PARIS — The Château of Versailles is currently showing the work of Joana Vasconcelos in an extraordinary exhibition boasting an imaginative and fantastic array of hand-sewn sculptures and marble statues sheathed in embroidery. One sculpture was rejected by Versailles, and its absence registers profoundly: "La Mariée" ("The Bride") is a superb and irreverent feminist chandelier made of 25,000 tampons. Despite its absence, Vasconcelos still places women squarely at the center of Versailles history.
True to form, the very conservative organization Coordination de la Défense de Versailles has attacked the exhibition, as happened previously when the works of Jeff Koons were shown in the palace in 2008 and those of Takashi Murakami in 2010. Baron Roland de l'Espée wrote on the group's blog that "it's the turn of Joana Vasconcelos, the queen of Tampax, pots and pans, and other ridiculous utensils, to mock women and to soil our most prestigious heritage." The artist has kept her distance from such attacks, saying that she is not afraid of polemics, and that they are unavoidable in contemporary art.
Happily, the exhibition drowns out reactionary criticism with riotous and unpredictable installations. "Coeur Indépendant" ("Independent Heart"), installed in the Salon de la Guerre, or War Parlor, is made of black plastic cutlery, and is accompanied by Portuguese fado music playing in the background. The piece features several disparate thematic pairings: artifacts of everyday domestic life set to the tune of traditional Portuguese music; Arte Povera blended with Pop Art; and eating likened to warfare. "The world changed in this very place, from the monarchy to the republic," Vasconcelos told ARTINFO France during our visit.
In the Galerie des Glaces or Hall of Mirrors, a pair of huge high-heeled shoes made of pots and pans titled "Marilyn" forms an amusing, domestic reflection of the room's many mirrors. These monumental and magnificent shoes speak to the condition of women, torn between the myth of Marilyn Monroe and the expectations of household labor. The way Vasconcelos plays with size recalls "Alice in Wonderland," especially with her "Pavillon de Vin" ("Wine Pavilion") and "Pavillon de Thé" ("Tea Pavilion") in the palace gardens, a giant bottle and a giant teapot that seem to call out, "Drink me!"
The queen's bedroom has been outfitted with "Perruque" ("Wig"), one of the new works Vasconcelos created especially for the Versailles show. This spherical wooden sculpture is covered with spikes from which bunches of multi-colored hair protrude. Installed right next to the queen's bed, it resembles a sort of contemporary totem. "I'm evoking all the women who lived here," Vasconcelos said.
The artist engages with the palace's history in a gently mocking tone, as with the giant cloth shrimp that are posed for dinner at the royal dining table, or the two marble lions she covered with lace, resulting in a hybrid of a Pop Art object and 18th-century Rococo style ornamentation. Vasconcelos has placed her three "Valkryies" in the Galerie des Batailles, or Hall of Battles. The central Valkyrie is enormous, golden, and baroquely exuberant. The three sculptures make their artisanal manufacture self-evident in the tangle of balls and tentacles that stretches out into the space. With titles that recall Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" opera, the sculptures' unusual bric-a-brac shapes can be seen as a critique of the authoritarian and pompous world of the composer. The kitschy "Lilicoptère" — a golden helicopter with huge ostrich feathers for blades — is both a phantasmagoria and a satire of aristocratic decadence.
Vasconcelos rethinks Versailles with whimsy and abundance, creating an unusual artistic universe that can't be pigeonholed. Handmade and post-modern, her work also manages to be feminist, political, and fun.
This article also appears on ARTINFO France.