With inadvertent timeliness, a retrospective of the world’s richest artist opened in one of the world’s richest cities in the middle of the run of Robert Polidori’s elegiac photography exhibition, Versailles.
The richest artist in the world is of course the indefatigable Damien Hirst, who, having beaten ex-stockbroker Jeff Koons at his own game, continues to steer the art market’s excesses toward maximum personal profits.
Hirst’s retrospective, Relics, opened on October 10 at Al Riwaq, an exhibition space in Doha, Qatar. According to Carol Vogel’s story in the New York Times (“The Gang’s All There, Talking Art in Qatar”), the show includes “three of the artist’s giant sharks submerged in tanks of formaldehyde; two of Mr. Hirst’s human skulls encrusted with thousands of sparkly diamonds; a room of stainless-steel medicine cabinets filled with drugs; and an array of paintings.”
Polidori’s photographs of the palace of Sun King, on the other hand, reveal a derelict and long-faded grandeur. While these images, which are on view at Mary Boone’s Chelsea location, are the result of an exclusive contract Polidori won in the mid-1980s to document the restoration of Versailles, they don’t offer glimpses of work crews or before-and-after details. Instead, we see abandoned, time-ravaged rooms that look more like worn-out theater sets than halls once inhabited by one of the most privileged classes in history.
In one particularly apropos picture, “Salle d’introduction aux galleries historiques. Aile du Nord. Versailles” (1985/2013), the room’s red fabric wall coverings are partially torn away, giving the impression that we are facing a curtained stage. Other photos show picture frames missing their paintings, or paintings removed from their frames and stacked against the wall, emphasizing how thoroughly life at the court was intertwined with patronage of the arts, and how suddenly and completely that life vanished.
Some of the more affecting images are close-ups of details such as a doorknob or a doorstop that expose the scars and grime from centuries of use — a reckoning upon the trappings of temporal power by the indifferent laws of physics.
You may recall that Jeff Koons, barely two weeks before the stock market crash of 2008, raised a minor stink when he installed some of his shiny decorative sculptures in various rooms of Versailles. Although French cultural conservatives thundered their objections, “protesting,” according to a report in the Guardian, “that the ‘sacred’ site of Versailles would be cheapened,” Koons was simply bringing it all back home — the glitz, the empty ornament, the rationalization of excess — just as a brand new deluge was breaching the floodgates.
Polidori’s pictures are infused with the futility of amassing prodigious wealth and power, yet current events only underscore the endurance of such folly, especially in an art market driven by monetary gain and apparently little else.
Qatar has been an absolute monarchy controlled by the Al Thani family since the middle of the 19th century. It is a country where migrant workers have zero rights and criminal punishments such as flogging and stoning are still on the books. According to the Human Rights Watch website, “Qatar has the highest ratio of non-citizens to citizens in the world, with nationals comprising approximately 12 percent of the population. Forced labor and human trafficking are serious problems.”
If Qatar has become the go-to trough for the likes of Hirst, Koons, Jeffrey Deitch, David Zwirner, Francesco Bonami, Francesco Vezzoli and others mentioned in Vogel’s article, along with Christie’s and Sotheby’s, then some serious soul-searching is in order.
But deep-pocketed spending on the arts, from the Renaissance to Versailles, from the Gilded Age to today, always manages to go a long way toward forgiving every sin, a moral distortion that infects even the reporting of relevant events.
At the end of the Vogel’s article, she describes the efforts by the Qatar Museums Authority “to open up a dialogue with the public about some of its shows,” including “booths in two shopping malls where people could view images of one of Mr. Hirst’s sharks and his diamond skull and give their opinions, which can be found online; users can also express their opinions directly on a Web site. (Tweets are also encouraged.)”
Here is Vogel’s penultimate paragraph in full:
Asking for public opinion is a novelty in this absolute monarchy. But the Qatar Museums Authority seems to be drumming up feedback even more aggressively than most American museums do.
What can one to say to that?
Robert Polidori: Versailles continues at Mary Boone Gallery (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) though October 26.