The first challenge of showing contemporary art in a place like Versailles is one of scale. The formal perspective of Le Notre’s gardens was designed for the rational eye to keep travelling away unto the infinite, and therefore any artwork displayed here needs to be similarly imposing to have any hope of being noticed. The second hurdle is more of our time: the risk that an entire show might be reduced to a simplistic mediatic sound bite.
Six monumental pieces by award-winning British artist Anish Kapoor meet these challenges head-on, but in doing so have sparked indignation by their perceived disfigurement of the revered grounds. Much of the attention has been paid to one work in particular, Dirty Corner, which the artist himself has compared to the queen’s vagina taking power. On Thursday, it was discovered that the work had fallen prey to vandals armed with spray paint.
In reality Kapoor’s installation is far from the express shock value of anything in the vicinity of Courbet’s Origin of the World. Dirty Corner, the work in question, is much more metaphoric: a metal funnel the length of a jumbo jet, weighing several tons, butted against haphazard marble boulders and pushing into (or up from) a deep scar in the earth.
We relate to art through the filter of our personal cosmology. Kapoor, growing up in India, was exposed to Kamasutra representations of lingam and yoni, the male and female anatomy, in a most natural way: as an inseparable duality. If you look at Dirty Corner from the back, the yoni actually morphs into a lingam. As Kapoor said in a conference in the 90s, ‘In the Indian interpretation of the world, the feminine and masculine are a way of addressing heaven and earth, fire and matter, the fundamental opposites that make up reality.’
The exhibition takes place in the gardens, except for Shooting into the Corner, set in the Jeu de Paume, the tennis court where in 1789 during the French Revolution the 461 deputies secreted away from royal eyes vowing to form France’s first constitution. A cannon, which usually fires at designated intervals in Kapoor’s other shows, here is silent, as if saying that was has happened now lies in the past. The barrel is aimed at an angle, like an arm taking an oath, saluting the congealed blood-red heap of wax projectiles. A French visitor is unsettled, “I’m going to leave now,” she says, “before it spoils my lunch.”
On the main parterre, the receptive, polished perfection of Sky Mirror and C-Curve, reflect the symmetrical beauty of the palace, and belie what awaits at the bottom of the lawn. We all circle the drain of life, some of us faster than others, but to approach Descension is to confront this reality in the shape of a rumbling, ominous blind vortex. A hidden ship’s propeller powered by a marine engine churns a ruthless whirlpool with such force that the earth shudders under our feet. Through the power of art, the breezy dialogue between two viewers, referring to the mechanics of the piece, might just as well be speaking to their innermost yearnings. “Where does it all lead to?” they wonder, as they peer into the whirlpool, “Is there anything beyond?”