When a Giant Waterfall Came to Versailles

Icelandic art star Olafur Eliasson has transformed the Palace of Versailles into a poetic reflection on history and the ephemerality of nature and the human experience. Get a closer look at his stunning new works.

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In 1661, when Louis XIV imagined the designs for the gardens of Versailles—the infamous palace 12 miles from Paris—he envisioned building a magnificent cascading water feature that could be seen from the chateau's Hall of Mirrors. But his dream was never realized—the engineering proving too complicated for the time.

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Now, almost four centuries later, Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is bringing this royal plan to fruition in a new installation. Opening today, the exhibition features a 40 meter waterfall in the Grand Canal, two other water features in the garden, and, inside, works that use light and mirrors to create optical illusions.

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Eliasson is known for creating works that engage with natural phenomenon, such as "Ice Watch" where he installed 12 blocks of ice from Greenland in front of the Panthéon during last year's U.N. climate conference in Paris, to highlight the effects of climate change. In this latest exhibition, Eliasson taps into the landscape of Versailles. The three water pieces display the element in its three forms—in the Grand Canal as liquid, in the Bousquet de l'Etoile as fog, and in the Bousquet de la Colonnade as glacier dust (a mineral powder leftover from "Ice Watch").

 Inside the palace, the artist was inspired by his personal exploration of the corridors, bedrooms, and hidden passageways that are steeped in history. Through the ages, the palace has been a symbol of royal opulence, housing a lifestyle both revered and criticized. Eliasson's mirror and light installation play on the ephemerality of the palace's history. He puts into question the illusory aspects of Louis XIV's Hall of Mirrors, which multiplies the viewer—a design metaphor that magnifies the power of the monarchy.  

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The poetic installation is 10th in a line of contemporary exhibitions held at Versailles since 2008. Eliasson joins a list of artists that includes Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, and Joana Vasconcelos. Each artist has brought our present age into the 17th century palace, and Eliasson's work is no different. The artist hopes his works will show Versailles as the birthplace of modern-day democracy, and that it's a site that's still relevant today.

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Subtle and sensitive, Eliasson's installations at Versailles invite the viewer to reflect. "The Versailles that I have been dreaming up is a place that empowers everyone," the artist said in a statement. "It 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."

All photographs courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; and Anders Sune Berg. © 2016 Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's installation will be on view through October 30. For information on how to visit, see chateauversailles.fr.

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