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Olafur Eliasson bewitches the palace of Versailles


A tall, slender waterfall seems to fall from the sky, a garden looms with of fog, and in the center of the palace, a carpet of glacial residue surges to enchant the visitor’s experience.

Over the past 8 years, the palace of Versailles has hosted a series of exhibitions in which artists create a dialogue between their own work and the architecture of the iconic French castle. This summer it’s the turn of the admirable Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, best known for The Weather Project in which when he tamed the sun for insertion into an immense gallery at the Tate Modern in London. His is one of the most evocative and somatic interventions in the history of Versailles.

The presentation is divided into two parts, one of which takes place outdoors, among the gardens and bodies of water. A second is inside the imposing halls of the palace. In the Versailles gardens, the Scandinavian artist created three monumental pieces that make reference to the state of water and climate change. The first, titled Waterfall, is a huge cascade built over the Grand Canal, and which appears as a torrent of water falling directly from heaven.

This waterfall reinvigorates the engineering ingenuity of the past. It is as constructed as the court was, and I’ve left the construction open for all to see – a seemingly foreign element that expands the scope of human imagination.

The second part of the triptych, no less beautiful than the ghostly waterfall, is Fog Assembly, a circular frame which creates a misty landscape, enveloping visitors in a curtain of fog. The outdoor structure becomes a part of the manicured garden but in an ephemeral landscape where everything – trees and humans – are a specter that haunts the garden. “I use fog and water to amplify the feelings of impermanence and transformation,” Eliasson said.

In the center of the palace, in an area known as the Bosquet de la Colonnade, the third outdoor installation, Glacial Rock Flour Garden, represents water in its solid state. A carpet of glacial debris and sedimentary rock is marked with a maze of white and gray cracks, all surrounding the central arcade statue.

Within the palace, six more works are integrated, more subtly, into the architecture. These produce disorienting reflections of the space. Curator of the project, Alfred Pacquement, related that these works are designed to “challenge our vision of the world through projected light, kaleidoscopic views, mirrors, and complex geometric sculptures.”

The dialogue of the artist is not only with the architecture of the palace, but with the ideology of French King, Luis XIV, who designed gardens to be shown to visitors in a highly specific way. Recall that one great legacy of the Baroque is in its shameless attempts to influence. Having had no problem being highly manipulative (as with his visual effects), Eliasson delivers a clear message to the observer. He related:

The Versailles that I have been dreaming up is a place that empowers everyone. It invites visitors to take control of the authorship of their experience instead of simply consuming and being dazzled by the grandeur.

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