Certainly the most controversial exhibition shaping the Parisian cultural landscape this autumn is Murakami Versailles, probably one of the most unexpected juxtapositions of contemporary art and a historical site seen during the last years: the playful, manga – inspired and so decidedly Far East looking art works of the Japanese artist and otaku king Takashi Murakami are hosted by the vast, cold, overwhelming and hardly welcoming rooms of the Versailles Palace.
As it was to be expected, the idea of such a show stirred controversy, since many considered it inappropriate for the rather solemn and historically charged venue of the former royal residence turned into prestigious museum. Petitioners who opposed the event were more than 11000 and some tens of people even protested in front on the palace’s gates trying to stop the exhibition from being opened. Charles – Emmanuel de Bourbon – Parma, a descendant of the French dynastic family of the Bourbons filed a lawsuit with the same intent (lawsuit which he unsurprisingly lost, as was the case also, two years before, when he attempted to prevent the Jeff Koons exhibition from being installed at Versailles). Accuses of pornography (not stopped by the clear announcement by the organizers that no sexually explicit art works by Murakami would feature in the exhibition), of degrading cultural heritage, of mocking one of France’s most cherished and famous symbols for the sake of media attention, of betraying the museum’s true mission etc. were quite vigorously launched in the weeks preceding the opening. None of these deterred either the 48 years Japanese art star or Jean – Jacques Aillagon, president of the Établissement public du musée et du domaine national de Versailles and so the exhibition opened as scheduled on the 14th of September. It comprises twenty two works, displayed in no less than fifteen of the palace’s salons and in its garden (namely, a monumental piece of sculpture placed on the Water Parterre). According to the artist, half of the art works were created especially for the exhibition, which intends to establish a meaningful dialogue, both in visual and in conceptual terms, with the environment in which they were going to be presented.
Welcoming the viewers in the water parterre, a monumental figure, called Oval Buddha, is placed in a vantage point above the vast gardens of Versailles. Made out of bronze and covered in gold leaf, the work exemplifies coherently some of the most important and frequently encountered characteristics of Murakami’s art: a mix of references to tradition and manga – style upgrading of that tradition, the use of ambivalence (the Buddha …, like many others of his “characters”, presents a smiley face on one side and a menacing appearance on the other), playfulness and a tendency to carelessly and joyfully border kitsch. Though it is not a site specific work in the true sense of the concept, its golden surface (that ironically makes reference, for me, at least, to the monumental golden gate of the château, probably the most neurotically and pointlessly luxurious element of the monumental venue) and monumental sizes, its placement between the baroque sculptures in the parterre and the nonchalance with which it dominates the surroundings generate a tensed, yet meaningful relation with the site.
Establishing such a relationship, such a dynamic dialogue is, I believe, essential for the whole exhibition and unfortunately Murakami’s works in the Versailles salons hardly succeed in coherently sustaining this dialogue, in reflecting on and in challenging its viewer to reflect on the relationships between the historical and the contemporary, between the fascination of power and the desire to mock its epitomes, between frivolity and the spectacular, even between the sacred and the profane. Within Versailles, the Japanese artist performs once more what one might coin as his usual “peaceful invasion”. The space he is getting in contact with becomes a conquered territory, its look, dynamics and atmosphere being brutally altered. Yet, the viewer can hardly perceive the sheer aggressiveness of the intervention, since the attack is performed by such innocent looking, viewer (i. e. consumer) friendly and cheerfully coloured “soldiers” as dollish looking boys and girls, dozens of (smiling) flowers, jellyfish eyes or colourful mushrooms. However, much too often in the case of Murakami Versailles, the invasion looks pointless, that is the same as to say that the exhibition seems almost conceptually gratuitous. Many of his work seem unable to really dialogue with their unexpected environment or to do more than just disrupt its cold, overwhelming and majestic atmosphere. The feeling is less that you are walking through Alice’s Wonderland than that Wonderland has been scattered all over the château with no clear purpose in mind.

Especially the human (or almost human) figures made out of fibreglass and plastic and covered exuberantly with acrylic paint appear rather abashed in the luxurious setting of the salons. Thus, childish characters as Saki or Tatsuya (a delicate, really corny, yet charmingly shy little girl, probably one of the best works in the show) are touchingly funny, yet they hardly blend into the environment or critically challenge it. Murakami’s caricature – type self-portrait with his dog (Pom and Me) presents us with the artist’s figure having his mouth wide open and the right arm pointed forward, as if he was asking the person facing him to stop in his / her tracks. The sculpture is funny and friendly and it shows that Murakami is capable of self – irony, but after the smile fades off your face, you probably wouldn’t give the work much thought. Miss Ko2 is a typical Murakami style teenager girl, exaggeratedly sexualized, but is far from attaining the same poignancy as his iconic Hiropon (also made in 1997, unfortunately not present in the show, where I believe it could have made much more sense than many other displayed works).
Moving from people to flowers, so to speak, the viewer reaches the former room of the king’s guards, which has been intensely restaged by Murakami. The floor is covered by a carpet full of laughing flowers. Some three quarters of the longest wall in the room is covered by wallpaper – like painting representing a lot of laughing flowers. Finally, two lamps ensure the lighting of the space: two spheres made out of plastic looking laughing flowers. It is probably impossible not to feel good and appeased in such an environment; withholding a childish smile is equally unattainable. And I’d love to loosen up in a chill out club styled like this. Still, after leaving the room, certain dissatisfaction arises, because, even if it is absolutely ok for an artwork to be funny, genuinely pleasant and spectacular in a simple way, shouldn’t it also be at least a bit challenging and problematic? Drawing a parallel to Arcimboldo is hard to resist and that’s not really flattering for the Japanese artist.
All these do not mean that there are no art works in the show that are quite compelling and that also function better in the difficult context they’ve been placed, proving Takashi Murakami to be more than just a media made art star, showing that he is a genuinely inventive, visually convincing artist that masters an extraordinary imaginative power. I’ve already mentioned the golden, monumental Oval Buddha in the courtyard. A smaller version of the work, cast in silver, is displayed inside the palace. It is a truly beautiful piece of sculpture, with its morphologic exuberance being subtly tamed by the elegance of its surface. The small Oval Buddha also relevantly communicates with its environment in a provocative way: its silvery elegance seems to fit in perfectly, while its shape makes it coherently stand out in the opulent salon. Given all that, it was a real pity that the way the work was displayed made it impossible for the viewer to circle around it, to see what must have been the menacing reverse of the calmly smiling face welcoming the spectator. (By the way, there were several other display mistakes: some other sculptures were impossible to see from all angles, the minimum distance one had to keep from some of the works was just a little too big, in my opinion, just big enough to become annoying).
One of the most impressive works in Murakami Versailles is Flower Matango (d), adequately installed in the famous Hall of Mirrors. The rather large sized sculpture is made out of fibreglass and iron, again painted in oil and acryl. The name Matango is a direct reference to the eponym movie directed by Ishiro Honda, famous among the tokusatsu movies fans. It denominates both the evil fungi, affected by radioactivity, that transform people in monstrous creatures and the creatures themselves. Murakami’s Matango however is composed of two balls of flowers placed one on top of the other, from which branches carrying more flowers are generated. It takes a closer, more careful look for one to notice the menacing elements disturbing this atavistically grown, cheerful floral Godzilla, namely the hysterically colourful thorns on the branches. Flower Matango (d) is about typical Murakami topics: the nature and its potential destruction by men, monumentalizing popular culture’s items, the difficult relationship between irony and beauty. Displayed toward one end of the Hall of Mirrors, the work reveals its full visual power, managing to eerily disturb and even dominate the lastingly fancy and slightly tedious royal salon. Thus, it poignantly epitomizes cultural tension, born out of the reciprocal incomprehensiveness of two civilizations and it reveals the relationship between contemporary art and the historical venue as problematic and challenging. In other words, it does what the whole show is trying to do, yet it so often fails achieving.
Among the most provocative works on display there was Emperor’s New Clothes – a rather small size piece of sculpture representing a ridiculously looking, short and fat royal figure, with a ludicrous moustache and a tiny deep red crown on his head. The work is ironic indeed, though its irony is not necessarily a subtle one and it is somewhat gratuitous. I can certainly understand why some might find inadequate to display the work in the rooms of Versailles, especially in the Coronation room, where David’s Le Sacré, his Distribution of Eagles and Gros’ Battle of Aboukir, all of them glorifying Napoleon’s era and his great deeds, are looking down at Murakami’s insolent intervention. On the other hand, I believe this is one of the best situations that Murakami has created within the palace, for it raises, or it should raise awareness about the paradoxes and turbulent evolution of Versailles. Thus, it is hardly attainable that placing his sculpture in the palace could ever be more offensive to a dynastical past than placing here the paintings of a regicide (David) who took part in the killing of a rightful owner of Versailles and ruler the French kingdom (king Louis XVI), paintings which, all the more, flatter and glorify an unlawfully crowned emperor (Bonaparte). Seen in that perspective, Murakami’s work can be genuinely challenging, not just visually amusing, but also intellectually exciting.

Finally, for an overall assessment of the exhibition, one could use as starting point the words of Laurent le Bon, the show’s curator and director of Centre Pompidou – Metz, who wrote about its aims: “Through sensual pleasures, the walk, a new labyrinth of Versailles, has the purpose of both distracting and entertaining the walker, beyond the clichés”. All in all, probably for anyone with a true interest in or love for contemporary art, the walk along the Murakami Versailles indeed offers, I believe, the opportunity of getting pleasantly distracted, entertained, even somewhat surprised. I do have serious doubts however that the show is able to get anyone, in anyway, beyond the clichés. To achieve that reflection is definitely necessary and Murakami’s show offers rather rare moments when the walker is truly invited or incited to reflect. Still, maybe the show at Versailles did reveal in the end something essential about his art, namely that, as spectacular and funny as it might be, as strong and versatile is the imagination some of his artistic production is based upon, it often gets dangerously closed to being redundant and conceptually void.

Photos by Anamaria Tomiuc