The tradition with which contemporary art invades Versailles once a year appears to remain unchanged under the new director. Jean-Jacques Aillagon's exit from the scene and the arrival of Catherine Pégard coincide with an exhibition that exudes femininity by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, and seems to announce the unravelling of the spectacular politics of the Sarkozy years, which saw a succession of exhibitions at the palace by Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, with a sacrificial interlude by Xavier Vehilan. The French artist was decidedly tripped up, despite the clear conceptual course at the altar of the aesthetics of bling.
The highly efficient new direction might be a legacy of the old Republican president, but is nevertheless under the flag of Francois Pinault's great rule, which does not concede a moment of respite in the writing of immobile chapters of contemporary history, but offers glimmers of a new socialist course. The remix-installation by Joana Vasconcelos, internationally renown for her comically surreal work in crochet, is a carbon copy of what was shown in Venice but with a less obsessive pace. The consequent diverse relationship between the works and the surrounding collection becomes evident in the journey, which has been retraced with the same form, but greater in its stage direction, than that normally reserved for the franchised spaces of globalised art tourism. The quantitative relationship between works of art and existing collection proves to be successful and less aggressive than usual.
We begin with the splendid rococo setting of the Hercules Salon, which the accomplished decorator of the most glamorous of contemporary spaces has left empty. There — where in previous editions of Art in the Palace the priapism of Koons and Murakami led them to play their biggest and shiniest aces, the enormous Balloon Dog and Kaikai Ki — Vasconcelos' absence proves to be a winning one. Here the guiding principle becomes that heart that "vive de forma perdida" ["lives in an imprudent, passionate way"], as sung by Amália Rodrigues in Estranha forma de vida, which plays continuously in the War room.
Vasconcelos works with the rooms at the palace with a varied and melancholic harmony and subtle humour of materials, like a modern Madame de Polignac, the sad and faithful lady-in-waiting of Marie Antoinette. She uses the same strategy to invade the palace: deploying traces of perfumes constructed on bizarre notes, interwoven by feminine hands, operating in previously unused spaces. The Gallery of Battles — the useless catalogue of lost moves and national glory usually hurried through by bored school groups —, becomes a kind of found material, a storehouse of paintings in which to place three of Vasconcelos' warlike 2009 Valkyries. This is a dear series for the artist, in which the gold hues now take on a truly special site-specific meaning. At the centre of the space, the Valkyrie frames the entrance of a Maid of Orleans, more mystic than belligerent, and the gestures of the painting by Henry Scheffer take on an almost Guernica-esque light with the Latin warmth of the fabrics that hang from the ceiling.
Inside the royal apartments, all the works draw and expand on the backdrop's rocaille. Here, the richness of the Versailles collections allows for several photo opportunities, but also reinforce the existence and indestructibility of Vasconcelos' art, which is parasitical and competes with mass cultural tourism. However, with some of the artist's works, something unexpected occurs. In the case of Independent Heart (Black) (2006) and Independent Heart (Red) (2005) — both made from re-shaped plastic cutlery and taking on the archetypal form of pendants for Lusitanian brides — both the ordinariness of the material and their disposition, in the Salon of Peace and Salon of War, vent a domestic spleen which refers more to the belligerence of a couple in a dinette than a royal apartment, or in places where justice and ruling on a planetary scale were administered.
In the Hall of Mirrors, the Marilyn PA shoes and their vertiginous high heels add the perfect gloss, a monument despite its decidedly poor placement. The shoes cannot compete with the frugal beauty of the beautiful cupcake Petit Gateau, a small and pivotal piece of a delicious installation that is currently at Paris' Gulbenkian Foundation. Both pieces have already been seen in Joana Vasconcelos's exhibition for the Monaco Project for the Arts at Monte Carlo's Pavillon Bosio.
The teapot and carafe, two stands in wrought iron that the artist has put up in the garden above the Orangerie, are successful stand-alone pieces that take the exhibition into the gardens. However, the two helical, bottle-filled Blue Champagne sculptures work only in conjunction with the water in the pools before them; without it, they are decidedly useless. All in all, in times of recession and with a real helicopter covered in ostrich feathers parked in the royal apartments, Joana Vasconcelos is ready to evacuate Versailles, leaving in the Queen's bedroom the Perruque assembly of wigs, playfully subverting the testosterone of her previous editions' male colleagues. Ivo Bonacorsi
Through 30 September 2012
Palace of Versailles, Versailles