As with nearly every other spot on the ever expanding tourist map, Versailles is a place no longer to be beheld, still less to be awed by, or disgusted by–depending on the strength go one’s constitution, and the romance attached to her sense of history–but a place to be captured, recorded, digitized, and filed: less under the heading I was here, than under veni vidi, vici.
It is not a matter of course, though perhaps it is not surprising to hear the Versailles defies such capture, if not by its opulence, which can be rendered through a pictorial study of it’s minutiae, but by its sheer size. Even 1300 frames of similarly-proportioned gilt chambers do not convey the monstrosity, the monotony even, of winding through its miles of royal residence. Still, ten million visitors every year try, and if the mob on the day of my visit is indicative, 95% do not remove their eyes from the viewfinders of their handheld recording devices.
Versailles is an interesting place because for all its attempts at intimidation–it was a state headquarters designed in large part to reign in rogue nobles–it is surprisingly un-monumental. For all its marble and gold, it is surprisingly homey; cute even. Given all this, Bernard Venet is a pretty smart choice as this year’s artist-in-residence to display on the grounds. Unlike the Jeff Koons exhibit last year, which was, as always, an awful, tacky, and wierd-ly perfect sprinkling of the proverbial confettii (life is a cabaret!), Venet’s work seeks first to understand and then to participant in that enormity.
Aesthetic intimidation isn’t much a tactic the modern mind is overwhelmed by anymore…seeing the Sun-king on a gold horse at the entry of the gates feels kind of royal, but not exactly impressive, still less god-like, or sublime. Venet has gone about his project in a smart way then, by re-interpreting the scale of Versailles in standards that still provoke: if 1300 rooms in a row doesn’t make the jaw drop, 1300 tons of unfinished steel still can. A rusted arch large enough to cradle a suburban house says something about scale that was once conveyed by two enclosed stories in stone. In the age of the discount skyscraper, no one thinks “wow!” when confronted with the spectacle of a three story building, no matter how much gold tops the fence without, but set in the lens of Venet’s concentric arches, piled up in corners of the gardens like Valhallan horseshoes, one shivers with the original excess thinking at once, all that weight, all that waste, what’s the point and wow, which is what you’re supposed to have been saying all along.