PARIS — Feminism has happily challenged the given of the privileged male in relationship to the female model and forced a re-evaluation of a visual culture that viewed the world from a white heterosexual male perspective. Still, depending on one’s sexual orientation and taste in decency, the huge representation of a woman’s vagina in public, even if abstract-arty, can be a quite daunting proposition.
That is exactly what Indian-born, London-based sculptor Anish Kapoor’s “Dirty Corner” (2011–15) does — and it opens to the public tomorrow. It is a 60-metre (200-foot) long, 10-metre (33-foot) high steel-and-rock funnel set amid busted stones gracing the pomp and monarchic folly of the long formal lawn at Château de Versailles. With some obvious verve, Kapoor has described “Dirty Corner” as the vagina of the queen taking power. Château de Versailles is the enormous palace built by the Sun King Louis XIV that came to symbolize the end of the monarchy and the bloody history of the French Revolution and the downfall of the king.
So, following Paul McCarthy’s “butt-plug” sculpture (vandalized amid protests by conservative groups) Kapoor’s “Versailles Vagina” is the current succès de scandale in advance. I guess some consider it quite shocking as we have not seen many men working on the perplexing vagina, even though historically many artists — including Leonardo da Vinci, “The Female Sexual Organs” (circa 1510), Gustave Courbet, “L’Origine du monde” (1866), and Marcel Duchamp’s “Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas)” (1946–1966) — have all depicted that aspect of human anatomy. Also there has been the lesser-known Henri Maccheroni’s photographic series called “2000 Photos du Sexe d’une Femme” (2000 Photos of the Sex of a Woman) (1969–1974).
Contemporary female artists like Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith (among others) have been industriously working on the subject of female sex, perhaps starting back with Carolee Schneemann’s Parisian performance of “Meat Joy” (1964). Art focused explicitly on the vulva with Valie Export’s “Action Pants: Genital Panic” (1969) and the broad-spectrum vulva work of Hannah Wilke, for example with her piece “Corcoran Art Gallery” (1976). Subsequently Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (1979) brought the theme front-and-center, followed by Kembra Pfahler’s “Wall of Vagina” (2011), and Betty Tompkins’s “Cunt Painting” (2011), and probably many others. Judith Bernstein’s Birth of the Universe paintings (2013) depicted gigantic manic female sexual reproductive organs just last year. They all make no bones about taking the vagina and vulva head-on.
Kapoor is popular in France from his 2011 gigantic Leviathan installation at the Grand Palais that attracted more than 250,000 visitors, but “Dirty Corner” has already sparked controversy, debate and condemnation by Royalist activists and far-right blogs — where they are even discussing if the work truly resembles a queen’s vagina or a pipe. This is not a pipe. This after the more-is-less “king of kitsch” Jeff Koons became the first artist invited to shock by plopping big ugly stuff at Château de Versailles.
A number of newspapers, such as Les Inrocks, Le Journal du Dimanche, and Le Parisien, have defended the work, describing Kapoor’s move here as that of a genius provocateur and that the work was a welcome comment on Versailles’s symbolism of macho French power and identity. Controversy will just bring more visitors, applauded Le Figaro.
Given Kapoor’s stature, and the level of abstraction at play here, it might be interesting see how this plays out, even as some might find the displaying of female genitalia effrayable (frightful).