Over the last 8 years, artists have been transforming the 17th century Palace of Versailles through various exhibitions and installations. This year, Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson has, in the words of Catherine Pegrad, President of the Chateau des Versailles, ‘[made] the contours of the Sun-King’s palace dance’ through works that include a Hall of Mirrors, a veil of fog over the gardens, and 40 foot artificial waterfall behind the Fountain of Apollo.
Louis XIV was famous for his desire to create the impression that France was at the cutting edge of technology, and enforce the country’s political might through the lavishness of his palace. The engineers who built the original fountains also made France’s canons, creating a link between the palace and military power and prowess. Louis wrote a manual for the gardens, including instructions for the groundskeepers to turn particular fountains on at certain moments, to ensure that visitors were tricked into believing the waterworks were continuous. He used water particularly to give the appearance of lushness, alongside reminding ambassadors of the political power of France, which is why the waterfall is such a prominent feature in this latest exhibition.
Eliasson’s aim in building the waterfall is to ‘reinvigorate the engineering ingenuity of the past’; a grand water feature had been planned by Louis XIV’s architect, but never came to fruition. Similarly, with the other elements of the exhibition, the artist claims that he wanted his installations ‘to empower everyone…asks them to exercise their senses, to embrace the unexpected, to drift through the gardens and to feel the landscape take shape through their movement’.
Architecture and History of Art students should look further into the design of Versailles, both in the 17th century and through this exhibition. Engineering applicants should consider the changes in engineering technology that have allowed the artificial waterfall to be finally created, and investigate the engineering methods that would have been used during Louis XIV’s reign. History students should consider how art can allow us to reflect on historical periods and mind sets and in particular, how the staging of an exhibition in such a prominent and iconic building can change our perceptions of certain moments of history.