Despite the fact that Louis XIV dragged every artist he could find to Versailles in the 17th century, bringing contemporary sculpture to the palace in the 21st century has been fraught with controversy ever since the domain instituted an annual summer exhibition.
In 2008, American pop idol Jeff Koons raised multiple hackles with his giant balloon puppies and lobsters. The exhibition did, however, have its supporters who thought the high kitsch sculptures looked right at home given that Versailles was the original McMansion and nobody “got” glitz and flash more than Marie Antoinette.
By the time that Japanese manga artist Takashi Murakami placed a buxomly cartoonish French Maid a little too close to the Hall of Mirrors in 2010, the opposition had organized. A petition signed by 11,000 stated that the objets d’art, which the artist proposed as a “face-off between the Baroque period and Post-War Japan,” were “degrading and disrespectful.”
Since the Murakami to-do, Versailles curators have confined most of the artwork to the gardens. A sensible plan since, by this time, Tracey Emin was presumably on the invitation short-list. Who wanted to clean up all those condoms in the royal boudoir, especially since the manga maids were banned from the premises?
This year, the protests got nasty. In the wee hours of June 16, barely a week after the unveiling of the current Anish Kapoor exhibit, art vigilantes threw paint over the 33-feet-high Dirty Corner, most likely in response to an interview the artist gave in the Journal du Dimanche (May 31, 2015), in which he described the artwork as “the vagina of the queen taking power.”
In fact, Dirty Corner was not commissioned with Marie Antoinette or one of her predecessors in mind. It’s been around since 2011. When first displayed in Milan at the Fabbrica del Vapore, people were invited to enter the installation and experience disorientation (without royal gynocological implications) as they walked through the narrowing tunnel.
Kapoor acknowledges that the artwork, which rises out of Versailles’s manicured lawn like a giant Dune sand-monster, scattering multi-ton slabs of rock in the process, is supposed to upset the regal symmetry of Le Nôtre’s gardens.
Kapoor is one of the most popular living artists exhibited in France. His 2011 Momumenta exhibition at the Grand Palais attracted nearly 280,000 visitors. Commenting on the attack in The Guardian (June 19, 2015), Kapoor blamed the vandalism on the dark forces of “exclusion, marginalization, elitism, racism, Islamophobia” … a rather puzzling denunciation from the recently knighted, Bombay-born Hindu-Jewish artiste who resides in Britain.
Since the vandalism, visitors at the exhibition, running June 9-November 1, will now be met at the Dirty Corner by rather anxious-looking “Cultural Mediators”, art history students who are ready and willing to wrestle royalist taggers to the mat. Unfortunately—at least during the clean-up phase that features large machines thrusting into the artwork and a work crew diligently scrubbing away at what looks like the mother of all STDs—no one is likely to forget the “V” word.
Text and photos © 2015, Corinne LaBalme
Anish Kapoor in the garden of Versailles, June 9-Nov. 1, 2015.