TAKASHI MURAKAMI, The Emperor’s New Clothes, 2005, fiberglass, resin, iron, wood, fabrics, oil paint, acrylic, lacquer, 189 × 109 × 102 cm. Photo by Cedric Delsaux – The Coronation Room / Château de Versailles. © 2005 Takashi Murakami / Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

TAKASHI MURAKAMI, Flower Matango, 2001–06, fiberglass, iron, oil and acrylic paint, 315 × 204.7 × 263 cm. Photo by Cedric Delsaux – The Hall of Mirrors / Château de Versailles. ©2001–06 Takashi Murakami / Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Murakami Versailles

Takashi Murakami

Château de Versailles
Japan France
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

The clash between Louis XIV-era gaudy gilt décor and the saccharine pop of Takashi Murakami’s notoriously audacious patterned personages made one’s teeth ache. Lambasted and sharply protested by several French traditionalist groups for perceived inappropriateness, “Murakami Versailles,” the third annual contemporary art show in the imperial apartments of the storied 17th-century palace outside Paris, will be the last mounted within the royal living quarters themselves. After a yearlong battle with Versailles president Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the French Right has managed to banish future shows to the palace grounds.

For all the hype surrounding the exhibition, one might have expected the content to rival that of Murakami’s most provocative museum curations: “Superflat” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2001; “Coloriage” at the Cartier Foundation, Paris, in 2002; and “Little Boy” at the Japan Society, New York, in 2005. However, it was the mise-en-scène, rather than the work itself, that generated intrigue. Following Murakami’s “Superflat” philosophy, particularly the idea of employing 17th- and 18th-century “eccentric” line effects in order to induce kinetic ocular responses in the viewer, it is apt to consider how the works flattened the apartment spaces, merging the figures seamlessly into their unnatural environments. The power balance between object and setting was crucial to an understanding of this exhibition.

The reflective surface of the cartoonish five-foot-tall Oval Buddha Silver (2008), for example, mirrored the Salon de l’Abondance’s gilt trim and wallpaper, frescoed ceiling and royal portraits, as well as the viewer herself. Far from being invisible for its lack of color, the work’s patina was definitively defined by that of the chamber. Tongari-Kun (2003), an eight-meter-tall unicorned figure seated on lotus flowers and a frog, was situated below François Lemoyne’s devastating 1736 ceiling fresco Apothèse d’Hercule (“Apotheosis of Hercules”), which depicts the Muses surrounding a vortex of bright sky. Whether Tongari, positioned directly below, was banished from heaven or sent as its representative, was for the viewer to decide. 

Murakami agreed with ArtAsiaPacific’s suggestion that his figures existed in a liminal space between haute-décor and party-crashing. They did not completely fit, but they justified their presence by feeling alive in a way that the dusty marble busts and statues of the bygone French elite simply do not. The infamous Mr. DoB, the snarling-sweet chameleon character who closely embodies Murakami’s ideology, is an endlessly adaptable personality, morphing as a catalyst of and antagonist to various settings. DoB-like characters appeared in Versailles as Tongari-Kun, Oval Buddha, and The Emperor’s New Clothes (2005), a fat-faced king with indignant eyebrows and flipped curls about his ears. The narratives of the mutable DoB and the elaborate palace become co-generative: a recontextualization of one forced a reassessment of the other. It was not a simple negotiation.

The grotesquely sumptuous accoutrements of the royal apartments feel at once frigid, for their eternal dissociation from our common experience, and familiar, for their glorified French historicity. Jean Baudrillard reasoned in Le Système des Objets (1968) that “modern is ‘cold’ and the antique and exotic are ‘warm’” because we tend to place old things in a remote mental location devoid of capitalist associations. This idea of exotica’s “warmth” is also bound up in notions of the non-Western as primitive or childlike, with childhood as a common past experience. The disarmed nature of the exotic artifacts of Versailles invites us, as tourists, to tame them through the harmless consumption of defanged relics. Murakami’s characters are cold, with their seamless modern production, their sheer scale and their overt alien-ness, but they find warmth by way of their obscene cuteness and in their semblance to ubiquitous, mass-produced toys. Though untamable, cute makes for approachable and endearing, and thereby potentially comprehensible. 

In the end, the counterpoised aesthetics of French royalty and the contemporary pop-art king are equally showy, confrontational, and mystical. It is worth noting that the plebeian visitor alone is obliged to return to reality from Murakami and Louis XIV’s Eden. The monarchs are already home. 

David Zwirner RossiRossi Silverlens E-flux