Conservatives in France reacted with outrage when the British artist Anish Kapoor referred to one of his gigantic installations currently on display at Versailles as a “big vulva-like form sitting, watching”. In another interview he said the work, Dirty Corner (2011), a massive, rust-coloured steel funnel surrounded by scattered boulders and excavated earth, is “like a big queen, she’s a queen displaying herself”. The French media quickly dubbed the piece “the Queen’s vagina” with some commentators even asking whether it could be “Marie Antoinette’s vagina”.
The response was immediate. Versailles Familles Avenir, a body that began as a campaign group against gay marriage, demanded removal of the sculpture and called for a prosecution as an act of vandalism against national heritage. An anonymous vandal then splashed the structure with yellow paint.
Kapoor quickly backed away from his earlier descriptions of the work, saying he had been misquoted. But he also counter attacked, dismissing his critics as “people of the extreme political right wing” and comparing the installation’s defacement to acts of political terrorism.
Alfred Pacquement, the former director of the Pompidou Centre and the curator of the Kapoor show, agreed. “It’s one thing to express a critical opinion—everyone has a right to express an opinion,” he said, but “attacking a work of art is a terrorist action.”
In 2014, the US artist Paul McCarthy’s inflatable sculpture Tree, shaped like a giant sex toy, was slashed in Paris and in 2011 a version of Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ) (1987) was defaced in Avignon. Does all this point to the rise in France, once a refuge for the avant-garde, of a new reactionary hostility to contemporary art? Pacquement says no. “The French attitude to contemporary art is to invite great artists like Anish Kapoor,” he said. “I don’t recognise a French attitude in an act of vandalism.”
For the art critic and scholar Philippe Dagen, the whole affair may have said more about Kapoor than it did about France. In a scathing commentary published by Le Monde—a far from right-wing newspaper—Dagen accused Kapoor of using sex and scandal to promote his show.