After Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, the latest contemporary artist to exhibit within the gilded interiors and manicured ground of the Chateau de Versailles is Joana Vasconcelos. As an artist who is most famous for a chandelier made entirely of 25,000 tampons – a version of which she was banned from installing in the former home of Louis XVI – the decision is as controversial as ever to traditionalists who complain that humorous, pop-influenced conceptual art has no place within such as a historic monument. But Jean-Francois Chougnet, the curator of the exhibition, disagrees: “Contemporary art is meant to be found everywhere, so that we constantly engage in a dialogue between past and present,” he says. The Portuguese artist herself goes even further, remarking of Versailles that, “It is the ideal setting for celebrating audacity, experimentation and freedom, where creative talent is appreciated like in no other place.”

While there are no tampons in the show, there are pots and pans in the famous Hall of Mirrors that are fashioned into a giant pair of high heeled shoes titled “Marilyn” – a work that references women’s desire for a Marilyn Monroe lifestyle and the reality of what might be expected of them at home. Elsewhere, embroidered fabric is made into sculptures of shrimp that cling to a dining table, a melange of wigs sit next to the queen’s bed and a golden helicopter has blades made of pink ostrich feathers. “Many of the pieces can be seen as exploring the opposition of masculine and feminine,” Chougnet told The Art Newspaper. “It’s an interesting effect seen throughout Versailles in the mirrored symmetrical division of the Grande Appartements, with the King’s wing and the Queen’s wing, which Vasconcelos is playing on.”

More than simply feminist or political, Vasconcelos says her Versailles exhibition, “evokes the presence of the important female figures that have lived here,” and, “draws on my identity and my experience as a Portuguese woman born in France.” It’s fun and engaging but does it belong at Versailles? In what is now an annual debate, the jury is, as ever, still out.

June 19 – September 30, 2012

Mary Poppins, 2010
Escalier Gabriel [Gabriel staircase]

Visitors are greeted at the Gabriel Staircase by Mary Poppins, a vast tentacular body created
from the unlikely combination of pre-existing, industrially made fabrics and objects with
handmade textiles. The piece belongs to the Valkyries series, which the visitor will encounter again in the Gallery of Battles, where three textile works are suspended. Huge and colourful, Mary Poppins’ central body launches six protective arms. As with other works of the same series, Mary Poppins exuberantly uses a variety of ornaments and different textures in order to create its unexpected organic forms. This strange chandelierlike creature hangs from the ceiling, contrasting with the crisp neoclassicism of its surroundings.

Mary Poppins – an angel of modern day popular culture – ultimately refers to the genius loci of this location, architect Ange Jacques Gabriel, who designed the eponymous staircase. Among the profane and the sacred, visitors will initiate the tour of the Palace under the unexpected protection of St. Gabriel the Archangel and Mary Poppins.

Coração Independente Vermelho [Red Independent Heart], 2005
Salon de la Paix [Peace Room]

Coração Independente Preto [Black Independent Heart], 2006
Salon de la Guerre [War Room]

Red and Black Independent Heart are hung from the ceiling on either side of the Hall of Mirrors; the former, in the Peace Salon; the latter, in the War Salon. The works take the form of two monumental “Viana” hearts, the iconic Portuguese piece of jewellery, one red and the other black, colours symbolic of death and passion, war and peace. Suspended from their respective axes, the two hearts rotate, evoking the cycles of life and the eternal return. As they approach these glistening Hearts, visitors discover that they are entirely composed of plastic cutlery in a dizzying trompe l’oeil that recalls the virtuosity of the masters of the Grand Siècle. Suspended from their respective axes, the two hearts rotate, evoking the cycles of life and the eternal return.

The works found their title – Coração Independente – in a verse of “Estranha Forma de Vida”
[Strange Way of Life], a fado song whose lyrics invoke the conflict between emotion and reason. The strong presence of musical referents in the installation, through the voice of Portuguese music diva Amália Rodrigues1 as well as the musical instruments represented in the Peace Salon, recalls the concerts given by Marie Leszczynska in the Peace Salon and the important role they played in the musical life of Versailles.

A poignant installation of sound and movement, Independent Heart is a powerful diptych
dedicated to passion and death (recurring themes in fado lyrics), which intersect and dialogue with the themes of peace and war, present in the eloquent paintings of Charles Le Brun and François Le Moyne.

Marilyn (AP), 2011
Galerie des Glaces [Hall of Mirrors]

The Hall of Mirrors, where sumptuous ceremonies and important events in the history of France were staged, hosts Marilyn, an elegant pair of high-heeled sandals, whose enlarged scale results from the repeated use of stainless steel saucepans and lids.

Verging toward gigantism, this accumulation creates a Gulliver effect, making the work stand
in this vast hall as an ode of women’s achievements both in the public and private spheres. The stainless steel in Marilyn – as resistant as the armours of the warriors who fought in the Dutch War (1672-1678) and in the War of Devolution (1667-1668), Charles Le Brun’s subject matters for his ceiling paintings and medallions – and the mirrors that decorate the arcade combine in a disconcerting play of reflections, multiplying the space on the gleaming surfaces of both the work and the room.

Positioned on the south end of the Hall of Mirrors, the monumental pair of court shoes refers the visitor to the accomplishments of the absent female figure, as grandiose as the glories celebrated by Louis XIV through the paintings of Le Brun, now reflected on Marilyn’s cold metallic surface.

Perruque, 2012
Chambre de la Reine [The Queen’s Bedchamber]

Unexpectedly although harmoniously integrated into the décor of the Queen’s Bedchamber,
where Marie Leszczinska’s and Marie-Antoinette’s decorative tastes can still be observed,
Perruque proposes a delirious oval shape made of vinhatico, sprouting a web of artificial hair.
A reminiscence of Portuguese and French furniture styles, Perruque is decorated with fine inlays and gilt metal inlay and appliques. Inspired by the exuberance of the hairstyles once flaunted in Versailles, this strange cocoon – vaguely evocative of Fabergé eggs – alludes to the births of the nineteen infants (including Louis XV and Louis XVI) that took place in this bedchamber.

With its eccentric conical protuberances sprouting tresses of blond hair that give it the unexpected look of a giant candy floss, Perruque proposes the absurd and the surreal in the uterine shape of a grotesque yet seductive sculpture-wig-piece of furniture.

Gardes, 2012
Salle des Gardes de la Reine [The Queen’s Guardroom]

On the morning of 6th October 1789, the revolutionary crowd invaded the Queen’s Guardroom. Before being struck down, one of the guards managed to open the door of the antechamber and shout « Sauvez la Reine! » (Save the Queen!). The same room, profusely decorated with marble and loaded with references to absolute power – from Noël Coypel’s paintings dedicated to Jupiter, the great god of the Roman Pantheon, to the bust of the Roman emperor Vespasian – displays, side by side like sentries on a porch, two proud
lions as symbols of patriarchal power. Their robust bodies sculpted in precious Port Laurent
marble sit on their respective plinths, ambiguously protected/imprisoned by a second skin of
white crochet, a traditionally feminine handicraft technique.

These lions entrapped in crochet refer to power. By artfully manipulating opposites – masculine & feminine, power & subservience, strength & fragility, robustness & delicacy, imprisonment & protection and solar & lunar – the Gardes reject any idea of gender inequality and assert themselves as the loyal keepers of women’s accomplishments.

Royal Valkyrie, 2012
Golden Valkyrie, 2012
Valquíria Enxoval [Valkyrie Trousseau], 2009
Battle Gallery

Flying over the monumental Gallery of Battles, where Louis-Philippe I intended to stage
‘a grand overview’ of France’s military history from Tolbiac (496) to Wagram (1809), Joana
Vasconcelos’ majestic Valkyries appear to seek, in the thirty five paintings covering the gallery walls, the bravest and most valiant warriors among those killed in combat. They might even bring them back to life”, like the warrior deities of Norse mythology which have inspired their titles. Suspended from the vaulted ceiling, the enormous and unusual textile bodies of Royal Valkyrie, Golden Valkyrie and Valkyrie Trousseau employ traditionally feminine handicraft techniques and combine them with industrially made materials.

Gloriously gravitating in space, the three works enbody different universes and heterogenous
realities. Royal Valkyrie revisits and reinterprets the palatial fashion of Versailles by displaying
the luxury and the exuberance of floral brocades. Playing on the themes of wealth and false
appearance, Golden Valkyrie evokes gold, the most precious metal, bringing together the shine of lavish gold fabrics with vulgar industrially made textiles. Valquíria Enxoval points to rural aesthetics, exhibiting colours, motifs and techniques that are traditionally from Nisa, a small village in the Portuguese countryside renowned for the richness of its arts and crafts.
The three exuberant and voluminous Valkyries confront the military theme of the Battles
Gallery and its Apollonian, rational and symmetrical organization with the Dionysian
paradigm, the indiscipline of textures and the strangeness of the formless, imposing on the
space the power of hedonism and sensualism of costumes.

Lilicoptère, 2012
Salle 1830 [The 1830 Room]

The 1830 Room hosts Lilicoptère, a work whose approach to the aesthetic universe of Versailles is both disconcerting and fantastic. A helicopter, covered in gold leaf and decorated with thousands of rhinestones, has the outer surface of the cockpit as well as its blades suddenly invaded by an extravagant and colourful coat of ostrich feathers dyed in salmon, pink and orange hues. The small circular opening at the front of the cockpit reveals a sumptuous interior, featuring carved wooden surfaces, gilt decoration and embroidered tapestries. This anachronistic microcosm is simultaneously a timemachine that transports the French Queen into the contemporary world.

Lilicoptère makes use of the rich, glamorous and daring aesthetics of the late Ancien Régime to suggest not only the metamorphosis of machine into animal, but also the return to the origins and to the inspiration that led Man to realise his dream of flying.

Vitrail, 2012
Escalier de la Reine [Queen’s Staircase]

A large-scale tapestry full of warm textures, Vitrail fills up one of the archways in the Queen’s
Staircase, introducing a successful contrast with the cold marble surfaces. Profane or sacred, the ambiances created with stained glass acquire a particular spirituality, as light pierces through the coloured glass. The visual possibilities of the Portalegre stitch –
which owes its name to the Portuguese city of the Upper Alentejo region, where the work was laboriously and patiently manufactured – demonstrated by the accurate interpretation of the original drawing and colours, confer on the tapestry an effect resembling stained glass.
Culminating in a low arch, the composition functions as an open porthole towards a cheerful,
dynamic and mystical world. The turmoil of freely intersecting shapes and lines is paired with
the drawing’s vibrant colours, creating a real feast of light, colour and movement.

Le Dauphin et La Dauphine, 2012
Antichambre du Grand Couvert [Antechamber of the Great Dining Hall]

In ‘Le Dauphin et La Dauphine’, two enormous ceramic lobsters, appear to be awaiting the monarchs’ arrival at the Antechamber of the Grand Couvert, where the royal meal is to be served. The ‘grand couvert’ will be a public event. Face to face and sensually bedecked with crochet, Le Dauphin et La Dauphine admire one another as if they were lovers. The couple, undisturbed by the turmoil of the war scenes decorating the ceiling of the room, demonstrates that sexual desire and gastronomy go hand in hand, as Dali did in his famous Lobster Telephone,. Le Dauphin et La Dauphine prolong the series of works based on a limited group of earthenware animals designed by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, one of the most highly regarded Portuguese artists of the 19th century. The gigantic bodies of Le Dauphin et La Dauphine, wrapped in delicate crochet meshes, challenge the usual meanings that circulate between high culture, tradition and modernity.

Blue Champagne, 2012
Parterre d’Eau [Water Garden]

Blue Champagne, a monumental work comprising two vertical twin structures which results
from the accumulation of thousands of champagne bottles lit from inside, stands on both sides of the two rectangular lakes of the Parterre d’Eau, which stretch in front of the terrace.
While respecting the symmetry of the architectural programme of Versailles, the two structures introduce a verticality that contrasts with the immense horizontal lines of both the Palace and the gardens . Visible from inside the Hall of Mirrors, the two elements subvert the domestic scale of the referenced objects – candlestick holders or bottle racks – with their shape and architectural dimension resembling the flamboyant verticality of the Late Gothic.
Heir to some of the main aesthetic values of the ready-made, nouveau réalisme and
postmodernism, Blue Champagne evokes the pleasures of the table – a theme which is also
present in the statuary positioned in front of the central building – and the processes of national identification associated with gastronomy3. The confrontation with Marcel Duchamp’s first ready-made – Porte-bouteilles (1914) – is openly declared, in a strategy that, in the vast territory of art history, questions the timelessness of aesthetic values and the human behavioural principles.

Pavillon de Vin, 2011
Pavillon de Thé, 2012
Parterre du Midi [The South Garden]

Installed side by side, two enormous wrought iron structures adopt the shapes of a demijohn
(Pavillon de Vin) and a teapot (Pavillon de Thé), marking their monumental presence in the
northern entrance to the path that intersects the Parterre du Midi.

Faithful to the representation of opposites, omnipresent in the decorative and architectural
programme of Versailles4, the works emerge as representations of man (Pavillon de Vin) and woman (Pavillon de Thé). In these iron arabesques one recognises the typical patterns of fences and balcony railings. The wrought iron, a material that is simultaneously functional and decorative, becomes structural in the construction of objects whose domesticity is denied by the amplification of their usual scales.

Forming genuine arbours, these sculptures were conceived to accommodate plants when
permanently installed: vines in Pavillon de Vin and jasmine in Pavillon de Thé, that trail up the structures in a harmonious blend of industry and nature. Pavillon de Vin and Pavillon de Thé challenge and enchant, transferring everyday life’s programmed routines into a world that is strange yet, at the same time, familiar. Pavillon de Vin and Pavillon de Thé challenge and enchant, transferring everyday life’s programmed routines into a world that is strange yet, at the same time, strangely familiar.