The response to Anish Kapoor’s exhibition at Versailles has been shaped by controversy since its unveiling on June 9th. Kapoor’s primal, sensual, and colossal sculptural intervention at the palace has been overshadowed by an uproar from the French right wing and a scathing faction of the press alike. Just over a week after opening, Kapoor’s most inflammatory piece in the exhibition, Dirty Corner, was vandalized with yellow spray paint. The Guardian interviewed Kapoor afterwards, who cited “a certain intolerance in France,” claiming that the act of vandalism was fixed in politics. This past Saturday The Australian Financial Review published an article titled “Versailles doesn’t need the art work of Anish Kapoor,” by gardening writer Robin Lane Fox. The writer asserts that the original landscape design by André Le Nôtre has been “wrecked by misplaced contemporary art,” and systematically cuts down each of Kapoor’s works in the exhibition, warning readers to “give Versailles a miss until 2016.” Dirty Corner is unquestionably at the core of this polemic din, having achieved infamy under the reductive moniker of “The Queen’s Vagina.” The conversation, while constricting in some ways, has also initiated a kind of public performance in terms of the reaction to Kapoor’s installation. The audience is helping form a new conceptual landscape for nascent visitors to a Kapoor-manipulated Versailles: a landscape dotted with bias. It would seem essential then, or at least productive, to reenter and reexamine Kapoor’s exhibition, both in tandem with the controversy, and beneath its obfuscating prejudicial currents. With art so inherently visceral, it makes sense to initially take it in at the gut, subduing not only public bias, but also one’s own.
Kapoor’s engagement with the grounds at Versailles creates an uneasy contrast to the refined balance of the palace grounds. André Le Nôtre’s gardens are strict and symmetrical, unwavering in their precise elegance. The landscape is almost as an equation, its ornate lawn designs and orange tree shrubs meticulously twinned in reflective design. It is not difficult to envision French courtiers wandering through the gardens’ paths and green alleys, ostentatious gowns swishing. Kapoor’s sculptures, in juxtaposition, are decidedly of the present moment, and not just in the sense that they are works of contemporary art. Their massive and distressingly vague corporeal structures pull the viewer into them, eliciting a reaction that is primitive and internal. In the midst of a strenuously well-maintained royal daydream, Kapoor’s interruptive works evoke instead a primal jolt. This disparity and chaos, though exactly the point of the contemporary interventions at Versailles, are perhaps the latent essence of the public dispute.
An irrefutable signal of royal splendor is the fountain, of which there are many grand examples at Versailles. Kapoor’s Descension turns the fountain inside out in the form of a simple but staggering black whirlpool. Whereas Versailles’s central fountain spouts from tiers of Greco-Roman statues, Descension sucks into the ground. Roughly ten feet in diameter, the whirlpool stands alone, even with the earth; it is a force more than a form. The piece seems eternally in motion, pleasurably mysterious in its vacuuming function. It is a perpetual and hypnotic intensity, more akin to the untenable strength of water than any fountain at Versailles manages or intends to be. But that is the aim of Kapoor’s exhibition, not to decorate, but to shift the temperament of the grounds.
In his mirror pieces, Kapoor plays with Versaille’s architectural landscape. In C-Curve, the artist has placed a curved piece of mirror in front of the palace. Its convex surface faces the palace, and thus captures its entirety in a ballooned image. C-Curve is everything but itself, visible only in its reflected alteration of its surroundings. The mirror is over seven metres in length, and has been installed in various locations before Versailles. Its concave, more interior façade flips and lengthens the palace grounds, making a funhouse panorama out of Versailles’s vast expanse and of its visitors. At once an anodyne sharp object and an enticing spectacle of made up, ethereal space C-Curve rounds Versailles’s hard edges and makes abstract its grounds. With Sky Mirror, a colossal shallow bowl of reflective surface sitting on a tripod, on an upwards angle, Kapoor slices a disc out of the sky and brings it to the ground. The piece is like a non-functional satellite dish, an object created only to reflect and catch briefly the sky’s uncatchable image. The elements are Kapoor’s tenuous subjects, and in this Kapoor includes the human body.
In a corner where two hedges meet sits a red and black cube about 30 feet square; a shock of contained, biomorphic plastic. It appears from one side as a giant red navel, and as such as a perfect, carved segment of a body. The shape is not, however, grotesque, instead it is almost an edifying toy, like a scientific model of a body/ monad which one can step into and view from the inside. Sectional Body preparing for Monadic Singularity is probably the sculpture least playfully engaged with the site, while it is playful, but its unexpected insertion onto the grounds lends immediacy to the conceptual current of internals and furtive corporeal space present throughout the exhibition. The work is full of interior curves, entrances, cores, and chambers; and with the exception of Shooting into the Corner Kapoor declined to install in any indoor space.
Shooting into the Corner, placed inside the palace tennis courts, is made up of a cannon facing two mounted white walls. Kapoor has shot wax from the cannon into the corner, splattering the walls with a tactile, thick red, and creating a pile of discarded, plasmatic material made sculpture. The piece suggests a futile violence, an action without a purpose except to amplify the intensity of the action itself. It reflects too then the site’s status as a place of former action, the tennis courts left standing as a stagnant monument to bygone activities and people. Shooting into the Corner makes the handsome, stuffy space noisy and sexual and ugly, shaking the palatial estate from the inside out. However, it is the other Corner really destabilizing Versailles’s topography.
Dirty Corner is the incendiary centre of both the exhibition’s visual breadth, and its surrounding controversy. The sculpture is a 30-foot high rust-coloured metal funnel, its gaping entrance directed towards the palace, one gateway facing another. Large boulders are littered around the entrance to the funnel, and along its long tail, as if at random. On one side of the dull bronze tube sits a 15-foot high chunk of pinky red brick, and on the other, a roughly quarried ditch of the same colour. The trumpeting form with its empty, black entryway emits silence and noise, nature and industry, and appears as phallus and cavity simultaneously. These opposing concepts mean the piece itself is a conflict, creating action and life within its static form, almost as two magnets repelling each other. The abject pull of Dirty Corner lies in this clash. Its large, uncomfortable form draws the viewer into its cave, as a mysterious and indefinite entrance, also repels. This chaotic stir, while not necessarily erotic, is sensual. Dirty Corner provokes, but its provocation is not tied up with its likeness to any one organ. Nonetheless, the public has been quick to assign a giant hole singularly vaginal association.
Through a redundant, web journalism-based game of broken telephone, Kapoor himself has been ascribed with coining Dirty Corner’s nickname, “The Queen’s Vagina.” While its origins are fuzzy, its catching on has been firm. Phallic monuments have stood for centuries as noble, politicized beacons, but a vaginal form on formerly royal acreage is an affront, an offense worthy of vandalism. Dirty Corner’s ensuing vagina-stemmed controversial popularity, however, is a diversion. Instead of engaging with a dialogue around the piece and its complex metaphysics, there is now one “singular implication,” as the artist has put it, which Kapoor claims “kills the work” (The Independent). Many members of the press have been quick to stamp prescriptive labels on the piece such as “steel vulva” (The Guardian), and “the queen’s V” (Australian Financial Review). If the efficacy of public art is to be determined by its public’s engagement, perhaps Kapoor has succeeded, for better or for worse. The public and the press have performed his work, manipulating it for its audience even by boxing it in with pithy classifications and royalist criticism. But these implemented biases are a digression from the exhibition’s heart, and cannot shape its value. The joyful fruits of Kapoor’s marriage to Versailles are plentiful and without solitary, definitive meaning, as they are viscerally affecting echoes of nature’s limitlessness. The viewer should strip the work of its publicity-induced tags and markers, and engage with an artist and site that have joined on unstable terms to create a landscape that is beautifully wrought with contradiction, contrast and the sublime discomfort of exaggerated corporeality. Like all relationships, the ones filled with conflict are more fun to watch.
Images courtesy of The Guardian
Anthony, Andrew. “Anish Kapoor: superstar sculptor who loves to court scandal.” The Guardian. June 7th, 2015. Web.
Lane Fox, Robin. “Versailles doesn’t need the art work of Anish Kapoor.” The Australian Financial Times. July 18th, 2015. Web.
Lichfield, John. “Anish Kapoor ‘queen’s vagina’ sculpture vandalised with paint at Versailles.” The Independent. June 18th, 2015. Web.