Unpacking Anish Kapoor’s Controversial, Captivating Show at Versailles

Anish Kapoor’s monumental sculpture Dirty Corner (2011-2015) was vandalized on Wednesday, June 17th. It is one of six existing works that the artist has installed at the Château de Versailles this summer. Hard to miss in the press over the past couple of weeks, this splendid piece has caused some consternation among extreme right-wing royalists. A few days before the opening, the French magazine JDD quoted Anish Kapoor as having dubbed the piece “the womb of the queen takes power,” which quickly became simply “the queen’s vagina” in the media. He later claimed that he was not responsible for the phrase, telling Le Figaro that the nickname was reductive and offensive. “To baptize Dirty Corner with a vulgar name ‘womb of the queen’ is a way to diminish my work,” he said, “to place art on the level of insults, to soil my piece and to associate it with offensive words.” He added, “the positive thing with this aggression is that it shows evidently the creative strength of an inanimate object.” 

But the polemics didn’t last, and, in large part, the acts of vandalism came as a shock, overshadowing what is ultimately a beautiful presentation of works. So, what to make of these six monumental installations? During a press conference for the exhibition, Kapoor suggested the right approach to his work was to measure it against its context—in this case the garden designed by André Le Nôtre. “It is an address of power,” he said. “What is our 21st century democratic sense of this place?... The idea of time in Le Nôtre is one that is eternal; where does decay come into the question? Of course, what I’ve done is to place works that turn the garden upside down. Underneath the façade, this surface, there is something more complex, maybe a little bit more dangerous, a little bit darker.”

By this measure, Dirty Corner could be read as a giant sinkhole set to absorb and deconsecrate all the extravagant opulence of Versailles, a counterpoint to its pristine white facade and horizontal lines. Resembling a large rusty trunk hollowed out by a gaping orifice and surrounded by excavated rocks, the piece is installed in the wide pathway leading up to the Château de Versailles, the so-called “Tapis Vert.” It suggests an apocalyptic ruin or the finds of an archaeological dig—and indeed, as its title insinuates, a female sexual organ. Nearer to the palace, two mirrors have been set up in front of the Château: C-Curve (2007) stands on the parvis and the round Sky Mirror (2013) sits a little further away, reflecting the sky above. They could be cosmic devices intended to measure the scale of the Le Nôtre’s garden. Descension (2014), a water vortex positioned in front of the biggest ornamental lake implies another sinkhole, juxtaposing the largess of Versailles with a void.

Kapoor’s Sectional Body preparing for Monadic Singularity invites us to explore the labyrinthine form of Le Nôtre’s gardens and the “trouble about rationality and perception,” as Kapoor suggested at the press preview. The surprising work, located in the path of the Bosquet de l’étoile, is hidden by rows of tree hedges. There, the enigmatic landscape art of Le Nôtre, whom Kapoor considers one of the world’s greatest artists, meets another unexpected work, a huge synthetic fabric red square, contrasting with the natural setting and stressing the gardens’ asymmetric sequencing. 

Finally, Kapoor has installed his popular piece Shooting in the Corner (2008-2009) in the room of the Jeu de Paume, located outside the Château de Versailles, next to Le serment du Jeu de Paume, le 20 juin 1789 (1791) by Jacques-Louis David, a symbolic painting of the French Revolution. Kapoor’s work consists of a phallic cannon that fires red wax into the corner of the space—what Kapoor has compared to “an ejaculation.” He has spoken of a dialogue between these cross-generational pieces that “questions precisely the act of painting, which is a violent process,” an entirely masculine gesture. 

Yet all of the outrage that these works have caused belies their relatively asexual demeanor. They are far from obscene. And, save Sectional Body preparing for Monadic Singularity (2015), all have been exhibited elsewhere before. About his decision to install Dirty Corner at Versailles, Kapoor said that his first thought “was that it should be dark,” and “in a landscape of lights, it brings a cave, a moment of  darkness.” Overlooking the problematic associations of the vagina as dark and cavernous, this work and the others on display at Versailles establish a series of powerful juxtapositions that amplify and answer back to the extraordinary, palatial forms of Marie-Antoinette’s famous abode. Kapoor matches the exterior surfaces of Versailles with the suggestion of internal spaces, culture with nature, and limitlessness with the artist’s signature form—the void. 

—Juliette Soulez

Anish Kapoor” is on view at the Château de Versailles, Jun. 9–Oct. 4, 2015.

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