I recently gave a speech in Lisbon.
Shortly after my talk, Portugal’s most famous living artist, Joana Vasconcelos, spoke.
I asked one of the organisers, Jose Ricardo Monteiro (Zee), how he persuaded her to talk.
Zee said it wasn’t difficult, he knew her from when she ran security at one of the local bars.
I said, how did a world-famous artist start out running security?
Zee said she was a fully-trained karate expert, no one would mess with her.
The bar was owned by a rich patron of the arts, so it was a very creative place to hang out.
Joana had been to art school and her field was sculpture.
While she worked security, she persuaded the owner to let her make a piece for his bar.
She could have done what most people would do, play it safe: it was her first opportunity at a commissioned project.
Better not to take a chance, don’t risk it, do something easily acceptable and likeable.
But Joana didn’t do that.
She created an enormous chandelier, over twenty feet high.
It was beautiful and dominated the space: 25,000 small white beads hung together with pretty white hair hanging from each bead.
It wasn’t until you got closer and inspected it carefully you saw the ‘beads’ weren’t actually glass, they were 25,000 tampons.
And the ‘hair’ was actually the string from each of the tampons.
What happens in the viewers mind is unsettling, it’s called cognitive dissonance.
On the one hand it looks beautiful, on the other hand it’s a subject we’ve been taught not to mention, we’ve been taught it’s not nice.
In a situation like this, the viewer has to watch what’s happening in their own mind.
The collision of thoughts.
Of course, as you’d expect, half of the people hated it, but half of the people loved it.
The main thing was no one could ignore it.
It became a scandal, a controversy, even an outrage.
Which was exactly why the owner of the bar loved it.
Everyone came to his bar to see the outrageous piece of art.
It put him, and his bar, firmly on the map as a centre for the alternative arts.
That sculpture became a sensation in the Lisbon press, then in the Portuguese press, then in the art-world press worldwide.
Here was a new artist who was anything but dull.
And so, she quit her job as security at the bar, to concentrate full time on art.
Art galleries gave her solo shows: Portugal (2000), Spain (2003 and 2009), Paris (2005 and 2012), Venice (2007), Brazil (2008), Denmark (2011 and 2016), Tel Aviv (2013).
At Versailles in 2012, the curator banned her work (the best thing that can happen to an artist) but she refused to be intimidated and the curator had to back down.
Consequently, 1.6 million people visited her show, the highest number for fifty years.
She recently had a solo show at the Guggenheim Bilbao, and she also represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale.
All of this because she wasn’t playing safe when she started out.
I notice, especially in advertising, that young people nowadays are desperate for approval.
They want to play safe and not take chances.
As if this is the creative route to the top.
Consequently, young people are more like old people.
Full of rules about what you can’t do.
I wonder what they are saving themselves for.
As Hunter S. Thompson said: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow, What a Ride!”