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Issues of the Day Anish Kapoor: Lessons from Versailles
 

During a recent trip to France, I visited Versailles for the first time. With only a few days left to my stay and given a profound disinterest in all things royal, I was ambivalent about following the well-trodden tourist path to the château. Friends prevailed on me to at least visit the grounds of the estate, and I agreed, especially since I had heard that an exhibition of works by Anish Kapoor was taking place there.

 

The splendor of what began as  Louis XIII’s hunting lodge and which was later expanded by his successors into a sprawling complex of luxurious buildings and grounds, is a testament to both aesthetics and gluttony. The consensus reached by the small group of friends with whom I visited the site was that it symbolizes all of what spawned the French Revolution.

 

I enjoyed strolling through the grounds –they are exquisite. The topiary, the statutes and fountains are delightful. Enjoying these sights, however, is contingent on overlooking the ignoble origins of Versailles. It was, after all,  a monument to aristocratic greed, aloofness and insolence. Anish Kapoor's works on the site depart from that starting point.  

 

The Dirty Corner

The first of Kapoor's installations at Versailles that I came upon was situated on the Royal Walk, a central promenade leading from the Latona Fountain and Parterre to the Fountain of Apollo's Chariot. Titled "Dirty Corner" it entered my field of vision when I spied a cluster of boulders that seemed to have spilled onto the earth from the voracious mouth of a decaying funnel, a defunct Horn of Plenty in my view. The latter seemed to have plowed through the ground in a forceful eruption.

 

As one rounds the corner of the installation and proceeds along its side toward the rear of the structure, one sees that the aperture and the elongated capsule that leads to it are rusting. They are artifacts from an earlier epoch in a state of degradation and obsolescence.

 

Massive Industrial Forms

These are massive metallic forms, industrial objects that are well-engineered but which appear to have no apparent function other than to impress viewers with their scale and volume.

 

At the rear of the sculpture one encounters the very same kind of boulders spewed from the tarnished Horn of Plenty, a metaphor that seems to say "from ashes to ashes, dust to dust."  What went in, came out: stone, lifeless, unenduring and meaningless left to degenerate into nothingness.

 

Kapoor's statement became clear to me straight away. As Catherine Pégard, President of the palace of Versailles, states, "the originality of this exhibition, what makes it unique…is that in Versailles his [Kapoor's] vision meets an imagination set in stone by history. The very controlled landscape of Versailles is drawn into instability."

 

The Prevailing Context

An artist, especially one of Kapoor's stature, does not divorce his or her art from the prevailing context in which it is presented. At Versailles, that context is, as I state above,  debauchery and arrogance, an attempt by the monarchs to achieve power and immortality through material extravagance.  

 

In the case of Versailles that delusion led to the fall of the Ancien Régime as the result of complete upheaval. Nothing in France, indeed the world, would ever be the same again. As Catherine Pégard writes, "The grounds become uncertain and moving. Waters swirl. Romantic ruins take hold of the Tapis Vert...This world is perhaps about to tip over."


The end of that world, and perhaps our world as well, is my interpretation of the next installation of Kapoor's that I viewed. Descension 2014 offers dark commentary on the self-devouring nature of our existence, by which I believe Kapoor means our existence as shaped by society and its norms.

 

Swallowing Ourselves

Juxtaposed against the monumental banality  of Dirty Comer, Descension 2014 which features a helical swallowing of its own waters into the void accompanied by thunderous gulping, seems to convey a prognosis of what will obtain from the damage our civilization inflicts on our environment and ourselves: self-destruction.

 

I am aware that my interpretation of Kapoor's Versailles work is only that, an interpretation, one which differs considerably with what the vandals who struck the funnel at "Dirty Comer" on June 19, 2015 saw in his work. They protested Kapoor alleged description of the work as representing the sexual organ of the queen, presumably Marie Antoinette. True to artistic distance, Kapoor remarks of Dirty Corner that "In Art - What you see is not What you get."

 

But I prefer to believe my view of Kapoor's artistic commentary on Versailles. The exhibition offers artistic forewarning of other disasters in the making if humanity continues to indulge its appetites for wealth and power.  

For more about Anish Kapoor's work visit the page devoted to the artist at Atrsy, the online art resource.  

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