and a sensorial response.

Public Programs

On the quarterdeck, various areas have been set up, including a stage. These spaces are sites for the promotion of Portuguese culture—public programs including performances, talks, and more. Of special note are the daily events that take place during the preview. In the mornings there are roundtable discussions with key players from the Portuguese art scene addressing topics such as the history of the Participation of Portugal at the Venice Biennale and the representation of the city. In the late afternoons there are concerts with Portuguese musicians and guests featuring several different musical genres, from classic fado to experimental electronica.

Trafaria Praia, 2013, Luís Vasconcelos/©Unidade Infinita Projectos; Trafaria Praia, 2013. The Valkyrie Azulejo installation in progress within the Trafaria Praia ferryboat at Navaltagus shipyard in Seixal, Portugal. Photograph: DMF, Lisbon. © Unidade Infinita Projectos; Trafaria Praia, 2013. The Valkyrie Azulejo installation in progress within the Trafaria Praia ferryboat at Navaltagus shipyard in Seixal, Portugal. Photograph: Bruno Portela. © Unidade Infinita Projectos.
Portuguese Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale