Site Specifics: Anish Kapoor at Versailles 2015

06/10/2015 07:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

Anish Kapoor, Sky Mirror, 2013. Courtesy Kapoor Studio, Kamel Mennour and Lisson Gallery. Photo: Tadzio.

The descriptor "site-specific" is often invoked when describing Anish Kapoor's monumental installation works. According to the Tate's online glossary of art terms, for a work of art to be considered "site-specific," it is not only "designed specifically for a particular location," in that its shape and form would conform to the measurements and specifications of the site, but also that "if removed from the location it would lose all or a substantial part of its meaning." So what does it mean, then, that several of the works chosen by Anish Kapoor to exhibit in the gardens of the Chateau de Versailles had been designed, site-specifically, for completely different locations?

Anish Kapoor at Versailles. Photo: Tadzio.

Dirty Corner (2011-2015), the controversial installation that has grabbed international headlines in advance of Kapoor's Versailles exhibition opening, is in fact composed from a site-specific installation originally built for the Fabbrica del Vapore in Milan in 2011. There, Dirty Corner was installed throughout the expanse of an industrial warehouse space, its 60 meters of Cor-Ten steel comprising a long passageway, plunging the viewer into complete darkness as they traversed its length, while an apparatus slowly deposited some 160 cubic meters of soil over the steel hull over the course of the exhibition. At Versailles, the steel tube is situated on the tapis vert, the "green carpet" that spreads out between the palace and the Grand Canal, with the mouth of the passageway facing the palace. Rather than the fine red soil that gradually accumulated over the structure at the Milanese factory, at Versailles, Kapoor has covered sections of the steel tube with large, jagged boulders and heaps of earth, some of this detritus painted blood-red. In the context of Versailles, Dirty Corner becomes a completely different work, with starkly different meanings, than the one that inhabited the industrial interior of the factory in Milan. In this case, then, this site-specific work was removed from the site for which it was originally designed, and in its transplantation to a different site takes on additional possible interpretations and more complex meanings.

Anish Kapoor, Dirty Corner, 2011-2015. Courtesy Lisson Gallery, Galleria Massimo Minini, Galleria Continua, Kamel Mennour and Kapoor Studio. Photo: Fabrice Seixas.

Dirty Corner should offend because it disrupts the divine symmetry of the gardens of Versailles with a chaotic ruin of scarred earth and rough stone. Instead, it aroused controversy because of a comment the artist made in an interview, suggesting that the sculpture could be interpreted as "the vagina of the queen taking power." It's unfortunate that so many people have so readily latched onto this image of the "vagina," to the exclusion of the many other possible interpretations one could impose onto this monumental sculpture. Certainly, a deep dark tunnel into the earth has vaginal qualities, but to think of Dirty Corner only as such is a grave underestimation, and buries the nuances that this work invites from its new context. The sculpture subverts the tourist's expectations of what Versailles represents, this emblem of aristocratic magnificence, and raises the question of Versailles' bloody history, from its hurried construction, high in monetary and human cost, to the bloody Reign of Terror that followed its fall as the center of French governance. A site like Versailles, so loaded with its history of opulence and turbulence, invests Kapoor's sculptures with a whole range of new content and meaning.

Anish Kapoor, Descension, 2014. Courtesy Kapoor Studio and Kamel Mennour. Photo: Fabrice Seixas.

Just beyond Dirty Corner, situated between the Apollo Fountain and the Grand Canal, a vortex of water swirls to unknown depths. This work, entitled Descension (2014), was originally a site-specific installation at this year's Kochi-Muziris Biennial. In the salt-sprayed room at Fort Kochi, overlooking the water, the churning black hole opened suddenly underfoot -- a deep, dark, mysterious pit, like an anomaly in the fabric of space and time. At the head of Versailles' Grand Canal, on the other hand, Descension widens into a vast pool -- the viewer kept at a safe distance from its thundering gyre -- and it appears more like the inverse of one of the many fountains on the regal garden's grounds than an abupt wormhole through space-time. (There is another version of the piece currently on view at Galleria Continua's San Gimignano space in Italy.) Each iteration will of course have its own site-specific constraints, particularly for a work requiring such feats of engineering as this one, and will look slightly different in each environment. But does its meaning change with each new context? Can this formless, perpetually swirling void ever be truly site-specific? Or is it a work of art that is so formless, to the point that it can signify any number of different ideas -- the forces of nature, the abyss of history, the cyclical nature of time -- no matter its location?

Anish Kapoor, Shooting into the Corner, 2008-2009. Courtesy Kapoor Studio. Photo: Tadzio.

Kapoor's Shooting the Corner (2008-09) makes no claim to site-specificity, but at Versailles the historical context weighs heavily upon the gesture -- a cannon shooting balls of red waxy pigment into a corner of a wall has a very different impact when it is housed in the Salle du Jeu de Paume, where France's constitutional democracy was founded in 1789, as compared to the Royal Academy in London, or any of the other art museums where it has been exhibited previously. The violence of the cannon, the blood red color of the pigment, the sheer quantity of its accumulation in the corner of the room, here seems to be less about the struggle of making art, instead making some kind of statement about the struggle of democracy. Kapoor's Sky Mirror (2013) and C-Curve (2007), too, become invested with more import by the site reflected in their mirrored surfaces; in the context of Louis XIV's Hall of Mirrors, which overlooks the grand perspective where these two works are situated, Kapoor's mirror works gain a political and historical aspect they might not sustain in other situations.

Anish Kapoor, Sectional Body preparing for Monadic Singularity, 2015. Courtesy Kapoor Studio, Kamel Mennour and Lisson Gallery. Photo: Fabrice Seixas.

Sectional Body Preparing for Monadic Singularity (2015) is the only work made especially for the Versailles exhibition, though it is not explicitly site-specific. A modular cube, the work seems to reference Kapoor's immensely popular installation for Paris' Grand Palais in 2011, Leviathan, with its duality between inside and outside, its red color, the PVC seams stretching through the interior. Appearing like a jewel box, set in a grove off to the side, it doesn't seem to absorb the same contextual richness afforded the other works by the site of Versailles. Its title, too, is confounding: how can something comprised of many sections become a monad, the "first being," something indivisible, totally absolute?

Anish Kapoor, C-Curve, 2007. Courtesy Kapoor Studio, Kamel Mennour and Lisson Gallery. Photo: Tadzio.

In many ways, Kapoor's work is in struggle with the absolute. His sculptures imitate perfect forms yet invite multiple readings, dependent on context, site, and surroundings. "Meaning isn't in the object, meaning comes to be in the object," he says. His works -- in simple yet grand gestures, reflective surfaces, deep chasms -- are often like empty vessels, invested with meaning by what comes in contact with them, their surroundings and context. And at Versailles, once the seat of grand power, what a spectacular context.

--Natalie Hegert