The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami meets Louis XIV at a spectacular – and controversial – exhibition at Château de Versailles. The artist explains his work as we showcase the manga-like sculptures surrounded by baroque opulence.
"Takashi Murakami’s works are joyous and Versailles is a palace destined for happiness, joy, and merriment," says the Château’s director, Jean Jacques Aillagon, of the exhibition of the Japanese artist’s work which opened last week. Responding to the criticism of his decision to invite Murakami to exhibit his manga-like sculptures and flower prints within the 17th-century palace, he commented: “I find it very pleasant when an exhibition sparks debate, but not when it turns to controversy. Debate is grounded in intelligence and reason, controversy is grounded in excessive passion, prejudice, and contempt.”
The latest in a series of shows of contemporary art at Versailles – including Jeff Koons in 2008 and Xavier Veilhan in 2009 – Takashi Murakami at Versailles features the artist’s signature resin cartoon-esque sculptures as well as a video animation and a flower-emblazoned carpet, which are dotted throughout the chateau’s grand salons. In the Galerie des Glaces, Murakami’s Flower Matango stands proud at the end of a hall of magnificent chandeliers. In the Salon d’Hercule, the head of his largescale work Tongari-Kun appears to merge with the painted fresco ceiling. And outside, the all-gold Oval Buddha surveys the Versailles gardens.
While conservative critics and, as they did on the opening day, the tour guides, might criticise such provocative work being displayed in such a historic location, it is difficult to deny that the opulent sculptures don’t look at home in the baroque surroundings. Of the 22 artworks, 11 were created specifically for Versailles and Murakami responded intelligently to the space. "I discovered the Sun King’s emblematic presence everywhere, through the golden coloring,” said Murakami of the several visits he made to Versailles before he began work on the new pieces. “I wanted this to echo into my work, which is why certain pieces are covered in gold leaf, among them the 'Oval Buddha' in the garden."
The placement of the artworks within the chateau is also highly considered. With the exception of two pieces, Murakami’s work was installed by the show’s curator, Laurent Le Bon, who, in a foreword to the exhibition, writes of “(re)discovering a space” and “a new labyrinth of Versailles.” Le Bon cleverly played with the grand proportions of the salons, sometimes filling a room with one large artwork, while in other instances placing pieces in a sea of emptiness. Murakami remarked that he personally chose the position of Superflat Flowers, a sculpture of just that which is placed in the in front a window overlooking the gardens.
Unsurprisingly, Murakami’s most risqué works are missing from the Versailles show. At the press conference held at the chateau, much was made of the significance of penis sizes on his sculptures, a conversation that is unlikely to take place when the exhibition moves to Doha, Qatar, next year.
The Versailles show is partly funded by the Qatar Museums Authority and Murakami’s Parisian dealer Emmanuel Perrotin has commented that, “The Qatari show will be bigger, it will be a different concept, and shown in a splendid building”.
“My main theme is that of the social monster,” offered Murakami as an explanation of his sometimes misunderstood work. “It so happens that this monster could take on an erotic appearance. But I don’t want my authorship of those works to lock me into an 'erotica' category. I’m just a very normal artist."
“For Japanese, myself included, the Château de Versailles is one of the great symbols in Western history. It is emblematic of an elegance, sophistication, and artistic ambition that most of us could only dream of.
We understand, of course, that the fuse that sparked the fires of revolution led right through the center of the building.
But in many ways, it all comes across as a fantastic tale from a kingdom far, far away. Just as the people of France might find it difficult to recreate in their minds an accurate image of the ages of the Samurai, so too does the story of the palace become one that is, for us, diluted of reality.
Thus, it is likely that the Versailles of my imagination is one that my mind has exaggerated and transformed until it has become a kind of surreal world of its own.
It is this that I have tried to capture in this exhibition.
I am The Cheshire Cat who greets Alice in Wonderland with his devilish grin, and chatters on as she wander around the Château.
With my playful smile, I invite you all to he Wonderland of Versailles.”
- Takashi Murakami
Seleted quotes by Murakami:
“When it was announced two years ago that I would be doing this exhibition, I first discovered the Sun King’s emblematic presence everywhere in Versailles. I also noticed the importance of the golden coloring. I wanted this to echo into my work, which is why certain pieces are covered in golden leaf, among them the “Oval Buddha” in the garden. I think it is maybe at this level that there is the most interesting connection between my world and the Sun King’s; his universe and my universe. I wanted to install three giant sculptures in the garden but life forced me to include only one. It is necessary to take into account that conception and realization are playing very important roles in this heritage.”
“Fortunately, it is the curator who took into account the original use of the rooms, the space and its different characteristics in order to decide the placement of my artworks, except for two works that I have placed myself. The first was a return to the flowers theme that I have called “Superflat Flowers” and the other is the Majokko Princess that I wanted to restore in its original version. Majokkois a word which is composed of ‘majo’ which means witch and ‘ko’ which means child, so Majoko is the little witch.”
“What I would like to offer to my audience, the visitors of Versailles, is part of my experience of this exhibition. It’s a confrontation that I hope will create a shock, an aesthetic feeling. I think this especially about one work which is called Flower Matango. Next to this work we can find a suit of armour and we have the impression that my work is a mutation of the steel armour.”