The original plans for Versailles — the magnificent 17th-century palace situated about 12 miles southwest of Paris — included a waterfall in the garden. But merely building the Grand Canal that runs through the grounds proved to be a major feat of engineering. To create a cascade proved impossible.
Now, more than 300 years after Louis XIV (the Sun King) transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a glorious symbol of French power, artist Olafur Eliasson — famed for the “New York City Waterfalls” (2008) — is, in his own words, “making the impossible possible.”
On June 7, the Chateau de Versailles will unveil a large-scale exhibition of Eliasson’s contemporary art (including — mais oui! — a waterfall). Following the likes of Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor, Eliasson is the latest contemporary artist to take over the estate with art installations — a buzz-generating annual event that invites visitors to see the chateau in a new way.
The Danish-Icelandic Eliasson is a star of the contemporary art world. His creative laboratory, the Berlin-based Studio Olafur Eliasson, employs a 90-person team of artists, art historians, technicians, architects, even cooks. The resulting artwork evokes existential questions and elicits emotional responses.
When Eliasson replicated a setting sun in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (“The Weather Project,” 2003, London), visitors became active participants in the art installation: lying on the floor, spelling out words with their bodies, creating a human peace sign. “A cultural institution became a forum — a place to meet, to collaborate, even to have conflict,” Eliasson explained at a recent news briefing in Paris.
During the U.N. climate conference in Paris late last year, Eliasson installed icebergs from Greenland in front of the Panthéon. Twelve blocks of ice were arranged in the shape of a clock. As the 15,000-year-old ice melted into the cobblestones, curious passers-by would stop to press their palms or place an ear against the blue-tinged blocks to listen to the crackling sounds, even stick out their tongues to lick the ice. “Ice Watch” became an interactive rendezvous at all hours of the day and night.
In a similar way, Eliasson aims to emphasize the contemporary importance of the historic chateau that looms large in imaginations around the world. Shortly after the Paris terror attacks in November, the French government used Versailles as the setting to declare an official state of emergency. “There was a contemporary feeling of Versailles being active today,” Eliasson recalled.
Today the Chateau de Versailles welcomes 7.5 million annual visitors, making it — according to curator Alfred Pacquement — “a microcosm where people of diverse origins and paths briefly cross paths.”
Eliasson’s art exhibition explores the notion of the visitor experience in this public space, playing with ideas of perception. “Have we all become king?” Eliasson asked. In the chateau, mirrors and light create optical illusions, raising the question: Who is the subject, who is the object? “I’ve attempted to make Versailles look at you, rather than you look at Versailles,” Eliasson said.
“My work is also very ephemeral,” he elaborated. “It’s only there when you actively engage. As an artist, I bring half the narrative; you, the visitor, finalize the narrative with your sensibilities.”
Perspective has always been an important concept in the French formal garden. Landscape architect André Le Nôtre famously flattened hills, drained marshes and diverted streams to create the vast, geometrically aligned gardens at Versailles — with the Grand Canal intersected by the Petit Canal in the shape of a cross.
It’s here in the gardens where three water-themed oeuvres invite visitors to experience H2O in the three forms in which it exists. Created with a crane and a pump, Eliasson’s waterfall is erected along the central axis of the Grand Canal, clearly visible from the terraces and inside the chateau. In the Bosquet de l’Etoile (the star grove), visitors can disappear into a ring of mist and experience the tangibility of water in vapor form. Lastly, the Bosquet de la Colonnade (the grove of the colonnade) is covered in a carpet of glacier dust from the same icebergs used in “Ice Watch.” Moraine is what’s left behind when glaciers recede. “With such a high density of minerals, this beautiful, crystalline powder acts like a fertilizer,” explained Eliasson. “It symbolizes the end of the glacier, but also the beginning of new life.”
To Eliasson, Versailles is “a labyrinth of secrets . . . . I was inspired by becoming an explorer in this incredible place — going behind closed doors, into the bedrooms, the corridors . . . . This exploring: Is it a way to escape or to connect? I wanted to work with an idea that Versailles is actually traveling, traversing the centuries — through the Revolution, through the constitutions — up until today, when it’s still an active house. Versailles has journeyed for hundreds of years to meet with me today, just as I’ve journeyed to be here. Nothing is standing still.”
Indeed, Eliasson’s imagination knows no boundaries: space, time, even budgets. “New York City Waterfalls” was one of the most expensive public art projects at over $15 million; the budget for the Versailles exhibition has not been officially disclosed.
With Paris as a base, Versailles makes a fun day trip. It’s just 30 minutes by RER train from the Eiffel Tower. I usually linger in the Hall of Mirrors and the royal apartments, soaking up the grandeur, drooling over the sumptuous decor that’s been painstakingly reconstructed over the years since the chateau was pillaged during the French Revolution. The Sun King’s determination to create a palace large enough to house a 6,000-person court mirrors the manifest destiny he embraced in asserting France’s power in the world.
For Americans (who are the No. 1 nationality visiting Versailles), the connection to the Revolutionary War is pivotal. Louis XVI’s generous military aid helped the American colonists secure independence from England. The Treaty of Paris was signed at Versailles in 1783. (The important link between Versailles and the United States will be celebrated in a separate exhibition this summer called “Versailles and American Independence.”)
Another important American connection: John D. Rockefeller’s financial sponsorship saved the chateau from ruin after World War I. “We find it incredibly moving,” says the chateau’s president, Catherine Pégard, “when American visitors stop and pause in reflection in front of the plaque that’s an homage to Rockefeller.” Today, American philanthropic contributions continue to play a vital role in restoration projects.
I returned to Versailles on a recent weekend with my family in tow. This time, we didn’t even set foot inside the chateau. We set off to explore the gardens. Louis XIV used to hold boating parties on the canal, and on this hot day, visitors also splashed around in boats. There were families and couples and singles, old and young, everyone aware of the others in this storied palace that’s become a playground for the people.
We turned down tree-lined paths, paused in groves and took silly selfies in front of serious-faced statues. The domain is so enormous you could spend days wandering its corners. We hiked to the Grand Trianon — we didn’t think to rent an electric golf cart! — which was built for Louis XIV as an escape from the strict codes of the court. In Marie Antoinette’s hamlet of thatched-roof cottages, we stopped at the farm to check out the rabbits, pigs and prized chickens with funky plumage.
Tucked away behind the Grand Trianon, there’s a private vegetable garden called the Jardin de la Reine. During World War I, the French army used this plot to feed troops. (Seedlings were shipped to the Western Front to be replanted.) Today, everything is cultivated by hand without pesticides, destined for Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris.
Mehdi Redjil, chef de potager, pauses to show off interesting herbs, such as banana-flavored mint, and légumes oubliés — forgotten vegetables — such as the chervis from the carrot family and the “pear of the earth,” which is similar to a sweet potato. Lizards crawl up the sides of the historic greenhouses, now nurturing green peas and baby vegetable varieties. My kids are excited to learn that some of their favorite bugs — including red “gendarmes” — help protect the plants from would-be invaders.
From this one-hectare corner of the historic Versailles estate, the fertile soil is sowing the seeds for Ducasse’s gastronomy movement. Ducasse made waves when he first presented the “naturality” concept for the Plaza Athénée restaurant, with a sustainable menu focused on vegetables, cereals and fish. The culinary maestro had already revolutionized haute cuisine in recent years with a focus on the humble vegetable.
Ducasse will open a restaurant inside the Chateau de Versailles this year. Ore — Latin for “mouth” — will be situated in the Pavillon Dufour, newly renovated by architect Dominique Perrault to house a striking welcome center. (The visitor entrance opened in March, but the full works, including an auditorium, will debut later in the year.) Ore will have a casual dining component, alongside a wow-worthy private dining experience at night.
“These Versailles soirees will replicate the same food as the royal court. If the king magically appeared, he’d dine in the same splendor — with the same menu — as in 1715,” Ducasse explained recently.
The artist Eliasson also focuses much of his energy on environmental sustainability and is a great admirer of Ducasse. What’s more, he has a vegetarian cookbook coming out, with a forward by Alice Waters, featuring recipes served in communal-style meals at his Berlin studio.
“I understand Ducasse oversees the greenhouses here,” he said, “and I have an artwork here with ‘fertilizer,’ ” his carpet of glacier dust. “I hope to show that the fertilizer can make the green in the greenhouses even more . . . delicious! I’m the humble assistant amplifying, with my artwork, not only in spirit but also the greenhouses of Monsieur Ducasse.”
And close to the center of the Versailles gardens, there’s a fountain (the Bassin de Cérès) with a statue of the Roman goddess of the harvest. “It’s an incredible coincidence,” Eliasson says. “But then, there’s never coincidence!”
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Place d’Armes, Versailles
To get there from Paris, take the RER C train from the Saint-Michel or Champ de Mars stations and get off at Versailles Rive Gauche/Chateau.
The Chateau de Versailles is open every day except Mondays and national holidays (Jan. 1, May 1 and Dec. 25). Tuesdays are quite busy because some important Paris museums are closed. The gardens are open every day, and access is free.
The palace ticket, including access to the Hall of Mirrors and the King’s apartment, costs $17. The ticket for the Grand Trianon palaces and Marie Antoinette’s estate costs $11. The $28 two-day passport also includes discounts to popular shows, including “Musical Fountains” in the summer.
Newly reopened on May 10, the renovated Coach Gallery is housed in the King’s Great Stables opposite the palace. Free of charge, this gallery showcases magnificent ceremonial coaches once used for baptisms, coronations and funerals.