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Conceptual art in hallowed halls

Monday, 4 October, 2010 - 20:29

Invariably, exhibits of contemporary abstract art in history-laden surroundings spark controversy. But in the world of modern merchandising, there's no such thing as bad buzz. Europe's latest trend is deciphered below.

Jean-Jacques Aillagon, director of the Palace of Versailles, has once again attracted attention and wrath. The exhibition devoted to pop artist Takashi Murakami (1) in the hallowed halls of the gilded palace was a magnet for the media. TV crews from all over the world crept through the Hall of Mirrors, studiously filming Murakami's exuberant fiberglass sculptures. The show was a hit, with all due respect to its detractors, who see the fusion as mongrelization. They went so far as to stage a protest at the palace gates, decrying the elitism of the approach.

"Let them eat art."

Aillagon, who served from '02 to '04 as President Chirac's Minister of Culture, is becoming known for this sort of event. In Septembre 2008, the Sun-King's royal dwelling hosted Jeff Koons, the pope of pop-kitsch. In case you haven't heard, this American's huge mirror-finish steel sculptures feature gaudy subjects like inflatable bunnies and toy dogs. Outrage was inevitable. And it made 1.1 million visitors curious enough to buy tickets: the exhibition was held over to accommodate them. French artist Xavier Veilhan followed in Koons's footsteps, creating works especially for exhibition in the palace.

In Amsterdam, in November 2008, British enfant terrible Damien Hirst brought one of his most controversial pieces to the Rijksmuseum. "For the Love of God" is a cast of a human skull, encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. One entire room of the museum was draped in black to serve as a showcase for the macabre jewel. As a commentary on death and vanity, Hirst's skull enabled the Rijksmuseum to make a foray into the world of contemporary art. But for the museum, it was also a course in successful marketing.
The museum's website hosted a forum where everyone could express his opinion freely. In six weeks, the show attracted 118,000 visitors – a 60% increase in ticket sales for the Rijksmuseum.

The ultimate in sophistication

Throughout Europe, administrators of historic monuments are inviting contemporary artists to be their guests. 16th-century Fontainebleau Castle recently encouraged twelve living artists to "reactivate its historical dimension." Since 2004, both the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre have sponsored programmes confronting contemporary artists with masterpieces from the past.
In 2005, French billionaire François Pinault purchased the splendid neo-classical Palazzo Grassi in Venice. He has turned the 18th-century pile into an exhibition hall for modern art, with an emphasis on his Post-Pop collection.
Pinault, who made his fortune in French retail and luxury brands, did not stop with only one Palazzo. At another magnificent site in Venice, the Punta della Dogana, he has financed a second museum of modern art. Built in the 16th century as a warehouse, the unique triangular structure, on the point of an island, has been renovated by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Europeans are still the world's ultimate sophisticates. Architectural treasures are so common here that we can easily afford to squander the space on contemporary art.
(1) "Murakami Versailles," from 14 September to 12 December 2010, in the Grands Appartements and Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles.