September Issue 2015
The Past is Present
Art can alter the memory of a space by adding new visual references to the existing register. In recent years, art interventions have become common in historical spaces where artists evoke compelling narratives. With this re-reading of history in the context of new priorities, both interest and awareness is created, resulting in new knowledge. This summer Anish Kapoor’s art in the gardens of Chateau de Versailles thoughtfully unpacks the imperial history of the site.
My first visit to Versailles some three-and-a-half decades ago was all about being in awe of its romance and architecture. Everything I had ever read or seen on the screen came alive as I walked through its sumptuous interiors. This all changed when I returned to see the art of Murakami installed in its chambers and my focus changed to find a relationship between Japanese sensibility and French aesthetics at the location. In 2015, the presence of Anish Kapoor’s oeuvre nudged me to move beyond the physical to a deeper consciousness of what transpired here during the French Revolution.
The Versailles’ gardens, like the interior, reinforces imperial power through a vocabulary of decorative opulence. Punctuated with white marble statuary, with references to Roman and Greek mythology, the Empire’s desire to project its lineage is visible. On both sides of the main avenue are located mazes crafted from tall hedges that impose a complex geometry on the landscape.
Anish Kapoor has chosen to install four works along the central axis employing provocative strategies. The two reflective devises, one curved and the other spherical, titled ‘C-Curve’ and ‘Sky Mirror’ respectively, engage with distortions of physical space as they continuously destabilise the relationship of scale between the audience and the architecture. The entire faÃ§ade of the palace, reflected in the sphere from a distance, disappears gradually into a vast sky at close proximity. This draws the audience into another realm, which makes it easy to forget the splendour of the meticulously designed grounds.
In the center of the avenue with its formal fountains and ponds sits the ‘Dirty Corner’ with its tall piles of soil, boulders and colossal rusting pipes and odd objects — this whimsical, almost mischievous, installation seems to be thumbing its nose at the army of classical statues, of the perfectly calibrated human figures around it. The sheer audacity of the piece cannot but make you smile.
Just a short walk along oval ponds and graceful sprays set to symphonies takes you to ‘Descension,’ a huge noisy mechanical whirlpool. The menacing sound of the water being sucked into a vortex adds yet another unsettling note to jar the visual and aural serenity. This art that unsettles the visitor seems to point to sinister undercurrents that are best understood when seen in connection with the violence of Kapoor’s ‘Shooting into the Corner.’
The ‘Shooting into the Corner’ is installed in the Imperial tennis court. This sports facility’s claim to fame is the signing of the declaration by the National Assembly that changed the course of French politics during the French Revolution (1789-1799). Anish Kapoor’s cannon balls fired into a makeshift screen in the corner with a red gore-like substance that mimics brutalised flesh is a direct reference to the violence excluded from popular readings of the history of these regal quarters. His art distracts from the tales of romance, indulgence and intrigue associated with Versailles — tales like those of a silver banister made from one ton of pure silver, that is almost impossible to put a price on today, and how the mirror-makers were enticed from Venice, where it was a zealously guided technique, to build the famed hall of mirrors.
Anish Kapoor prefers to explore Versailles’ relevance to the 21st Century. His art reminds us of Versailles‘ pivotal role in the French Revolution, how the expenses incurred in creating such a lavish palace contributed to empty national coffers and the imposition of taxes led to famine and destitution — actions that led to a violent call for reform from the proletariat. It also evokes memories from history of how thousands of women marched to Versailles to force the king to move his court back to Paris, where he was eventually executed in 1793, of a fledgling National Assembly that wrote a constitution to abolish feudalism, free slaves in the colonies, and emancipate the individual, a constitution that sought to separate state and religion and that was to become the template for many future revolutions and firmly placed human rights as the cornerstone of every democracy .
This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.
The writer is an art critic and curator. Her work covers art criticism, art history, curatorial projects, art education and art activism. She has been regularly contributing to national and international journals since 80â€™s.