Contemporary artist brings monumental work to Versailles
By MARY WINSTON NICKLIN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: June 15, 2016
The original plans for Versailles, the magnificent 17th-century palace situated about 12 miles southwest of Paris, included a waterfall in the garden. But merely building the Grand Canal that runs through the grounds proved to be a major feat of engineering. To create a cascade proved impossible.
Now, more than 300 years after Louis XIV (the Sun King) transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a glorious symbol of French power, artist Olafur Eliasson — famed for the “New York City Waterfalls” (2008) — is, in his own words, “making the impossible possible.”
On June 7, Versailles unveiled a large-scale exhibition of Eliasson’s contemporary art, including a waterfall. Following the likes of Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor, Eliasson is the latest artist to take over the estate with art installations — a buzz-generating annual event that invites visitors to see the chateau in a new way.
The Danish-Icelandic Eliasson is a star of the contemporary art world. His creative laboratory, the Berlin-based Studio Olafur Eliasson, employs a 90-person team of artists, art historians, technicians, architects and even cooks. The resulting artwork evokes existential questions and elicits emotional responses.
When Eliasson replicated a setting sun in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (“The Weather Project,” 2003, London), visitors became active participants in the art installation: lying on the floor, spelling out words with their bodies, creating a human peace sign.
“A cultural institution became a forum — a place to meet, to collaborate, even to have conflict,” Eliasson explained at a recent news briefing in Paris. During the U.N. climate conference in Paris late last year, Eliasson installed icebergs from Greenland in front of the Pantheon. Twelve blocks of ice were arranged in the shape of a clock. As the 15,000-year-old ice
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melted into the cobblestones, curious passers-by would stop to press their palms or place an ear against the blue-tinged blocks to listen to the crackling sounds.
In a similar way, Eliasson aims to emphasize the contemporary importance of the historic chateau that looms large in imaginations around the world.
Shortly after the Paris terror attacks in November, the French government used Versailles as the setting to declare an official state of emergency. “There was a contemporary feeling of Versailles being active today,” Eliasson recalled.
Today the palace welcomes 7.5 million annual visitors. Eliasson’s art exhibition explores the notion of the visitor experience in this public space, playing with ideas of perception.
“Have we all become king?” Eliasson asked. In the chateau, mirrors and light create optical illusions, raising the question: Who is the subject, who is the object?
“I’ve attempted to make Versailles look at you, rather than you look at Versailles,” Eliasson said. “My work is also very ephemeral,” he elaborated. “It’s only there when you actively engage.”
It’s in the gardens where three water-themed oeuvres invite visitors to experience H2O in the three forms. Created with a crane and a pump, Eliasson’s waterfall is erected along the central axis of the Grand Canal, clearly visible from the terraces and inside the chateau. In the Bosquet de l’Etoile (the star grove), visitors can disappear into a ring of mist and experience the tangibility of water in vapor form. Lastly, the Bosquet de la Colonnade (the grove of the colonnade) is covered in a carpet of glacier dust from the same icebergs used in “Ice Watch.” Moraine is what’s left behind when glaciers recede.
“With such a high density of minerals, this beautiful, crystalline powder acts like a fertilizer,” explained Eliasson. “It symbolizes the end of the glacier, but also the beginning of new life.”
To Eliasson, Versailles is “a labyrinth of secrets.
“I was inspired by becoming an explorer in this incredible place — going behind closed doors, into the bedrooms, the corridors. . . . This exploring: Is it a way to escape or to connect? I wanted to work with an idea that Versailles is actually traveling, traversing the centuries — through the Revolution, through the constitutions — up until today, when it’s still an active house.”
With Paris as a base, Versailles makes a fun day trip. It’s just 30 minutes by RER train from the Eiffel Tower. I returned to Versailles on a recent weekend with my family. On this visit, we didn’t even set foot inside the chateau. We set off to explore the gardens. Louis XIV used to hold boating parties on the canal, and on this hot day, visitors also splashed around in boats. There were families and couples and singles, old and young, everyone aware of the others in this storied palace that’s become a playground for the people.
We turned down tree-lined paths, paused in groves and took silly selfies in front of serious-faced statues. The domain is so enormous you could spend days wandering its corners.
We hiked to the Grand Trianon — we didn’t think to rent an electric golf cart! — which was built for Louis XIV as an escape from the strict codes of the court. In Marie Antoinette’s hamlet of thatched-roof cottages, we stopped at the farm to check out the rabbits, pigs and prized chickens with funky plumage.
Tucked away behind the Grand Trianon, there’s a private vegetable garden called the Jardin de la Reine. During World War I, the French army used this plot to feed troops. (Seedlings were shipped to the Western Front to be replanted.)
Today, everything is cultivated by hand without pesticides, destined for Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Hotel Plaza Athenee in Paris. Ducasse will open a restaurant inside Versailles this year. Ore — Latin for “mouth” — will be situated in the Pavillon Dufour, newly renovated by architect Dominique Perrault to house a striking welcome center. (The visitor entrance opened in March, but the full works, including an auditorium, will debut later in the year.)
Ore will have a casual dining component, alongside a wow-worthy private dining experience at night.
“These Versailles soirees will replicate the same food as the royal court. If the king magically appeared, he’d dine in the same splendor — with the same menu — as in 1715,” Ducasse explained recently.
The artist Eliasson also focuses much of his energy on environmental sustainability and is a great admirer of Ducasse. What’s more, he has a vegetarian cookbook coming out, with a forward by Alice Waters, featuring recipes served in communal-style meals at his Berlin studio.
And close to the center of the Versailles gardens, there’s a fountain (the Bassin de Ceres) with a statue of the Roman goddess of the harvest. “It’s an incredible coincidence,” Eliasson says. “But then, there’s never coincidence!”
Contemporary artist brings monumental work to Versailles