In 2008 the Palace of Versailles instituted a somewhat controversial contemporary art program. The first woman to exhibit is Joana Vasconcelos, born in Paris and working in Lisbon. The Bride is one of her most famous works, although this not exhibited at Versailles. Taking the form of an 18th-century candelabra, it is made entirely of white tampons. Vasconcelos is inclined to see Marie Antoinette as a women’s lib heroine. “She is no longer the wife of the king, but a political woman, executed for that reason. Her execution was one of the first steps towards female emancipation. Without her, I wouldn’t be here,” she says. Seen above in the 1830 Room is the Lilicoptère, a Bell-47 helicopter, which she has decorated with glass studs and ostrich feathers. But why ostriches? “Because Marie Antoinette loved them and bred them in the gardens of the chateau to decorate her hats,” she says. To me, those are the little details that help bring the Palace of Versailles alive.
A contemporary art museum, on the whole, strives to provide a neutral space for the viewing and contemplation of artwork without any interference or distraction. Versailles is the antithesis of a neutral space. Not only is the interior and exterior of the palace saturated with people, visual movement and constant textural noise, but the rich historical significance of the Palace is everywhere. The piece shown above is “Marilyn (PA)”, a mammoth-scale pair of high-heeled sandals constructed from the repeated arrangement of stainless steel pans and lids. The placement in the Hall of Mirrors is pretty obvious.
The “Coração Independente” (Independent Heart) is a sculpture made of plastic cutlery that reproduces Portuguese filigree technique. Filigree is a technique of working gold and silver that dates from about 3000 BC, and was introduced in Portugal during the Middle Ages by the Moors. The reappropriation of everyday objects which she transforms using inventive and unexpected techniques produce hybrid objects that are intelligent, feminine and definitely Portuguese.
So, do I like the art of Joana Vasconcelos and did it work at the Palace of Versailles? The answer on both points is an emphatic yes. I would definitely like to see more of her work in the future, it is funny, thought provoking art with a fairly broad range of materials, perspectives and pieces. She is not the “one trick pony” of the 2005 Venice Biennale in which she used handmade lace to envelope her sculptures although I love them and she retains that approach in Gardes. Her work is witty with a point of view and I find myself drawn into it, wanting to go back to look at the pieces, unlike some of the pop or surrealist artists of the past.
I like her gentle conception of “women’s art”. Ask a man to depict women and they will draw a woman, often nude or a woman at work like perhaps Vermeer’s Lacemaker, which seems appropriate here. Joana Vasconcelos takes it one level further and depicts the trappings of feminity in a new and beautiful way. Men are much more literal than women, no matter how lovely the result. Here we have a more subtle and thought provoking artist, building in layers from common objects to the final amazing piece. I personally find the Coração Independente beautiful, feminine and unbelievably sexy.
Did it work at Versailles? The answer in my mind is yes. The tight integration of the art with Versailles is apparent with the wig next to the bed of Marie Antoinette, the giant shoes in the hall of mirrors and maybe most of all, the brightly colored valkeries floating above the hall of battles. Charles le Brun created an interior that was state of the art for its time, but I think he would consider art from Joana Vasconcelos if he were decorating today. As a museum, Versailles could use some strategic lighting, better staging, better placards and even more contemporary art. We really need more artists like Joana Vasconcelos to waken the nuances of history with art. In her own words:
My work has developed around the idea that the world is an opera, and Versailles embodies the operatic and aesthetic ideal that inspires me. The works that I propose exist for this place. I see them as linked to Versailles in a timeless way. When I stroll through the rooms of the Palace and its Gardens, I feel the energy of a setting that gravitates between reality and dreams, the everyday and magic, the festive and the tragic. I can still hear the echo of the footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, and the music and festive ambiance of the stately rooms. How would the life of Versailles look if this exuberant and grandiose universe was transferred to our period?