Olafur Eliasson’s Spectacular Versailles Takeover Stands Up to Climate Change
The Danish-Icelandic artist has imported 150 tons of glacial rock flour—granite ground down by glacial erosion—from Greenland to create his land art-inspired Glacial rock flour garden (2016). The grayish mineral dust, which Eliasson has described as “very alien,” is arranged around the statue of Persephone, the goddess of spring, in the Colonnade grove. “Persephone and the Colonnade have been cultivated, too, so it’s about the loss of nature,” the artist said at the exhibition’s press preview. The installation comes on the heels of Eliasson’s Ice Watch (2015), for which he installed giant boulders of ice in front of Paris’s Panthéon during the United Nations Climate Change Conference last November.
Elsewhere in the gardens, Eliasson’s Fog assembly (2016) emits clouds of mist, while Waterfall (2016) is a vast cascade of water falling from a construction crane at the basin of the Grand Canal, reminiscent of the four waterfalls the artist installed in New York’s East River in 2008. At Versailles, however, the crane is yellow steel, approximating the same tone of gold as the gardens’ Apollo Fountain. Unlike Anish Kapoor’s controversial Dirty Corner (2011), installed at Versailles last year, Eliasson’s trio of works fits more seamlessly into André Le Nôtre’s landscaped rows of tree-lined walkways. The artist’s works nonetheless require a shift in perspective, placing an unnatural spin on otherwise natural phenomena. “On the 21st of June, the sun will sink and the waterfall will obscure the sun—that’s why it has the height it has,” explained Eliasson of the towering work.
Within the Château de Versailles, Eliasson has installed a series of “subtle space interventions” using mirrors and light. The curious museum (2010), consisting of mirrors placed behind the windows of the Hercules Room, reflects the room’s arches back at the visitor, while, at the end of the Hall of Mirrors, the reflective triangle of Your sense of unity (2016)—bisected by a semi-circle—conjures a multiplicity of illuminated circles. The artist’s delicate approach continues with Solar compression (2016), a suspended mirror that rotates, slowly, one edge of it emanating orange light. It reflects the marquetry of the wooden floorboards and the fireplace in the King’s Guards’ Room. The subtlest piece, though, is The gaze of Versailles (2016), two gold balls—alluding to Eliasson’s reading glasses—placed on a window pane in the Lower Gallery, looking out over the gardens.
Eliasson’s atmospheric, immersive works, integrated into Versailles’s architecture, are intended to make the visitor question whether they are “consuming or producing the experience,” as he says, as well as putting a lens over climate change. His presentation, which is curated by former Centre Pompidou director Alfred Pacquement, has not upset any of Versailles’s traditionalists, who have bristled at the works installed by Kapoor, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami in the past. The ninth contemporary artist invited to present a solo show at the Château de Versailles since 2008, Eliasson has aligned himself more with Giuseppe Penone and Lee Ufan, whose outdoor exhibitions also cohered with the environment, bringing a subtle contemporary angle to it.
Eliasson has effectively made a respectful bow to the heritage of Versailles, using the platform to amplify his environmental concerns. “The works outdoors and indoors address the need to offer the opportunity for everyone to become an explorer, not just a king or queen,” Eliasson told viewers at the preview, his Little Sun solar lamp (produced for the 1.2 billion people worldwide without electricity) hanging around his neck.