The gardens of Versailles are notorious for their order and meticulous landscape architecture.
This order is the preeminent feature of the design of landscape architect Andre Le Notre. It is the same architect who in 1667 laid out the Champs-Elysee and its gardens.
In the midst of all this order, today there is an element of chaos: “Amish Kapoor’s “Dirty Corner”.
Amish Kapoor is a British-Indian sculptor, who has been invited to exhibit his art in the Versailles gardens. Kapoor is not the first to exhibit his works in Versailles. The first artist who exhibited was the American artist Jeff Koons, back in 2008. Before that, there had only once previously been a temporary exhibition at Versailles, one of 18th century furniture.
Among the works exhibited by Kapoor in Versailles is “Dirty Corner”.
To get an idea of the impact of the installation on the gardens, lets have a look at how the gardens looked before Kapoor installed “Dirty Corner”. Everything is in the “right” place. But what is the “Dirty Corner”?
Dirty Corner is a 2011 work by Amish Kapoor, made of Cor-Ten steel, earth and mixed media. Its dimensions are 8.9×6.55×60m. The work was first exhibited in Fabbrica del Vapore, Milan, Italy. “… the sculptural work consists of a huge steel volume that measures 60 metres long and 8 metres high in which visitors can enter. upon entry, one begins to lose their perception of space, as it gets progressively darker and darker until there is no light, forcing one to use their other senses to guide them through the space. The entrance of the tunnel is goblet-shaped, featuring an interior and exterior surface that is circular, making minimal contact with the ground. over the course of the exhibition, the work will be progressively covered by some 160 cubic metres of red soil by a large mechanical device, forming a sharp mountain of dirt in which the tunnel appears to be running through.” (2)
My first encounter with a massive steel sculpture was in Guggenheim Bilbao, where I experienced Richard Sera’s “The Matter of Time”. I recount the experience because these massive works engulf the spectator and create unique multidimensional experiences. Walking through the sculpture is an unforgettable physical experience.
I imagine “Dirty Corner” is also fascinating to walk into it and through it.
In an interview to Stephanie Belpêche, special correspondent of “Le Journal du Dimanche”, Kapoor said: “My work has no decorative purpose. I want to engage with the work of Le Nôtre, who ordered nature for eternity with perfect geometric perspectives. … I had the idea to upset the balance and invite chaos.” (3)
“It’s very shocking!” an elderly Frenchwoman cries as she interrupts her promenade down the main axis of the Gardens of Versailles to point out a massive boulder, spray-painted a florid red. (1)
So far so good.
But in the same interview, Kapoor dropped a bomb: “Facing the castle, there will be a mysterious sculpture of rusted steel 10 meters high (my remark: he refers to the Dirty Corner, weighing thousands of tons of stones and blocks all around. Again sexual nature: the vagina of the Queen who took power.” (3)
After this provocative statement, “Dirty Corner” in Versailles was no longer just about the almost “neutral” issue of chaos versus order, to be addressed over a cup of afternoon tea, it became a matter of royalty, gender politics, and sex.
Quite obviously, one is led to conclude that Kapoor in addition to being a great artist, he is also a great marketeer.
So, quite naturally, after he dropped the “vagina” bomb, he retracted his statement in a BBC interview:
“A work has multiple interpretive possibilities,” he said.
“Inevitably, one comes across the body, our bodies and a certain level of sexuality. But it is certainly not the only thing it is about.” (4)
Hmmmm…. nice try but not very convincing.
Michele Hanson, an author and Guardian columnist, wrote on the 8 June 2015:
“…And it’s meant to be Marie Antoinette’s vagina. I know the queen had her faults, but it’s a very odd vagina – a vast, brutish, metal, grubby-looking, gaping funnel into a black hole. I must say I’m a bit fed up with this sort of idea of a vagina… We’ve had vagina dinner plates, vagina flowers, vagina canoes and even an “origin of the world” vagina. Now here comes a fellow who still thinks vaginas are big “dirty”, dark, wide open holes.” (5)
The artist responded angrily on Wednesday, 10 June 2015.
“Your columnist Michele Hanson has got completely the wrong end of the stick (A certain age, 9 June). My work at Versailles is called Dirty Corner and has nothing to do with Marie Antoinette or her vagina. Perhaps it would be good for Ms Hanson to use her eyes when looking at art, not her ears.” (6)
I agree with Ms. Hanson. I do not see the point of the artist associating “Dirty Corner” with a vagina at this stage of the work’s life. If “Dirty Corner” were associated in Mr. Kapoor’s mind with a vagina, he should have said so when he installed the work in Milan, back in 2011. Doing it now, can only be attributed to an effective marketing and publicity ploy.
Of course there is another explanation. That Mr. Kapoor just made a mistake and has subsequently tried to recover from it. This is a distinct possibility, but not a credible one, because of the way Mr. Kapoor reacted to Ms. Hanson’s comment. Had he genuinely made a mistake, he should have acknowledged it and make a statement to that effect. Instead, he castigated Ms. Hanson for not narrow-mindedness!
Going back to the work itself, I must say that I like it, and I prefer the chaos versus order paradigm to the “Queen’s genitalia”. Sadly, the “vagina” association propagated by Mr. Kapoor in my eyes had the opposite effect. It distracted all attention from the work to a “forced and directed interpretation”. Something that goes against any notion of the liberating impact of art.
(1) The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2015
(2) “Amish Kapoor, Dirty Corner“, designboom, june 2, 2011
(3) “Amish Kapoor invites chaos in Versailles”, Le Journal du Dimanche, 31 May 2015
(4) Sculptor Anish Kapoor defends Versailles ‘vagina’ artwork, BBC, 5 June 2015
(5) Michele Hanson, Artists have done vaginas to death – will someone please tell Anish Kapoor, The Guardian, 8 June 2015
(6) Kapoor: Dirty Corner has no vagina in sight, The Guardian, 10 June 2015