Japan artist brings manga controversy to Versailles

From a big-bosomed French maid to a Pepsi-guzzling monster, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami's outlandish manga visions overwhelm the Chateau of Versailles, and not everyone is happy.

Unbelievably, his metal, fibreglass and acrylic sculptures manage to dominate the vast chambers of Versailles, with their marbled walls, gold leaf capitals and celestial ceiling frescoes.

But while French monarchists have denounced as "illegal" the exhibition in the rococo splendour of Louis XIV's monument to absolute power, the artist himself says that he is quite used to what he calls "Murakami-bashing."

"This criticism was also in Japan, especially on social networking sites, there were 3,000 critics," the 48-year-old told journalists at the show's opening. "All of this is because of a misunderstanding, in my opinion."

The bespectacled and bearded artist compares some of the reactions to his show to those at a football match.

"When someone scores a goal, someone is going to be unhappy," he says enigmatically, adding that while he respects others' points of view, he will never change anything in his exhibitions as a result.

But the man sometimes billed as the new Andy Warhol, thanks to his art "factory" outside Tokyo that churns out thousands of works, admits competing with the Sun King was "probably the most complex exhibition that I've done."

The first such show in the palace in 2008, with bright and bizarre sculptures by the US artist Jeff Koons, also angered traditionalists.

Prince Charles-Emmanuel de Bourbon-Parme, an heir of Louis XIV, tried to get it banned, saying it dishonoured his family's past, but the courts dismissed his bid.

Despite the incongruity of Murakami's Miss Ko2 plastic waitress facing down Jupiter in the Salon of War, from a distance his golden Oval Buddha rising from the gardens could be confused with some of the palace's original garish decor.

Some of Murakami's more exuberant pieces, including a boy spinning a lasso with his sperm or a woman whose breast milk forms a skipping rope, are notably absent from the show, but the artist says this should not be surprising.

"My erotic pieces are very few," he says. "My main theme is the social monster, and sometimes the social monster has an erotic appearance ... but don't push me to be too much an erotic artist, I'm just a normal artist."

The museum's director, former culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon, is well aware of the controversy these exhibits provoke, but insists on drawing a line between debate and censorship.

He says that the palace and Murakami's work are both "joyful" - "the palace was not a place of penitence, not a place to be sad."

Aillagon says the criticisms, from those "who have not seen the works in the place where they will be exhibited," are founded on prejudice.

"People might not like a certain film, then they want to ban it, and that's an act of social censorship, which is unacceptable."

Nevertheless, tourists who have came to the palace for its history are unimpressed by the novelty juxtaposition.

"It totally detracts from everything that's here. It's almost insulting to the palace and to visitors," says Martin Saffer, visiting Versailles with his wife Sheila from West Virginia in the United States.

"Looking at all the obscene opulence here I don't need to be reminded how obscene it was with this kind of extra in-your-face art."

Ricardo Neves Filho, from Recife in Brazil, says the Japanese art is "annoying."

"We are in an historic place, we want to see how history happened here, but every time you see a doll or a crazy monster it takes you completely out of the climax of the place."

Japanese tourist Takako, from Nagoya, says this is the first time she's heard of Murakami and, besides: "I'm not so interested in this type of object."

"Maybe this is better for foreign people, for French people. He's very famous in New York, isn't he?"

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