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Portuguese Artist Joana Vasconcelos Makes Versailles her Playground

Paris - How to rip off tourists certainly is an art in itself, and the French are its undisputed masters.

If by accident you visit Versailles on a Tuesday in July or August, you will pay additional 7,50 € only to enter the gardens, which otherwise costs nothing at all. The reason for this is called "Musical Gardens", meaning: they installed some loudspeakers here and there to play classical melodies. Ok, sure, this justifies the entry fee, I mean if it were real musicians, ok, those cost nothing at all, but loudspeakers and CDs, that are real investments needing to be refinanced these days...

The good thing is that the majority of Joana Vasconcelos' exhibition is to be found in the Chateau (after three hours waiting in burning heat or freezing rain, the weather now changes daily), and you can catch a glimpse of the four monumental works outside through one of many windows.

The Portuguese artist continues the summer tradition of contemporary art exhibited on the historical grounds. The underlying idea is to create a dialogue between different arts, between past and present, and maybe even between different audiences. In fact the word dialogue itself can have different meanings.

I admit that two years ago I really appreciated Takashi Murakami's works in this context. They challenged the honourable marble busts, the silver goblets and golden - no, not showers but: bathtubs, the royal canopy beds etc. It was like the invasion of one comic world into another, not less unreal one. And whereas Versailles' splendour was meant dead serious by its royal constructors, Murakami's creatures unfolded a highly entertaining subversive side. And Murakami creates democratic art, sugar for the uneducated masses, thus he really added something new to the location's elitist spirit.

Vasconcelos on the other hand does not understand "dialogue" in the sense of a discussion, the exchange of contrary positions, but follows the royal credo: "Everybody is free to express MY opinion".

Where Murakami delivered the cake the starving people should eat in lack of bread according to the historic phrase of Marie Antoinette - his comic aliens acting like curious revolutionaries who throw a party after the guillotines have done their work - Vasconcelos peacefully sits down at the royal table to join the banquet. And the artist is a true bonvivant, no doubt would she have enjoyed the court's highlife, you literally see her dancing through the opulent chambers screaming how fabulous everything is. And I cannot be mad with here for that, the ancient rulers surely knew how to party. Vasconcelos shares their tastes, and creates works in the same aesthetic spirit as beautiful 18th century furniture and tableware - the original Bling Bling attitude, representin', man.

In the gardens two huge blue candle holders made out of empty champagne bottles rise from the Chateau's large bird pools, next to a wine carafe and a teapot made from garden fence. Might get rusty if you consider buying it for your private collection, but you could plant some ivy to climb it. On the inside we find stainless steel high heels, really high heels: 2.9m (9.5ft).

If you just sighed, "wow", you are a woman.

If you then turned around to ask your hubby if he already thought about your birthday, you are a lucky one.

The artist calls the work a "symbol of womanhood". Ok, and cowboy boots are masculine; guess I already knew that.

Next to the queen's bed Vasconcelos put a wig holder with several scalps on it. But you should not suspect some critics on the despots' bloodlust, it is rather a practical object (or did she mix up monarchs? Are you familiar with those nasty stories about Catherine the Great of Russia, who is said to have entertained as eccentric as intimate relationships with horses? These wigs could well be horses' tails.)

The fluffy pink helicopter Vasconcelos landed in the Chateau could become next summer's must-have object among "Rubiwis" ("RUssian BIllionaire's WIves).

Despite all feminism little girls still want to be the princess and boys the revolutionary who beheads her father, and the artist is no exception. Refusing to grow up, Petra Pan also added some toys Margarethe Steiff could not have dreamt better, if your heir does not yet like lobster just give him or her these to desensitize. Vasconcelos regularly lets some fluffy creations invade art galleries and other exhibition spaces to take us back to our childhood. So cute.

Now I really don't want to criticize her, she perfectly succeeds in capturing the place's spirit. If France were still a monarchy (officially), its royals would surround themselves with objects like these.

The new person in charge for the Chateau lately announced her intention to reduce the contemporary art events, which would be a pity. Joana Vasconcelos - who has still been chosen by the former director - proves that it is possible to revisit a national heritage without contesting it, Versailles only preserved as frozen 18th century would definitely be less fun.

Joana Vasconcelos. Versailles, Grand Apartments and the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, France. June 19th - September 30th



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