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Anish Kapoor & The ‘Queen’s Vagina’: Controversy at the Palace of Versailles

Posted by
on June 25, 2015 at 01:59 PM

© Courtesy of Internet Sources

Indo-British artist Anish Kapoor was invited to display his sculptures in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. The exhibition, open to public from the 9th of June, is set against the Baroque opulence of the 17th century palace (home to the last French king, Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette) and the formal gardens designed by Andre Le Notre, the 17th century landscape architect. There are totally six installations in this exhibition by Anish Kapoor; of which five are outdoor and one indoors, in the Salle du Jeu de Paume museum. The exhibits include some characteristically provocative ones, appalling for many viewers. A 70-metre metal sculpture Dirty Corner, dubbed ‘the queen’s vagina’, was defaced with yellow paint last week. Kapoor thinks that the sculpture was targeted as a result of 'right-wing intolerance'. The ruling Socialist Party has released a comment on the incident, saying it is “unacceptable that art, the compass of freedom, suffer because of the obscurantism of some people.” This morning's papers have carried the latest comment from the artist; a true master-stroke in which he wonders whether not cleaning the work will be a fitting retort! Making Dirty Corner dirtier through public participation?! Well, read on to know more about the iconic sculptor and the latest controversy around his works on display in France!!

What is it that makes a work of art controversial? Does nudity seem more outrageous; or an affront to our religious beliefs? Do phallic symbols shock us more or are explicit references to issues of sexuality considered more taboo? Why do we need to whisper about plain biological/physiological facts such as puberty and periods? Does immorality hurt our sensibilities or does political impropriety offend us more? Why is a divorced woman made to feel socially ostracized? Why is it ‘wrong’ to be gay? Many such issues are raised in the world of art and design – intentionally or otherwise – by artists in the course of their creative journey. 

Are artists condemned just because they dare to challenge the pre-set notions and norms of society? Are they targeted because they dare to tread the paths that others shun? Or as cynics say, is it a publicity-stunt for notching up their careers and financial worth? Are they only seeking to generate the hype that only a controversy brings?? To stay in the news, perhaps? Or to attract a million more visitors to see the work? The latest controversy raging on the international art scene is about an installation on the grounds of the palace of Versailles, by the much acclaimed Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor. 

Widely known for his magnificent outdoor sculptures, such as Cloud Gate, the public sculpture that is the centerpiece of AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois or the 376ft Arcelor Mittal Orbit London Olympic tower in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – Kapoor’s overwhelmingly grandiose public sculptures are tourist attractions in many cities including New York, London, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Delhi!  However, a strong sense of sensuality remains at the core of Kapoor’s work. Kapoor’s latest Dirty Corner – the 60-metre (200-foot) long, 10-metre (33-foot) high steel-and-rock abstract sculpture he supposedly referred to as "queen's vagina" in the stately grounds of the Palace of Versailles – has sparked an uproar in France, and the world over! The abstract installation resembles a funnel in the form of an orifice, and is set up in the garden aimed directly at the royal chateau. A part of an exhibition of his work in the grounds of the 17th century palace, the controversy-courting artist has been quoted as saying that it was meant to be “blatantly sexual -- and regal”. 

Invited to display his sculptures in the palace gardens from June to October 2015, Kapoor’s work was always expected to depict a more political perspective on power. As Catherine Pegard, President of the Palace of Versailles puts it: “For Anish Kapoor, a work of art doesn’t exist alone but through its viewer. The visitor at Versailles will witness the dualities of artist’s work: heaven and earth, visible and invisible, inside and outside, shadow and light… This universe can be read through experience and imagination. The originality of this exhibition, what makes it unique, even to those who have long been familiar with Kapoor’s work around the world, is that in Versailles his vision meets an imagination set in stone by history. The very controlled landscape of Versailles is drawn into instability. The grounds become uncertain and moving. Waters swirl. Romantic ruins take hold of the Tapis Vert. Exposed interior orifices are hidden within the garden’s labyrinths. The mirrors that are so central to Versailles now distort it. This world is perhaps about to tip over. It is not by chance that Anish Kapoor was the first to push open the door to the Jeu de Paume, which he considers as a work of art in itself, to exhibit his installation. Anish Kapoor draws us into a hidden history, within the boundaries of Versailles.”

Set against the Baroque opulence of the palace architecture by Louis XVI and the immaculate gardens, Kapoor has installed ‘Dirty Corner’ -  a massive steel funnel with limbs of broken stone that the artist described in one French publication as “le vagin de la reine qui prend le pouvoir”, roughly translated as ‘the vagina of the queen taking power’. Kapoor's piece is thought to refer to France’s 18th Century queen,  Marie Antoinette - the wife of Louis XVI famed for telling starving peasants in France '...if they don't have bread, let them eat cake'.  Tonnes of earth has been dug up, with the red stones amidst it and this long tubular metal structure with a funnel-shaped opening directly faces the palace.

However, whether Kapoor’s work - or rather his allusion to Dirty Corner as the "Queen's Vagina" was expected to raise a furore – is anybody’s guess. The sight of the steel vulva and splayed rocks and its suggestive connotations of sex organs has not appealed to all; and might have shocked certain sensibilities a bit much. In an unfortunate case of intolerance of an artist’s right to express himself, the installation has been defaced, sprayed with yellow paint! “Damage to the work Dirty Corner, was discovered last Wednesday morning,” the estate’s management said. “It was lightly sprayed with paint. The work is being cleaned.”

Though the artist has since tried to clarify what he meant, he is not apologetic about using abstract allusions to sexuality or genitalia! A troubled childhood, an identity crisis, uprooting from the homeland are some of the issues that have troubled him in his growing-up years. He admits to being intrigued by the interiors of the body, too... “Inevitably, one comes across the body, our bodies and a certain level of sexuality. But it (the sculpture) is certainly not the only thing it is about.” Again, art is all about references. The artist absorbs the world around him and draws on events. people, places, memories - in his journey to produce art. Dirty Corner is one of a series of six installations; five in the gardens and one inside the Salle Salle Jeu de Paume. This is also the first time any artist has worked inside the Salle du Jeu de Paume museum and Kapoor has used it to house his iconic live installation Shooting into a Corner of blood-red wax blocks being fired from a cannon – with the blocks blasting on the pure white walls resembling blood and guts! Symbolic, of the wars and fight for democracy witnessed by the building itself… But even the violence depicted in this installation has sexual overtones; it alludes to the phallus and ejaculation of blood.


With the controversial Dirty Corner in the centre of the gardens, the other four sculptures are strategically located amidst the meticulously landscaped lawns, starting with C-Curve and Sky Mirror, then Sectional Body Preparing for Monastic Singularity in the Star Grove, and Descension beyond. The overall theme of the show dwells on contradictions in human life and mind. Quoting the artist from an interview in Forbes, "The first work is C-Curve, which is a mirror running down the sun’s axis. And there’s something about Versailles which is about mirrors and not just the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) inside the château, but the gardens themselves have a mirror-like quality in their geometry, they reflect each other, the water basins are also like mirrors. Putting in a mirror is just obvious, but the first one in C-Curve turns things upside down." 


The artist continues, "the next one Sky Mirror brings the sky down to the ground, which is a contradiction. I’m interested in the contradiction, the idea that what you see isn’t quite what you think you see. And then of course, there is Dirty Corner, which is dark."

Sectional Body Preparing for Monastic Singularity is a wondrous red cube hidden from view, in the Star Grove. “It is out of the way, and when you stumble upon it at the end of a path it’s there in a wide-open field, vulnerable. I also like the field because it’s completely different to the rest of the gardens, here it’s the field that’s organic, it’s not so prim and proper as the rest.”

Further down into the sequence is the last sculpture Descension, the vortex. It is mysterious and intriguing. The water swirling in a constant pattern, accompanied by the quirky sounds creates a powerful scene. “It is grumbling and angry coming from the centre of the Earth. You can hear it, you can feel it.”

Though diverse in material and manifestation, in colours and contours, there is indeed a thread of conceptual continuity running throughout the installations. It is a narrative process – from mirrors to darkness, to descent. All exhibits by Kapoor interact with the surrounding environment – as art in public spaces is wont to – but in Versailles they get into a whole new, complex system of interrelations and cross-references between earth, sky and water; nature and architecture; past and present; mind and life; visible and invisible. The humongous scale of the installations is intimidating, perplexing too; as they magnetically attract a viewer into their aura. Brimming with sexuality, expressing a dilemma between confidence and confusion, liberation and limitation – an interplay of forms and voids, inside and outside, darkness and light, male and female, right and wrong, is what Anish Kapoor's work is all about!

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