Space and Place.


Space is an intrinsic part of how we experience our everyday. We understand things in terms of how they are interrelated in space, and we use it to form mental connections and attach meanings. Space is also an essential part of how we experience institutional spaces, such as museums. Museums, as sites whose purpose is to educate and inform, can use space to frame a visitors understanding of their collection. This can be influenced both by the strength of individual displays and the spatial organisation of exhibition rooms. Because of the importance of space inside the museum, it is often beneficial to explore the role that it plays in the shaping the meaning of particular historical periods. This essay shall focus on the role of that space plays in museums of National Socialist, Jewish and GDR eras. Throughout the first half of the essay, the role of space will be assessed through the analysis of the display of objects in three case studies. Then, the second half of the essay will focus on the role of space in two museum environments, looking at how curators negotiate space to create narratives. The purpose of this two part analysis is to expand outwards from specific instances of spatial configuration to more general cases of space within the museum, exploring how these translate into messages for the viewer. Attention has been taken not to highlight certain display practices as conducive to the creation of concrete meanings as this is reductive, not taking into account how wide ranging, complex and personal audience responses can be. It is still possible however, to consider the intent of museum curators when using certain spatial techniques and devices to create certain implications. By working outwards the aim is to avoiding reducing the museum to a sum of its contents or a container without objects to provide a richer understanding of the role played by space in museums of National Socialism, Jewish history and the GDR.


The Jewish Museum Franken in  Fürth, is housed in a building that was a home to Jewish families from the 17th to the 19th century, and is an impressive Jewish object in itself replete with its own Sukkah. The aim of the museum is to display everyday objects and judaica from the middle ages until today. This museum forms part of a collection of institutions contributing to the creation of a version of the past that constitutes a part of ‘collective memory’ of Jewish life in small towns like Fürth. In the gallery, rooms are styled so that they resemble the ‘white cube’ aesthetic, which distances the building from its original purpose as a house and transforms it into a museum. Each object appears on its own or in a calculated group of two or three in individual perspex cases, which stick out horizontally from the wall. If more than one object is shown in a case, it is provided with an individual white shelf, no larger than the object itself, so that the cases are not overcrowded. Due to the signification of the glass case as delineating things that are important from things that are not in the museum, the objects on display are given value. In the group relating to ‘Jewish entrepreneurship and social activity in Fürth’ the use of separation and elevation highlights the singular significance of a set of playing cards, a bottle of beer and a tin of tin of Lebkuchen biscuits. This arrangement takes them from objects that would have had been used in ‘normal’ settings in their past context to objects that are metaphors for the existence of jewish entrepreneurship. Paul Williams states that this revaluation provides personal objects with a false significance as they are being asked to represent a narrative that could never have been grasped for all its historic import in the moment. This effect is particularly pronounced when one views not particularly remarkable, unusual, valuable, or historically fraught examples of everyday objects, encased in plexiglass. This type of spatial configuration, with its consideration for the aesthetic of each object and their composition, is similar to the way that art is displayed in an art gallery. A particular an exhibition at the tate which uses a very similar display aesthetic was ‘Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing’, a modern take on the wunderkammer, in which individual objects were fetishised for their aesthetic qualities.


When museums do not individually single out objects, but in fact do the opposite, a separate configuration of space occurs. This is the case at the DDR museum in Malchow, where the entirety of the space (a former cinema) is crammed full of objects left over from the GDR, donated to the museum by the community. This museum represents what Andreas Ludwig calls a ‘collectors museum’, where the material culture of the collapsing state became of interest shortly after the end of the GDR. The normal musealisation process did not occur to the objects of the GDR, there was no ‘garbage phase’ between the fall of the Berlin wall and the initiatives of private collectors to grab whatever they could. The result of that is that museums have more everyday objects from this time than in other historical periods, as all objects were selected as being culturally relevant. Due to this, not only does Malchow have every imaginable object from hair dryers to school books, it has many of the same type of object. The curators have chosen to emphasise this, as duplicate types of objects are accumulated together on display. Objects are classified based on what section of GDR life they belong to, these sections are configured as reproductions of ‘GDR spaces’. There is also no one overriding display aesthetic, the objects are shown on display cabinets and tables of all sizes.  For instance in the ladies lavatory, dozens of soaps, flannels and other bathroom paraphernalia are displayed with little concern shown for their placement. The objects overlap and distract attention for the others in the display cabinets so the space looks crammed and unrealistic. Objects, through their accumulation in space, resemble a treasure trove of mass produced objects from the GDR. This might in turn cause the visitor to understand the GDR as the conglomeration of kitsch objects in rooms that emphasise ‘ostalgie’ more than the brutal reality of the stasi occupancy of East Germany. A visitor might view this collection of amassed brightly coloured soaps as a confirmation of the material culture of the GDR as ‘other’ or perhaps even backwards.


A museum might also recognise that an individual object has an important story to tell on its own, but it is perhaps one that is controversial or sensitive to the museums message. Curators then can use spatial configurations to reframe the object in question. Although constrained in how creative their response to this can be (viewers must be able to see an object) museums can chose to make use of the hierarchies attached to vertical spaces to manipulate objects within them and create or distort meanings. An example of this can be seen at the DB museum in Nuremberg. Opened in 1899 as the Bavarian railway museum, it can be used to consider the spatial treatment of objects sympathetic to national socialism as Germany has no national museum of the National Socialist era whose sole function it is to collect, preserve, study and exhibit documents and artefacts from the years 1933–45 or 1938–45 respectively. Of interest is the treatment of a particular bust, that of Julius Dorpmüller (24 July 1869 – 5 July 1945). He was the general manager of the Deutsche Reichsbahn and then the German Reich transport minister. In the grand entrance hall to the museum a series of busts line the upper half of the wall above the stairs. These are all busts of important men in the history of the railway, including railway pioneer Frederik Harcourt, yet the bust of Dorpmüller is missing from his plinth on the wall. While there is nothing atypical about the spatial placement or display of these busts, they are placed slightly higher than the average height of a person, forcing the viewer to look up at them. The experience of looking up towards the bust of an important historical figure has come to signify looking up in admiration, as Vitruvius stated ‘let the busts of ancestors with their ornaments be set up at a height corresponding to the width of the alae’. The bust of Dorpmüller is instead displayed in the section on Nazi Socialism that deals with the ‘gleichgeschaltet’ of the reichbann. In its current location, one has to look down on the bust, which is placed at floor level in a cabinet containing a number of other objects. The viewer might be aware that the curators have physically demoted the bust to a space usually reserved for objects of lesser value because of the intrinsic significations present in the hierarchies of vertical space. This placement of the bust to create the absence of Dorpmüller in one space and his presence in another could be read as the reversing of his role as a man to be admired into a man that directly implicated the railway with national socialism. Through the reconfiguration of space, the museums acknowledge a consciousness and take responsibility for their involvement in crimes of the past. The bust, erected to commemorate Dorpmüller is denied right to sit amongst the other busts in the entrance hall, and take its place in history.


The next two case studies are concerned with exploring the role of space in the arrangement of spaces within the museum building, which is articulated in the examples as a consciousness of the museum to their spaces and what they mean and how these can be manipulated to enhance the experience. The Jewish Museum Berlin is of interest here as it is a museum that is not housed on a site of ‘authentic’ Jewish material history. Instead, the building was custom built by starchitect Daniel Libeskind in 2000 to house the collection of the museum. The aim of the space was to create a visual and spatial language rich with history and symbolism, which not only houses the museum with its exhibits, but also provides visitors with their own unique experience as they walk through the spaces’. Whilst the custom built building may not have an indexical relationship to Jewish History, it claims to offer a metaphorical one. The path through the museum circuit, which represents the fractured Star of David, features dark and unoccupied voids where no objects are displayed. These voids have been described by Chametzky as ‘Physically confronting, intellectually challenging, and viscerally disconcerting’, their intention was to create spaces in which the physical absence of objects, would bring to mind the metaphorical absence of people. This hoped to provide a way of exhibiting the unexhibitable when it comes to Jewish History, the complete and total destruction of humanity. The architecture, with its winding zigzag and strange angles, was found to create a destabilizing effect on the visitor, somatically inducing feelings of loss, displacement and emptiness prior to its installation of exhibits in 2000. As a working museum space however, these complicated architectural features presented the museum curators with difficult and awkward spaces to deal with. Visitors might encounter the darker spaces of the museum, without any objects, and consider them as areas to avoid or move through without paying them too much attention. These voids, which aimed to invite viewers to contemplate the destruction of Jewish life in Germany and visualise their loss, end up being very abstract concepts for a viewer. The voids can be said to distract from the essential role of the museum, which is described by David Fleming as ‘creating experiences and stimulating impressions that lead to learning, and a new understanding of identity’. However, some, like Chametzky would argue that the building offers a unique opportunity to create a museum in which architectural philosophy and exhibition concept arise out of the same approach to the same subject. To this end, the curators have worked creatively with the spaces of the museum allowing the abrupt turns, ruptures, and voids to be presented as challenges but not barriers to continuity. Some of the more awkward spaces have been appropriated by turning them little nooks for children; working with the small, segregated areas to create mutually beneficial spaces where children can experience the museum in their own way. This is managed through the insertion of small doorways, creating passageways where children can walk through and often contain little displays. The disorienting nature of the museum, which was an issue for visitors in 2000, is controlled through the use of red stickers on the floor that guide people from one exhibition to the next, physically mapping out the space. This helps to construct and guide people through the spaces, providing viewers with an incentive and helping them to find their way. Interactive displays were used to provide visitors with a mediated experience of the unusually long staircase at the end of the Axis of continuity. These displays require active engagement from the viewer, which allows them to stay interested in the themes and content of the museum exhibit. These techniques of manipulating viewer’s experience of space lessens the chance of a unpleasant experience of the museum, but also the chance of an encounter with the sensation of absence and loss that the architecture intended, reducing viewer experience to ‘diasporic wandering’ around the museum as they might any other museum.


In some cases, filling up exhibition spaces with creative nooks and interactive exhibits is not how curators chose to engage their visitor with the content in their displays. This is the case for the Dachau museum, a memorial museum that was established in 1965 on the site of the former concentration camp. Its aim is to commemorate the suffering, terror and survival of prisoners in the camp. The curators of the exhibition have worked alongside the stark architectural features of the camp building to create spaces that do not lose sight of the suffering that happened there. In 2003, the museum opened its permanent exhibit on the history of the concentration camp, following the leitmotif of the ‘path of the prisoners’ hoping that visitors will in freedom, be able to relate to the path the prisoners took. It is clear from this that finding a way to explain the historic significance of the rooms is important to the museums message, and therefore the rooms have been left as bare as possible. In one of  of the rooms, the “Schubraum” or prisoner baths, the room has been kept deliberately empty of all object based displays. In an attempt to heighten the impact of the empty space and provide context, a photograph of the inmates getting ready to forcibly shaved and disinfected has been transposed onto the pane of glass on the door so that is is aligned with the interior architecture. This aims help viewers visualise the photograph in the space in which is occurred, returning to the empty room a sense of the horror that once occurred within it, without the actual use of objects. The effect of this is quite ghostlike, highlighting the presence that once occupied this now bare room, which is in contrast to the object heavy displays usually associated with representations of Holocaust. The complete absence of objects in this space might counteract what Omer Bartov calls a ‘false sense of reality’ in using artefacts to bring us closer to the experience of the Holocaust. By focusing on the embodied sensation of being within a place, the curators bring attention to the ‘sited-ness’ of the room, attempting to bridge the gap between the ‘now’ and ‘then’. This is done by allowing visitors to walk in the room uninterrupted by displays and information whilst still being aware of the gravity of its original function, contemplating the absence. once again however, whether people notice this use of space and use it according to the museum’s desire is unclear, yet it remains an interesting technique to try and get people to grapple with the complicated issues surrounding the representation of the Holocaust.


Through this essay, the question of how arrangement of space and objects within space has created meaning has hoped to elucidate on the role of space in the display of objects from Jewish, National Socialist and GDR museums. The two case studies of the Jewish museum Berlin and the Dachau museum have underlined some of the ways curators have represented the spaces within the building they work with. Through the internal ordering and conjugation of these spaces within a museum, they create a narrative for their visitor. Similarly, through the analysis of the three different display techniques, the aim was to highlight that museum spaces are representations of embodied attitudes to the material culture of whatever historical period they are focused on. To conclude, the role of space within museums of Jewish, National Socialist and GDR history could be considered a vital and essential tool in the framing of objects, whose role in the structuring of specific kinds of articulation between object and knowledge can not be undermined.




Bartov, Omer. Germany’s War And The Holocaust. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Braun, Rebecca, and Lyn Marven. Cultural Impact In The German Context. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2010.

Chametzky, Peter. “Not What We Expected: The Jewish Museum Berlin In Practice”. Museum And Society 6, no. 3 (2008).

Clarke, David, and Ute Wölfel. Remembering The German Democratic Republic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Cohen, Richard I. Visualizing And Exhibiting Jewish Space And History. Oxford: Published for the Institute by Oxford University Press, 2012.

Dekel, Irit. Mediation At The Holocaust Memorial In Berlin. Basingstoke, Hampshire [England]: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dudley, Sandra H. Museum Objects. London: Routledge, 2012.

Hansen-Glucklich, Jennifer. Holocaust Memory Reframed: Museums And The Challenges Of Representation. Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation Of Postmemory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.,. “Jewish Museum Berlin – The Libeskind Building”. Accessed 3 January 2016.,. “Jüdisches Museum Franken |”. Accessed 3 January 2016.,. “Permanent Exhibition – Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site”. Accessed 3 January 2016.

Macdonald, Sharon. A Companion To Museum Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006.

Macdonald, Sharon. Memorylands: Heritage And Identity In Europe Today. London: Routledge, 2013.

Macleod, Suzanne, Laura Hourston Hanks, and Jonathan Hale. Museum Making. Abingdon, Oxon [England]: Routledge, 2012.

Macleod, Suzanne. Reshaping Museum Space. London: Routledge, 2005.

Marstine, Janet. Routledge Companion To Museum Ethics. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011.

Paver, C. E.M. “Exhibiting The National Socialist Past: An Overview Of Recent German Exhibitions”.Journal Of European Studies 39, no. 2 (2009): 225-249. doi:10.1177/0047244109104079.

Vitruvius, Pollio, and Frank Stephen Granger. On Architecture. W. Heinemann, 1962.

Williams, Paul Harvey. Memorial Museums. Oxford: Berg, 2007.


Does DADA free the artist from restraint, and challenge dominant ideologies?

“Dada’s propaganda for a total repudiation of art was in itself a factor in the advance of art. Our feeling of freedom from rules, precepts, money and critical praise, a freedom for which we paid the price of an excessive distaste and contempt for the public, was a major stimulus. The freedom not to care a damn about anything, the absence of any kind of opportunism, which in any case could have served no purpose, brought us all the closer to the source of all art, the voice within ourselves.”

Hans Richter.[1]

George Grosz and John Heartfield, The life and work in the universal city, 12.05 noon, 1919, collage.
Raol Hausmann, The Art Critic/Der Kunstkritiker, 1919-20, Lithograph and printed paper on paper, support: 318 x 254 mm, Tate Modern 

I shall be exploring the ways in which Dada photomontage refuted established frameworks of creating and selling art, and to what extent they challenged dominant ideologies. For the purpose of this exploration, we will be primarily concerned with the work of the Berlin Dada from 1918 until 1922. This is in part due to Haussmann’s declaration that the birth of photomontage occurred in Berlin in 1919, and also due to the fact that the most interesting examples of photomontage sprouted here, from the likes of John Heartfield, Raoul Haussmann and Hannah Höch. Firstly, an examination of the pre-existing climate of art production and creation in Berlin prior to the Dada manifesto of 1919 will help to set up a framework in which the methods of Dada art can be understood, and the ways in which Dada artists set out to refute these. An examination of the work of prominent Dada photomontagists Raoul Haussmann, follows on from this, to illustrate the ways in which Dada artists embodied ‘anti-art’ in their practice. Finally, an evaluation of whether Dada truly freed the artist from restraint and challenged dominant ideologies concludes as to whether the Dada were successful in carrying out what they had preached.

It has been said of Dada that “wherever it spread, it took on a different colour” and in Berlin it was political.[2] By 1918 there was a revolution occurring in Berlin, and the Dada movement here stemmed from political militantism. The political climate just after the war was incredibly turbulent; increased social and political tensions created enormous upheaval within the country. Because of this, when Huelsenbeck arrived from Switzerland in 1918, he found the perfect climate in which to set off the Dada bomb that had worked so wonderfully in Zurich. It was unleashed on a small group of intellectuals; Raoul Hausmann, Franz Jung, Johannes Baader, George Grosz, John Heartfield and a dozen young libertines recently graduated from Herwarth Walden’s Sturm.[3] The devastation of the First World War at the advent of modernity had caused within the Dadaists the desire to shake into perpetual movement everything that was static, threatening it with a revolution of its own. Due to this the Berlin Dadaists, like their Swiss counterparts, were convinced of the need to bring an end to bourgeois passivism.
In terms of their approach to the institution of art, the Dada manifesto of 1918 made clear Dada’s critical stance on hermetic modern art. They felt Expressionist art, alongside the work of Orphic Cubists and Futurists, did not affect the fundamental and revolutionary change in society that the Dadaists believed essential in order to stay in touch with modernity. Alongside this, they were criticised for their capitalistic sympathies, something which went directly against the Dadaist socialist views. Huelsenbeck writes that German Expressionism “transformed Germany into a fat idler with hope of a good pension, it had nothing in common with the efforts of active men”.[4] The Dadaists saw this idleness as a crime against art and modernity, a symptom of the bourgeois disease that had overtaken the art world. Grosz, like Huelsenbeck, felt that the work of the Berlin Dada must offer something to the increasing working class struggle for freedom as he was a great supporter of a socialist world revolution.

This was achieved in part the use of periodicals, newspapers, flyers and events that disseminated the Dada message, but also through new forms of art, such as the photomontage, which embraced collaboration, impermanence, reproducibility and iconoclasm. Distancing himself from considering dada art as ‘works of art’, Peter Bürger preferred to deal with photomontages as “Dada manifestations”. He drew attention to the fact that they were created as acts of resistance against the injustices of the art establishment and were not intended as explicitly aesthetic objects.[5] The Dadaists challenged the notion that art should satisfy a bourgeois need to “offer a beautiful appearance of a better world”, by injecting political satire and sharp social comment into their work.

At the International Dada Fair of 1920, when Berlin Dada was at its zenith, the largest pictorial collection of Dada work was placed together in an exhibition of 174 items. Hausmann and Baader had put assembled a group of ‘corrected masterpieces’, featuring the collages of Haussmann and Hoch alongside the deeply political work of Grosz, Heartfield and Baader in an unconventional exhibition.[6] The catalogue featured the montage ‘The life and work in the universal city, 12.05 noon’ by Grosz and Heartfield. In this, Grosz original sketches are exploded through an amalgamation of collaged text and image, making direct reference to the pop culture of the United States. You can see this kind of aesthetic repeated in the photomontages on show, such as ‘The Art Critic’, created by Hausmann and completed in 1919. The montage was a direct attack on the art institution, and parody of the art critic. The central figure, the art critic, was constructed out of a photograph of Grosz, whose head had been blown out of proportion. Childlike drawings of his eyes and mouth were posted onto his face, downturned so to give him an expression both ridiculous and cartoonish. His ludicrousness was further reinforced by the enlarged pencil in his right hand. Lodged into the back of his neck, a triangular cut out of a German banknote. The critic is blinded and unable to ‘see’ the woman to his right as she leans closer to his mouth, listening with a bemused expression. Large overblown words, so enlarged they become unreadable, are pasted to the background. These could be interpreted as the voice of the critic, whose words are so aggrandised and over inflated that they become nonsensical and meaningless. Further critique can be read into the banknote, which suggests that money is never far from the mind of the critic. It serves to reveal the capitalist intention of the art institution. In one image, Hausmann used the fragmentation of multiple different images to coalesce into a parody of the art critic as an undisputed authority on art. He used photomontage to “shatter the surface” in more ways than one, both shattering the pictorial surface of the canvas and the pretentions of the art institution.

In order to successfully critique the structures that dominated the art institution, photomontage needed to pictorialize an attack on rational and traditional art production. The overarching aesthetic message of the exhibition was that Dada art, like photomontage, rejected the material methods of aesthetic tradition in place of a new materialism, one that adopted an unconventional approach to materials. Assemblage, became the technique of choice for its multiple layers of signification. It challenged defined artistic practices in craft, control and intentionality whilst it rejected the use of traditional subject matter, materials and classical composition; “we painted with scissors, adhesives, plaster, sacking, paper and other new tools and materials”.[7] Photomontage was a method that both encapsulated the desire of the Dadaists to be considered anti-artists, (they used scissors and not paintbrushes) and deliberately attempted to challenge the authority of non-objective art. The result was meant to suggest a haphazard construction. Hausmann stated that photomontage allowed them to see themselves as engineers, not artists, and the work as a construction as opposed to a piece of art. The Dadaists did not want to create eternal works of aesthetic genius, instead they wished to pave the path for a new society, by exposing what they saw as the “stale cultural conventions of a decayed European civilization which had led the world into the conflagration of the Great War of 1914-1918”.[8]

They attacked bourgeois methods of communication as they effectively used images circulating in print media to re-organise meaning, transforming something recognisable into a resignification in a new context. Similarly, by reproducing these images, they were questioning the notion of authorship. Established conventions dictated that the production of art required one isolated individual with an artistic vision, but with photomontage images were taken from a variety of sources Was it the person that took the photograph that was to take credit, or the one who assembled it? The answer was technically neither, and yet both at the same time. This collaborative method further decreased the significance of the ‘original’ in the work of art, a consequence that in Walter Benjamin’s terms would contribute to the loss of the “aura”.[9] Hausmann recognised in photomontage the subversive potential of the medium, the power it had to shock. This can be seen in ‘The Art Critic’, the medium provided Hausmann with an innovative way to explore multiple points of view, and to imbue within his work multiple levels of signification. As an optical device, it served to juxtapose images close and far, opening up new possibilities of perspective and depth.[10] By incorporating the debris of everyday life into their work, they aimed to replicate unflinchingly the “simultaneous whirl of noises, colours, and spiritual rhythms” of modernity, with all “its brutal reality”.[11] Through this they hoped to confront a crazy world with its own image, and create a new unity in an age of war and revolution.

With this in mind, it is useful to evaluate to what extent the Berlin Dadaists, with their photomontage, challenged dominant ideologies of art practice. On the one hand, it is hard to underestimate the effectiveness of Dada methods and ideology when measured against the legacy that they have created for contemporary art, something which Richard Kuenzli was keen to stress in his work dada, stating that they had permanently “shaken society’s notions of art and cultural production”.[12] Most conceptual art movements after 1923 traced their roots to Dada, as the anti-institutional and anti-hierarchical approaches to art inspired other anti-establishment movements such as Surrealism, Constructivism, Situationism and Fluxus.

However, to state that Dada was effective in shattering the art institution is perhaps over emphasising their isolation from it. Bürger noted that an inherent issue within the Dada movement was how to continue to create an aesthetic that shocked people into action.[13] Once it had been accepted into the art world, (i.e. once Duchamp’s ready-made was accepted into the gallery) it became a part of the institution, and the shock value was reduced to nothing. The photomontages, whilst being intended as manifestations of political and social critique only, were not devoid of artistic sensibility. In ‘life and work’, what is meant to be an illogical assemblage can be read as an organised composition with a procession of figures moving from left to right along a row of buildings. This desire for visual and pictorial representation within Dada was an issue that challenged the very notion of their ‘anti-art’ tendencies, and challenged their distinctness from other modernist movements.

Yet no other movement came as close to shattering the myths of the art establishment than Dada. We must recognise that contextually, the methods employed by the Dadaists were revolutionary. They irreversibly pushed the boundaries of what qualified as art, and paved the way for the art that was to follow. They questioned and ultimately effectively changed what was considered art, as well as its purpose within society. Dada forever altered the landscape of popular culture; they created a visual language that had an enormous influence on the pictorial development of graphic design, advertising, film and photography. It can be argued quite vehemently that they, to a large extent, challenged dominant ideologies by breaking down barriers between high and low art.

It is hard to do justice in so few words the extent in which Dada effectively refuted dominant ideologies. The Berlin Dada used photomontage to refute established methods of creating and selling art by challenging bourgeois autonomous art, the myth of originality, the artist as individual creative genius and the hierarchies within art. Through the rejection of traditional methods of art creation, they aimed to re-establish modern life as an essential facet of art production. By the supposed shattering of aesthetic values in their work, they aimed to rally people into action both politically and socially, making them aware of the bourgeois structures that dominated art production at the time. This was meant to provide a solution to the passivity of other modernist movements, such as Expressionism. The impact of their legacy is not to be under-estimated, although the extent of their power to refute the art institution did and still does face challenges. And yet, the influence of Dada is still visible and powerful, even today.

“Dada siegt!—Dada triumphs!”.




Ades, Dawn. Photomontage. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 1986.

Benjamin, Walter, and J. A Underwood. The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin, 2008.

Benson, Timothy O. “Mysticism, Materialism, And The Machine In Berlin Dada”. Art Journal 46, no. 1 (1987): 46. doi:10.2307/776842.

Bürger, Peter. Theory Of The Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Chametzky, Peter. Objects As History In Twentieth-Century German Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Hausmann, Raoul, and John Cullars. “Photomontage”. Design Issues 14, no. 3 (1998): 67. doi:10.2307/1511895.

Höch, Hannah, Peter W Boswell, Maria Martha Makela, Carolyn Lanchner, and Kristin Makholm. The Photomontages Of Hannah Höch. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1996.

Huelsenbeck, Richard. Dadaistisches Manifest. Berlin: E. Reiss, 1918.

Huelsenbeck, Richard. Memoirs Of A Dada Drummer. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Hugnet, Georges, and Margaret Scolari. “Dada”. The Bulletin Of The Museum Of Modern Art 4, no. 23 (1936): 3. doi:10.2307/4057867.

Kuenzli, Rudolf E. Dada. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2006.

Lavin, Maud, and Hannah Höch. Cut With The Kitchen Knife. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Richter, Hans. Dada: Art And Anti-Art. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965.

Shipe, Timothy. “The Dada Archive”. Books At Iowa, no. 39 (1983).

[1] Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 49.

[2] Peter Chametzky, Objects As History In Twentieth-Century German Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 35.

[3] Timothy Shipe, “The Dada Archive”, Books At Iowa, no. 39 (1983), 4.

[4] Richard Huelsenbeck, Dadaistisches Manifest (Berlin: E. Reiss, 1918), 36.

[5] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 51.

[6] Dawn Ades, Photomontage (Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 1986), 11.

[7] Hugo Ball as quoted by [7] Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 49.

[8] Timothy Shipe, “The Dada Archive”, Books At Iowa, no. 39 (1983), 10.

[9] Walter Benjamin and J. A Underwood, The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction (London: Penguin, 2008), II.

[10] Raoul Hausmann and John Cullars, “Photomontage”, Design Issues 14, no. 3 (1998): 67.

[11] Richard Huelsenbeck, Dadaistisches Manifest (Berlin: E. Reiss, 1918), 36.

[12] Rudolf E. Kuenzli, Dada (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2006), 14.

[13] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 55.

The Transgressive Void


The Transgressive Void: An exploration of the assumption of taboo and vandalism in Anish Kapoor’s Dirty Corner

Initially written as my dissertation towards a BA in Art History and Visual Culture, this piece has become an interesting ‘think’ work which I wanted to share as a way to start off this new enterprise of mine. (Disclaimer: Intellectual property of Meaghan Curry at the University of Exeter, 2016 – If you would like to cite or use this piece in any way please contact me first!)

This piece examines the relationship between the assumption of taboo and vandalism in the work of Anish Kapoor, Dirty Corner. It was hypothesized that Dirty Corner, once it had assumed the significations of a vagina, became a target for vandalism due to the anxiety, fear and threat to order that these created. In the first chapter, ‘Inviting Chaos: How the Dirty Corner Became a Vagina’, a description of the conversations between Kapoor, the press and the public are examined, the purpose of which is to assess the provenance of the vaginal assumptions, and how they gathered weight. The second chapter, ‘The Rude, The Dirty, The Ugly’, analyses the cultural constructions of the taboo surrounding the vagina, in order to reveal why Dirty Corner appropriated negative connotations. This in turn, frames Dirty Corner as a vagina that incites strong, adverse emotional responses. The final chapter, ‘A Primal Scene: when transgression meets aggression’, argues that the transgressive potential of Dirty Corner as a vagina threatened phallogocentric structures in place at Versailles. The affective power of this created extreme response and behaviour.

It is argued that, not only did this lapse of taboo reveal structures in place that maintain order over ‘deviant’ sexuality, but the anxiety produced when faced with this reveals that patriarchal attitudes about sexuality remain embedded. In order to asses the relationship between taboo and vandalism in Dirty Corner, it is concluded that a network of assumptions, constructions and thoughts transformed this piece of art into a work of transgression, whilst simultaneously revealing a system of anxieties and fears.

“People are sexually aroused by images and sculptures; they break them; they mutilate them, they kiss them and they cry before them. They are incited to revolt. They expect to be elevated by them – and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear.”[1]

On the 17th of June 2015, Dirty Corner was vandalised for the first time (Fig. 8). The interior of the sculpture received lashings of cream coloured paint, delivered onto the surface of the interior, by a paint jet that was brought onto the grounds of the Palace of Versailles under the cover of night. The work, which had by this point been whipped up in a media controversy, had appropriated the motif, “the Queen’s Vagina” – a term used to undermine the work of Anish Kapoor.[2] When Le Figaro reported on the attack, they stated that the most “imposing” work at the exhibition, “a steel trunk with obvious sexual connotations”, received what it had been asking for.[3] Kapoor observed that “works of art are often catalysts for larger malaise in society”, affirming that Dirty Corner had been “belittled” in the press through its appropriation of vaginal significations.[4] Shortly after this statement, on the night of the 6th of September, a second act of vandalism occurred. The sculpture was covered with vicious words in white paint; “Queen sacrificed, twice insulted”, “SS Bloody Sacrifice”, the “This is sexual mutilation, Open your F…. Eyesand “Christ is king in Versailles.”[5]

If, as Freedman suggests, images hold within them the affective power to “incite revolt” and move people to the highest levels of empathy and fear – Dirty Corner, a work of abstraction, held within it the potential to unleash a violent emotional response in those that vandalised it. The work meant something, threatened something­…and had the power to invite chaos. As the ‘Queen’s Vagina’ the work brought something to fore that was problematic. Only as a vagina did the work disgust, anger and threaten. It is argued in this dissertation that through the assumption of vaginal significations, Dirty Corner transformed from a piece of contemporary art into a work that transgressed taboo. These assumptions consequently led to the piece provoking fear, anxiety and hatred, making it a target for vandalism.

In the first chapter, the narrative between Kapoor, the press and the public is explored in order to assess the provenance of the vaginal assumptions and how they were circulated. Through Kapoor’s statements, it is argued that Dirty Corner was framed as sexual and corporeal: part of his agenda to cause chaos at Versailles. The press and public made the sculpture into a vagina – a factor that is significant. This narrative is important in order to contextualise the work as part of an interconnected system of value judgements and opinions, instead of viewing it as an artwork in isolation. The contributions of Julie Kristeva and Elizabeth Grosz are used to create a theoretical framework that Dirty Corner can be situated in.

The second assesses the significance of these value judgements in order to understand why the work was considered ugly, disgusting and inappropriate. As such, the chapter deconstructs the vagina as taboo, in order to reveal some of the cultural constructions that underpin this bodily orifice. This frames Dirty Corner as a vagina that, through its abject power to offend, incites highly negative emotional responses. The analysis in this chapter is enriched through the work of Joanna Frueh, Georges Bataille, Mary Douglas and Freud alongside Mikhail Bakhtin and Winfried Menninghaus.

The third and final chapter explains the link between these assumptions (chapter I), their cultural connotations (chapter II) and their power to offend against a phallocentric construction of systemic order. This chapter simultaneously elucidates on how a representation of female sexuality threatens in a public space and how male sexuality seems not to offend. Through this, the vandalism of the work is evaluated as an effort to neutralise its inherent threat. Additionally, the chapter is enhanced through the case study of Paul McCarthy’s Tree, which faces a similar fate to Dirty Corner. The approach here, is to seek to understand the importance of the transgressive potential of taboo in the context of contemporary public art practices and the societies that gave them meaning.[6]

Chapter I: Inviting Chaos: How the Dirty Corner Became a Vagina

“The Tapis Vert running from the Parterre d’Eau to the Bassin d’Apollon, now a Dirty Corner? Broken columns, rubble and ruins, and a giant horn opening its rapacious mouth toward us. Does this dirty tube aspire to siphon off the finely reasoned geometry? The breathless throat. Insatiable ear. An orifice in a state of excitement – male or female, front or behind?”[7]

This chapter explores how Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Dirty Corner appropriated the term ‘the Queen’s vagina’ – shocking the French Press and the public. It examines Kapoor’s intention for the piece that, to a large extent, initiated the surrounding debate and controversy. The latter is explored through a narrative of articles in the press, looking at how they disseminated the idea of the sculpture as a representation of a vagina, and illustrating how the assumptions made about this piece were circulated, and some of the reactions to them. The point of this exploration is to set out Kapoor’s intent to create chaos at Versailles and how the press and public framed this as a controversy, thus, highlighting a correlation between the appropriation of transgressive significations and its vandalism.[8] It is argued in the chapter, that it is because Dirty Corner became the symbol of the female sex, the vagina, that it transgressed taboo and polarised opinion.

Dirty Corner stretches across sixty metres of the Grande Perspective at the Palace of Versailles, with a towering mouth eight metres from the ground. The sculpture resembles an elongated cornucopia with a large opening like that of a French horn, which faces towards the marble steps of the Palace. Julie Kristeva stated that this opening was a “rapacious mouth”, the lips of which curled like the petals of a foxglove, revealing a dark central tunnel untouched by light.[9] Panels of metal enhance the hypnotic effect of the central aperture, creating through their fusion to one another visible lines, like the veins on a leaf, which work to streamline the funnel-like shape and augment the optical element of the piece. This works to draw your gaze from one side to the other, from inside to outside, from above to below. The surface of the steel sculpture was smooth, not polished like a mirror, but somewhere in between, like the texture of an old tin can. The absence of paint or a sheen of any kind, alongside the visible nuts and bolts holding the metal panels together, works to create a materiality that could be described as ‘raw’ or ‘stripped back’, but sturdy and metallic. The colour of the steel, achieved by applying a paint stripper onto the bare metal, resembles the dirty auburns and oranges of a rusted pipe. These make it look like a neglected gramophone left in the corner of the attic to rust.

Despite the rust, there is something heroic about Dirty Corner. At Versailles, the shape “emerges” from a bed of large boulder-like stones scattered across the Grande Perspective like “broken columns” and “rubble” from the remnants of an ancient ruin. On one side of the sculpture, a large blood-red segment of rock protrudes from the ground like a pyramid positioned in a way that suggests a violent terrestrial break – as if a tectonic plate had collided, spitting Dirty Corner up from the depths of the earth.

The work was installed at Versailles as part of an exhibition of Kapoor’s work from the 9th June to the 1st November 2015, where it was transferred over from its previous home at La Fabbrica del Vapore in Milan (Fig. 1.3). This exhibition came into being as part of an on-going initiative in place since 2008 to bring modern art to the historic French site, where artists are invited to create an exhibition that responds in some way to the environment at the Palace. Kapoor stated that his response intended to challenge:

“My work has no decorative purpose. I want to engage with the work of Le Nôtre, who ordered nature to eternity with perfect geometric perspectives. I had the idea to upset the balance and invite chaos.” [10]

In his exhibition he implicated the work of André Le Nôtre, the original landscape architect of the gardens in 1735, in a conversation about balance and perfection. The gardens served as a canvas for Kapoor to ‘paint on’, reflecting, challenging and contradicting what he saw as a space that confirmed a relationship between rationale and symmetry.[11] He reinforced his desire to challenge by inferring that the work had no ‘decorative’ purpose, which in turn suggested that it should be viewed outside of the realm of the purely aesthetic. Kapoor set up his exhibition as an exploration of darker, more complex issues resting ‘underneath the surface’ at Versailles:

“The gardens are like a covering, nature is seen as perfect object, and well, it’s not a perfect object. What’s underneath the surface is something darker, more complex, and more dangerous.”[12]

He took issue with Le Nôtre’s formality and order because of the potential for it to present nature as a perfect, controllable substance and to disregard its imperfections. This, he saw as symptomatic of a society that controlled the primal and the natural through culture, as if to order it to perfection. Kapoor wanted to metaphorically excavate the surface of this precision. In Dirty Corner, the rocks that were eschewed around the sculpture are visual links to this excavation. This led him to a discussion of the human condition: “The first material before Le Nôtre was the human body, with all its faults, imperfections and sexuality – revealed from the earth in an excavation where one inevitably comes across its hidden intricacies.”[13] His exhibition intended to uncover decay, human imperfection, disorder and sexuality. In terms of looking at the contradictions of the human condition, Elizabeth Grosz suggested that corporeality could be considered the material condition of subjectivity. Through an examination of this, one must look at how exteriors are physically constructed and how processes of social inscription convey them as perfect. She states:

“Looking at the inside of the body from the view of the outside is to re-examine the distinction between biology and culture, and explore the ways in which that culture constructs biological order in its own image.”[14]

Through an exhibition that aimed to reveal the image of perfection as a cultural construction, Kapoor brought to light the structures that influenced Le Nôtre to order the garden into geometric symmetry. By focusing on the interior – Kapoor revealed the aspects of the human and natural that Le Nôtre could not show.

Kapoor positioned Dirty Corner as the magnum opus of this exhibition, and was completely unapologetic about asserting its power to reveal human sexuality. Through Dirty Corner Kapoor demonstrated a degree of awareness that bodies are not simply human or social, but sexed bodies and any conversation about humanity must include sexuality.[15] Yet, the full extent of the potential vaginal implications of Dirty Corner and their capacity to create controversy were not realised until they were crystallised in an interview with Kapoor. On the 31st of May for the Journal du Dimanche Kapoor was quoted declaring the work a vagina raising to power from the rubble:

“Facing the castle, there will be a mysterious sculpture in rusted steel. Sexual in nature: the vagina who takes power.”[16]

Although it is possible that this article might have taken Kapoor too literally, or out of context, Kapoor was quoted as describing Dirty Corner as a powerful vagina, eliminating some of the ambiguities that had existed in the mind of the public before. The statement was the spark that lit the wildfire in the French press. They fixated on the interpretation of the “vagina rising to power from the rubble” as evidence of the transgressive nature of Dirty Corner. This provoked a considerable amount of anger and frustration towards Kapoor and his work throughout the media coverage right up until the work was vandalised on the 17th of June. After this, its vaginal significations were used as justification for vandalism in some of the more extreme newspapers. The news-worthiness of the controversy was apparent, debates as to whether this was a bold political work or a gigantic joke flooded the media. Some journalists took offence at Kapoor’s apparent lack of sympathy; others supported the piece and berated the narrow-mindedness of the opinion in the French press.[17] On the whole, however, press coverage was obsessed with the work as an inappropriate, shocking and distasteful vagina highlighting the enormous role played by the press in disseminating the dirtiness and rudeness of Dirty Corner at Versailles. [18]

This was exemplified in a particularly scathing article written by Christian Combaz for Le Figaro, in which he violently termed the piece an “idiotic disfigurement” in a place of historic significance; “the Queen at Versailles has been defiled and desecrated by a ‘conch’ that claims it is her vagina raising to power.”[19] Combaz’s article was extremely significant as it was the first piece of press to use the term (that would later become the motif of Dirty Corner) ‘the Queen’s vagina’ when referring to the artwork, making two assumptions that would later synthesise into fact; that the work was definitely a representation of a vagina and also, curiously, that of the last Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.

The reaction of some members of the public, recorded in the comment sections of the various articles, ranged from confusion to anger to disgust. What was most significant about the trend in these articles was the extent to which the work had the power to shock both press and public. It is also important to consider that a work of abstraction became the signified of a vagina. The assumptions towards the object became the object – the threat became real. In a country that is regarded as generally sexually liberal, it seems interesting that Dirty Corner eclipsed the press coverage of the exhibition; polarised opinion more than any other piece; and was targeted for vandalism. The fact that there were four other equally accessible, sculptural works placed throughout the garden (C-Curve, Sky Mirror, Shooting into a Corner, Sectional Body Preparing for Monastic Singularity and Descension [Fig. 1.5]) is particularly significant as none of them caused any issue – despite similar rebellious motives. Dirty Corner somehow threatened a delicate balance between an acceptable representation of sexuality and one that was transgressive.

In short, this narrative highlights the vulgarity of an artwork that signifies a vagina because of the potential for that interpretation to create the most anger. What Dirty Corner reveals is a set of underpinnings, or unspoken beliefs, about what a vagina means in art and society. The transgressive power of the work can be understood as the sum of its significations, born from a set of assumptions. As the work became synonymous with a vagina, the issue became one about how a vagina would be treated in public. In the next chapter, some of these vaginal significations are explored.

Chapter II: The Rude, The Dirty, The Ugly

“Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct…”[20]

The determinant of obscenity lies not in words or things, but in attitudes that people have about words and things.[21] Emma Rees, a literary scholar on the vagina, argues that dirtiness, abjection and obscenity are constructs of a society that connect feelings of repulsion and disgust to their violation, which Dirty Corner, through its assumption of the vaginal, epitomises. In this chapter, Dirty Corner is deconstructed in terms of some of the cultural underpinnings of the vagina in order to explain the transgressive potential of these significations. It is exactly what assumptions and attitudes Dirty Corner appropriated through its reference as a vagina that will be explored. In addition to the theorists used in chapter I, this chapter will reference the work of Joanna Frueh, Mikhail Bakhtin, Georges Bataille, Freud and Henri Lefebvre. The work of Winfried Menninghaus and Mary Douglas also highlight how dangerous uncleanliness is constructed. These all contribute to a consideration of why society has framed the vagina as obscene and inappropriate.[22]

As aforementioned, Dirty Corner, through a narrative told in the press and by Kapoor himself, was cemented as a representation of a vagina. It is difficult to evaluate the aesthetic connection between this sculpture and a vagina; the history of Western art has provided little or no representation for the vagina and therefore vaginal iconography is not particularly concrete. Often the female body has been presented without genitals, but if they are present they are often modestly covered. Joanna Frueh puts forward an analysis of the historical metaphors afforded to the vagina; a bleeding hole, a mutilated wound, nothing, empty, formless and void.[23] Similarly in terms of traditional or religious vaginal iconography, Ann Pearson suggests that the vagina is subject to four categories; the sacred, the suspect, the dangerous and the rude.[24] Both found that traditional art historical representations of vaginas have the value of absurd separation; the vagina is de-corporealized, mystified and objectified, placed on a pedestal and feared. Added to this a language of psychoanalysis, in which the vagina is mythicized into such manifestations of anxiety as the ‘vagina dentata’ and in turn is framed as fearful and hyperbolic.

All of these significations reveal the need to annihilate and control the dread that the vagina inspires whilst simultaneously constructing it as unattainable. In both works, a sentiment that emanated strongly was the notion that vagina is heavily loaded with cultural inscription – Dirty Corner is problematic because it represents all of these significations, reflecting contradictory attitudes of glorification and disparagement, thus, stirring up sensations of anxiety and disgust.

In terms of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “grotesque body”, the body is not separated from the rest of the world – it is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, and transgresses its own limits. The stress of this openness is placed on the parts of the body, like the vagina, where the “body itself goes out to meet the world.” [25] The consuming horror that a vagina provokes as an open void is grotesque due to its role as a margin of the body, in which processes of absorption and excretion of bodily liquids and objects occur. The vagina is configured in the grotesque as wide open, giving birth, or swallowing up the phallus. Its heinous gaping quality corresponds to the disgust of the gaping mouth, which as Georges Bataille notes, represent the antithesis of the closed and idealised form of the unbroken surface, where “the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude, the magisterial look of the face with a closed mouth is as beautiful as a safe”.[26] In order to avoid provoking this horror, the vagina is kept ‘closed’, a relatively easy task considering that it is anatomically quite invisible in itself. Society has therefore been conditioned to consider the gaping vagina as an obscene representation or blemish on the unbroken surface of the female body.

The open vagina transgresses, any representation of this opening is considered obscene (and today, pornographic). The central opening of Dirty Corner featured as one of its aesthetic components the voided shape of a vaginal opening.[27] Feelings of anxiety could be heightened due to the formless nature of this cavity, which was reinforced by the lack of access into the tunnel.[28] Significant and most likely not coincidental, is that this opening faced the Palace steps, making the job of avoiding its absolute darkness particularly difficult. As the “vagina raising to power from the rubble”, Kapoor asserts that this opening is both rapacious and powerful. In this sense, Dirty Corner embodies the horror of the gaping mouth and vagina as the focal node of phallocentric anxiety. The discourse that fuelled this anxiety is nowhere more in evidence than in Freud’s revocation of the ancient and multicultural myth of the ‘vagina dentata’, where his legacy endorsed its demonization. In his essay Medusa’s head, Freud equated the terror provoked by the gaze of Medusa, with eyes that turned man instantly to stone, to a representation of the female genitals with the potential to simultaneously arouse and terrify. Medusa in this case served as the embodiment of the toothed vagina, which decapitated and castrated the phallus. The carnivorous vagina that devours is much like the cannibalistic and animalistic quality of Bataille’s open mouth, highlighting the relationship between the animal and the primal.[29] Freud states that to display the penis to Medusa is to say, “I am not afraid of you. I defy you, I have a penis” – positing the phallus as the voice of reason and alienating the vagina as monstrous.[30]

In this sense, there is something paradoxical in the disgust aimed at Dirty Corner, when it is considered as part of a space that is filled with phallic objects – from the Eiffel Tower to the obelisks – the constructions and representations of symbolic phallic power do not lack in the Parisian landscape.[31] They are also not questioned, due to their canonical status in architecture. If the Freudian vagina is objectified as terrifying, it seems interesting that the phallus is regarded as the very symbol of strength, unity and reason.[32] Frueh has noted that in aesthetic tradition, the male phallus had been “narcissized”.[33] As the male was traditionally the only possessor of the gaze of an artist he was able to construct a visual landscape that heroicized the phallus.[34] There is a discourse, propagated by the likes of Henri Lefebvre, that reveals that the construction of phallic structures imply a “phallic brutality” where “verticality and great height are considered the spatial expression of potentially violent power.”[35] This is significant when considering Dirty Corner because the phallus is not considered ugly and inappropriate in a public space. In fact, the phallus is a shape used to construct meaning and order. The idea that the phallus is involved in the process of making order (out of chaos) stems back to Plato, where the imposition of form on the formless is to make order out of the natural.[36] In Dirty Corner the vagina represents the opposite of a stable object and instead one that needs to be controlled. Frueh elaborates on this when she asserts that, “the intolerably invisible vagina is amorphous. Its malleable contour conforms to the penile volume; fluid conforms to solid.”[37] Here, the vagina is seen as the formless object to be formed, without a concrete shape or contour. Whereas the phallus represents a stable object, the vagina is formless. This is a tension experienced in Dirty Corner, the void created anxiety in a space constructed from phallic imagery. Karl Rosenkranz, a contemporary of Kant, revealed that just as form was found deeply rooted in aesthetic judgement – we find the formless inherently ugly, due to the fact that the abstract fundamental definition of all beauty is unity: “it follows that ugly as negative beauty consists in the non-unity, non-closure, in-definitiveness of form.”[38] The desire for something recognisable, something finite, material and whole, is born from a desire to construct a stable world in which objects have recognisable shapes.[39] Dirty Corner lures and threatens with its implications of infinity – the dark void where no man returns.

The paradox of representation between phallic, male imagery and vaginal imagery is evidenced in a response from the public. A woman quoted in an article for the BBC highlighted the relationship between Dirty Corner and its un-aesthetic significations when she commented: “When you think you’re coming to Versailles you’d expect classic French, maybe a big statue of some Roman god, but this just seems dirty, gross.”[40] The quote, although certainly conservative, addresses a perspective on Dirty Corner suggesting that a Roman god, in-keeping with traditional aesthetic tastes, is an acceptable artistic manifestation at Versailles, whereas a vagina is not. The notion that a nude male is in keeping with the aesthetic tone at Versailles and a vagina is “dirty” and “gross” brings into a play a discussion of gross bodily aesthetics and constructions of dirt.

Not only is Dirty Corner ugly and dangerous, it is dirty. The synonymous relationship between dirt and the vagina stems from the perception that bodily orifices are precincts of marginality – sites of transition from inside to outside. That which is emitted from them: tears, blood, milk, sweat, breath, faeces, and semen, are not constructed as part of a world of orderly things. Cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas stated that “there is no such thing as absolute dirt – it exists only in the eye of the beholder”.[41] Dirtiness reveals a value judgement and a cultural category produced through processes of reification. In such a process an abstract value becomes attached to, or embodied in, a concrete object. This in turn functions as a precedent for the application of the concept. In this sense, the vagina as obscene is a construction deeply interwoven in an establishment of a historically, culturally and socially defined sense of shame relating to bodily functions and sexual matters. The fear of the representation of a vagina derives from, and reflects, the fear of the thing – the sign and signified enter into a cyclical relationship with each other.[42] It was not just the name Dirty Corner that provoked the remarks “dirty” and “gross”, it was the fact that it was perceived as a sexual orifice.[43] The work of Julia Kristeva, which pursues the vagina as a site of disgust, posits that its uncleanliness lies in its power as an abject object. Her concept of abjection is explained as the process by which one separates their sense of self (be that physical, biological, social or cultural) from that which they consider intolerable, and infringes upon their ‘self’, otherwise known as the abject. Kristeva notes:

“The abject exists accordingly somewhere between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, representing taboo elements of the self barely separated off in a liminal space.”[44]

The vagina, as a symbol of anxiety and fear, suggests a deeper psychological association between female sexuality and a threat to the subject – indicating the return of a primal repression, or the abject.[45]

It would be amiss to disregard that as a piece of contemporary art, Dirty Corner is also in some way inextricably tied to an aesthetic judgement if it is considered “ugly” by the public. The problematic notion that Dirty Corner is ugly elucidates on the construction of vaginal representations as un-aesthetic, which frame the vagina as not only frightening and formless, but hideous as well. In a sense, the disgust that the vagina incites frames a dialogue on the definition of aesthetic pleasure and displeasure. Winfried Menninghaus postulates that there is an aesthetic contradiction between bodily disgust and beauty, generated through cultural and historical discourses on art. He frames the two concepts as irreconcilably opposed. He elaborates:

“In the realm of the ideally beautiful, when not only the body’s excretions but literally its inner organs become visible on the outside – what is at play can only be disgusting in the service of the monstrous or ridiculous”[46]

In this quote, there is the underlying opinion that the aesthetically pleasing body has no interior – separating it from the “ideally beautiful” world of closed and complete surfaces. Much like Bataille’s idea that a beautiful face is as “closed as a safe”, the open powerful vagina has no place in traditional aesthetics.[47] The disgust provoked by the orifices of the human body, most specifically the Freudian trio of erogenous zones (mouth, anus, genitals), can be attributed to their direct function in digestive, reproductive and ‘lower’ human functions, as distinct from ‘higher’ sensual pleasures of sight, smell and hearing.[48] Any transgression of this disgust manifests itself in art as an aesthetic violation; one that reinforces that bodily orifices and genitals can never be included in the realm of true, high art. The vagina represents a true skandalon for classical aesthetics, as it is a signifier of ‘lower’ functions and subjected to a discourse that frames it as inappropriate and ugly.[49]

In terms of public response to this violation, some stated that it should not have been present at Versailles at all, “it’s not art. It’s just an ugly piece of vulgarity. It shouldn’t [have been] there to begin with.” [50] This quote illuminated that the orificial ugliness of Dirty Corner put under threat certain unarticulated opinions on aesthetics that the public might have been conditioned to expect at Versailles.[51] [52] The dialectical tension between classical beauty and obscene feminine sexuality was enhanced at Versailles due to the fact that Dirty Corner was surrounded on both sides by mythical and classical sculptures, constructing the piece as ugly and inappropriate. This transgression of aesthetic expectations framed Dirty Corner as an offence.

As expressed, some of the cultural constructions that underpin the vagina help to understand why Dirty Corner might have been considered rude, dirty and ugly. These range from psychoanalytic to anthropological or art historical, yet what they have in common is their ability to create disgust and fear. Through processes of objectification, the vagina reached the apotheosis of a transgressive taboo. As Dirty Corner assumed these significations in the mind of the public, they took on a very real affective power that, as explored in the next chapter, incited the desire to assail and destroy the work.

Chapter III: A Primal Scene: when transgression meets aggression

“…The meaning of taboo, as we see it, is the ‘uncanny’, the ‘dangerous’, the ‘forbidden’, the ‘unclean’.”[53]

Anchored in the present historical notion of public morality and cultural custom, every society places certain areas of human practice and modes of conduct off limits. Such practices are marked as forbidden and defined as taboo. When taboo is presented in a public space, it offends against this vigilant order. The quote, which was taken from Freud’s Totem and Taboo, described taboo as the embodiment of dirtiness, forbiddances, and the uncanny – but also dangerous. This chapter is concerned with exploring the danger of the taboo surrounding Dirty Corner. Despite the fact that Freud’s study is widely rejected anthropologically, there is truth in in the definition when acknowledged alongside the work of Bataille, Douglas, Kristeva and Foucault. Bataille stipulated that taboo works as an economy of prohibitions that outline and protect the structure of the socio-symbolic realm.[54] When these are threatened, an act of transgression occurs, which in the case of Dirty Corner is responded to with vandalism. The transgressive potential of this work, it is discussed in this chapter, threatened phallogocentric structures in place at Versailles.[55] The affective power of this transgression created extreme emotional responses and subsequently encouraged extreme behaviour. Not only did this lapse of taboo reveal structures in place that maintain order over sexuality, but the anxiety produced when faced with this dirtiness reveals that patriarchal attitudes about sexuality remain embedded. In this analysis, the attacks on Dirty Corner, which were comparable to the nature of vandalism in Paul McCarthy’s Tree, elucidate on the relationship between assumptions of taboo and vandalism.

Mary Douglas postulated that, “Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but an effort to organise the environment”.[56] If dirtiness is viewed in terms of taboo (as Freud put forward in his definition) and any violation of the taboo is considered a threat to order (as explained by Douglas) then we could consider that dirt is a manifestation of disorder. Douglas elaborated by stating that: “If we shun dirt, it is because of craven fear, dread or holy terror.”[57]She digressed that pollutions, like dirt, could be used as analogies to maintain the distinction between: clean and dirty, male and female, order and disorder. In other words, dirt can be used to construct a semblance of order through a binary of oppositions.[58] Much like Kapoor who wanted to use dirt to intentionally disrupt the ordered perfection of Le Notre’s garden.

With regards to Versailles, the very construct that gives it its power is its ability to maintain order. Considering this, Michael Foucault claimed that:

“Power is tolerable only on the condition that it masks a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to an ability to hide its own mechanisms.” [59]

Foucault’s notion of power exists only when the mechanisms that maintain it (also mentioned by Douglas) are kept hidden from view. Therefore, Dirty Corner’s explicit position within the Versailles gardens disrupts these constructs of power through its exploitation of dirt, when dirt is considered as disorder. Due to this, this vaginal dirt poses a threat to the institution whose foundations are inherently patriarchal by surfacing attitudes towards female sexuality.

In an encounter with a space in which the balance of power has been threatened, a repression that one might call ‘primal’ can be affected.[60] Kristeva stated that a space that encompasses the abject, like Dirty Corner at Versailles, can no longer constructed as homogeneous or totalizable – but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic.[61] In terms of the situation at Versailles, she expressed that:

“In taking over this site, Kapoor staged a primal scene – An exuberant expenditure of energy, the furious affinity of life and death, gestation at the very heart of carnage.”[62]

The system of order that Versailles relied on to exist was put under threat in a provocation about power and what is kept under the surface. Kapoor acknowledged this in one of his statements about the exhibition:

“Versailles is undoubtedly a place of power. And I think the problematic questions we should be looking at are to do with how we, in contemporary society, enter this conversation about power.”[63]

Kapoor wanted to bring up contradictions in the cultural construction of perfection and order to dig under the surface of the garden and reveal; the primal, the abject, the hatred of female sexuality and discomfort towards the vagina. Considering Foucault, the transgressive potential of Dirty Corner rested in its ability to uncover these hidden structures through the insertion of dirt.

Much like it could be claimed that Dirty Corner threatened to unmask the surface of order at Versailles, Paul McCarthy’s Tree served to expose the existence of a taboo on homosexuality. This work illustrated the affective potential of a transgressive piece of contemporary art to elicit vandalism. Tree was installed as part of Fiac, a Parisian art fair that occurred on the 24th October 2014 in the square in front of the Place Vendôme. It was controversial due to its suggestive shape, which, despite the name, was likened to an anal plug by the press and public. The work was slashed only a day after it was installed, following a brief media frenzy surrounding its controversial subject matter. Tying Dirty Corner and Tree together was the symbolic function of their significations. They were transgressive in the assumption that they were obscene, Dirty Corner as the vagina coming to power and Tree as the emasculating anal plug.

What both works had in common was their ability to undermine the phallogocentric landscape in Paris through the assertion of feminine or homosexual symbols, which, in terms of Freud, represent signifiers of ‘forbidden’ taboo in society. In the case of Tree, it represented the manifestation of heterosexual anxieties concerning the ‘butt plug’ as a symbol of homosexual pleasure, bringing to fore anxieties surrounding orifices and excrement, pleasure and pain. [64] The significations of Tree are in antithesis to the phallus (as described in chapter II), much like Dirty Corner. This is augmented when considering that the sculpture was placed in the Place Vendôme, home to the Vendôme tower that was considered by the likes of the Surrealists as a phallic manifestation.[65] Lefebvre associates that power and the phallus find expression in the city through the “overuse of straight lines, right angles and rectilinear perspective.” [66] In this case, the rounded softness of Tree and the ambiguous shape of Dirty Corner undermine these phallogocentric aesthetic rules. In Dirty Corner as in Tree, their suggested sexuality threatens phallogocentric construction of meaning in the city. To paraphrase Foucault, they both highlight the physical structures that led us to show, ostentatiously, that deviant sex is something we hide; something we silence.[67]

By revealing the disgust and distaste directed towards powerful female or homosexual eroticism, they undoubtedly threaten the public-private dichotomy that delineates traditional roles and keeps such deviant associations under the surface. Art in public spaces, like Dirty Corner and Tree, has the potential to open up a conversation about the spectatorship, place and space, due to the nature of public space as accessible and mostly free. W.J.T. Mitchell elaborated on this when he suggested that whilst art has always aroused vandalistic acts, the shift of audience from gallery goers (those that exceed the threshold fear of the museum space) to the general public has altered the nature of provocation.[68] Placed beyond the confines of the museum, Dirty Corner and Tree reveal a society in which ideas about sexual dangers are interpreted as symbols of the relation as between an inherent hierarchy, which apply in the larger social system.[69] In public space, without the restrictions of the gallery, the public is allowed to engage physically with the work. The vandalism of both pieces is relevant because it reveals attitudes towards their violation in a way that could not find expression inside the gallery space.

Not only do the two works infer deviant sexuality, but also they are both confident assertions of this sexuality in a public space. Like the interior of the vagina, the interior of Dirty Corner became the very focal node for fear itself, the castrated phallus, the aftermath of a ‘vagina dentata’, or a powerful vagina coming to power. As the ‘vagina rising to power from the rubble’, it brings to fore issues surrounding a takeover of femininity, by providing the vagina with an official power in the form of the last Queen of France. This virilisation of the female sex as opposed to phallus threatens the phallogocentric authority at Versailles. Confident representations of symbolic transgressions are seen as ‘arrogant’ reconstructions of politics and ideas, which are actively created to highlight the deviant and marginal, in order to question the boundaries of normative ideals.[70] Due to the fact that they both represent a counter to the ‘normative ideal’, they serve a purpose to counterpoint mainstream idealised bodies, which are thrust at the public through the media. Despite the fact that both Kapoor and McCarthy rejected a ‘one-way’ reading of their sculptures, the ‘butt plug’ that stands tall at 24 metres and the orifice that erupts from the ground at Versailles, project assertiveness by commanding the space through stature and confidence.[71] The more the press framed Dirty Corner as vaginal, the more Kapoor utilised social media to appropriate the vaginal connotations of the piece to make a statement about sexual equality – a fact that asserts Kapoor’s reluctance to abate the press. In this light, the confident and powerful assertion of sexual taboo in a public space caused tensions between artist and public in both cases.

Not only is the space of power phallic in terms of form but also in terms of practice. According to Elizabeth Grosz, men conceive space in terms of the “logic of penetration, colonization and domination.”[72] She reads that phallocentric thought enacted in space is often violent and destructive for this reason. One could claim that to eliminate the threat of deviant sexuality on a phallogocentric space like Vendôme and Versailles, the performance of violence will feature in some way. If violence is based on a logic of penetration and domination, it is interesting to consider the correlation between the abject aesthetic quality of the first act of vandalism (in which yellow-ish white paint was sprayed onto the sculpture using paint jets) and its potential phallic significations. It could be read as an ejaculation of fear onto an object of vaginal power, resulting from a repression of, what Kristeva might suggest, an aggression towards the abject: “does not fear hide an aggression, a violence that returns to its source, its sign having been inverted?”[73] The act became the physical trace of aggression towards the vagina, constructed out of an essentially phallocentric order. Through this act of symbolic ejaculation, male dominance was reasserted.

Douglas suggested that in any culture various provisions for dealing with anomalous events can be found in place before an act of transgression occurs: “if uncleanliness is a matter out of place, it must be approached through order.”[74] Her analysis echoes the work of Grosz and Kristeva as she suggested that violence towards the threat imposed by the dirty is constructed systematically in society. She indicated that if a faction of society considers something an anomaly, then that faction must settle on one interpretation of the anomaly in order to reduce anxieties over ambiguity. In the case of Dirty Corner and Tree, the press ensured that they were only considered as representations of a vagina and a ‘butt plug’, and not abstract contemporary art. She further explains that if the existence of the threat cannot be physically controlled or removed it has to be undermined. As both artworks were commissioned for display as part of an exhibition and could not be removed officially, another method had to be employed. In order to undermine the anomaly, the threat must be neutralised through violence or action. In Dirty Corner and Tree, the acts of vandalism against them served as symbolic violence intending to destroy and devalue the threat that the works had caused.

The power of Dirty Corner and Tree to undermine this phallocentric order could, according to Freedberg, cause a lapse in behaviour provoked by a repression of emotional response to the perceived threat of this taboo. Freedberg makes reference to the fact that vandalists are considered crazy, emotionally unstable beings when they are responding in a seemingly ‘natural’ way to the anxieties provoked by a system that demarcates sex as an object of abject disgust. For him, it is the repression of these sentiments without outlet for expression that causes vandalism.[75] This is also expressed in Bataille, when he states “transgression is violence used by a rational creature.”[76] Similarly, Douglas belies the existence of a system in which anomalous, unclean things are controlled through acts of violence, to reinforce their inherent danger to society. In using violence, the transgressor, as rational member of a cultural system, is approaching the object of taboo by addressing the threat and removing it, in order to re-establish comfortable structures that delineate deviant (homosexual, feminine) sexuality as obscene.

It might be useful to consider alongside this, the notion that the act of vandalism against Dirty Corner and Tree actually confounds Bataille’s opinion that “the main function of all taboos is to combat violence.”[77] If the function of taboo is to delineate the clean from the dirty, then it can be used to impose a certain view on the subjects of a society. In a society that views such vandalistic acts as a regression of social order, and as a kind of taboo in themselves, the function of keeping such manifestations of deviant sexuality away from the public helps to eliminate violence in the future. In light of Foucault’s statement, “there is no escaping from power”, Kapoor unleashed a primal scene that provoked chaos, which in turn provoked violence, which in turn threatened the very order that keeps the violence in check.[78] The vagina that transgresses threatened to destabilize an entire system of discipline through its potential to incite violence. This is the purpose of transgressive art, to question the necessity of the existence of taboo in the first place.[79] Bataille states that transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it”, the taboo is there in order to be violated, and the act of violence towards it works to reaffirm and re-establish it.[80]

Definitions of the obscene are informed by an assessment of their projected damaging effects on the recipients of actions or objects.[81] The potential of Dirty Corner to ‘defile’ and ‘desecrate’, spurred the violent aesthetic attack. The uncovering of the delicate veneer over such taboo had the potential to disrupt phallogocentric order in place in society. Bataille observed that there has never been a society until our own in which representations of the obscene are available to any observer at any time, with an escalation in transgression as stimulation. One might think of pornography, or the image of the sexual body on the internet. A situation, in which the proliferation of the sexual body threatens to undermine a structure in place, produces a greater need for the regulation and control of these representations through a number of interrelated mechanisms including censorship. If a work of art challenges this censorship in turn, anxiety and anger can be directed at this violation.


On the 9th of November 2015, Dirty Corner was dismantled and removed from the premises of Versailles… packed up and taken to a warehouse, where it has sat ever since. The vicious words that were painted on the work just months before were left on and gilded in gold – a constant reminder of its stint in the Palace gardens, cementing into the very fabric, its affective power to incite revolt. In art, what you see is not always what you get. Dirty Corner, a piece of contemporary abstraction that could have potentially endured the exhibition at Versailles without causing controversy, instead became the ‘Queen’s Vagina’, and could not escape those significations.

This dissertation was born from a desire to understand what it was about this piece that could not escape public disapproval, controversy and attack – motivated by the desire to disbelieve that a representation of a vagina could cause so much disgust, and be considered so transgressive by so many people. Further into research for this piece I went, these fears were only further cemented as fact – we live in a society where we cannot handle representations of ‘deviant’ sexuality, where representations are met with anger and hatred. In order to come to this conclusion, this dissertation laid out in the three chapters, the three areas of enquiry that one would need to embark on to assess the relationship between the assumption of taboo and vandalism in this work. Firstly, an assessment of the narrative between Kapoor and the press elucidated on the potential for a taboo to take hold of public opinion, framing the discussion on the cultural constructions that underpinned it. From the ‘vagina dentata’ to the abject void, vaginal iconography established Dirty Corner as part of a system of significations that framed it as dirty, ugly, and rude. As these took hold of public opinion, they threatened something inherent in a social system that maintains the vagina at a distance. Ultimately, this revealed that the relationship between the transgressive potential of Dirty Corner and the vandalism it suffered rested in its assumption as a powerful vagina to invite chaos where order prevailed. In other words, it threatened to shatter the delicate veneer between: clean and dirty, male and female, abject and beautiful, order and chaos.

The significance of the sculpture’s power to shock is incomplete if considered in isolation: without the narrative that constructs it as a vagina, without the cultural constructions that predicate how we understand this orifice, and finally without the affective power of these constructs. The verisimilitude of the art object has the potential to fool, much like René Magritte’s, This is not a Pipe, reminds us that a good work of art receives all interpretations but settles on none – Dirty Corner problematizes the way that we attribute significance to images. If Magritte highlighted the idea that an image of a pipe is not the same thing as the pipe itself, then Dirty Corner can be said to suffer from this exact dialectical relationship. A whole network of assumptions, constructions and thoughts turned this object into a work of transgression. A system of anxieties and fears that in turn revealed the primal nature in the few that could not quietly ignore this work. This dissertation explored the correlation between these assumptions and anxieties, based on deep-rooted notions of aesthetics, dirt, appropriateness and taboo, resulting in the outburst of emotion that caused the vandalism of Dirty Corner – the transgressive void.



Almaas, A. H. The Void: Inner Spaciousness And Ego Structure. Berkeley: Shambhala Publications, 1986.

Ameena Meer, Anish Kapoor. “Anish Kapoor”. BOMB, no. 30 (1989): 38-43.

“Anish Kapoor ‘Queen’s Vagina’ Sculpture At Versailles Vandalised Again”, The Guardian. 2015.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. M. Rabelais And His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Barber, Tabitha and Stacy Boldrick. Art Under Attack. London: Tate Publishing, 2013.

Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968.

Bataille, Georges. Visions Of Excess. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Bataille, Georges. Erotism. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986.

Blacker, Uilleam. “Nation, Body, Home: Gender And National Identity In The Work Of Oksana Zabuzhko”. The Modern Language Review 105, no. 2 (2010): 487-501.

Bowie-Sell, Daisy. “When Art Gets Vandalised”. The Telegraph, 2012.

Brown, Lisa Beljuli. “Abject Bodies: The Politics Of The Vagina In Brazil And South Africa”. Theoria56, no. 120 (2009): 1-19. doi:10.3167/th.2009.5612002.

Büchler, Pavel and David Harding. Decadent. Glasgow: Foulis Press, 1997.

Cashell, Kieran. Aftershock: The Ethics Of Contemporary Transgressive Art. London: I.B Tauris, 2009.

Chazan, David. “Vandals Deflate Giant ‘Sex Toy’ Sculpture In Paris”. The Telegraph, 2014.

Childers, Joseph W and Gary Hentzi. The Columbia Dictionary Of Modern Literary And Cultural Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Clegg, Jerry S. “Plato’s Vision Of Chaos”. The Classical Quarterly 26, no. 01 (1976): 52. doi:10.1017/s0009838800033796.

Combaz, Christian. “Le Vagin De La Reine À Versailles Profanation De La Mémoire Et De La Spéculation Financière”. Le Figaro, 2015.

Davis, Simone Weil. “Loose Lips Sink Ships”. Feminist Studies 28, no. 1 (2002): 7. doi:10.2307/3178492.

Doherty, Claire, Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk, Chris Fite-Wassilak, Matteo Lucchetti, Magdalena Malm, and Alexis Zimberg. Out of Time, Out Of Place, 2015.

Donnan, Hastings and Fiona Magowan. The Anthropology Of Sex. New York: Berg, 2010.

Douglas, Mary. Purity And Danger. New York: Praeger, 1966.

Duponchelle, Valerie. “Anish Kapoor Vandalisée À Versailles Sa “Profession De Foi””. Le Figaro, 2016.

Durand, Guillaume. “Anish Kapoor: Vive Versailles!”. Le Figaro, 2015.

Fleming, Ronald Lee. The Art of Placemaking, 2007.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline And Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.

Foucault, Michel. The History Of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Freedberg, David. The Power Of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem And Taboo. New York: Norton, 1952.

Freud, Sigmund. “Medusa’s Head”. In Writings On Art And Literature, 1st ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Friedman, David M. A Mind Of Its Own. New York: Free Press, 2001.

Frueh, Joanna. “Vaginal Aesthetics”. Hypatia 18, no. 4 (2003): 137-158. doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.2003.tb01416.x.

Gester, Julien. “Anish Kapoor at Versailles: “We are facing a political problem””. Liberation, 2015.

Goldstein, Arnold P. The Psychology Of Vandalism. New York: Plenum Press, 1996.

Gooding, Mel. Public: Art: Space. London: Merrell Holberton, 1998.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Space, Time, And Perversion. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Hardy, S. “Feminist Iconoclasm And The Problem Of Eroticism”. Sexualities 3, no. 1 (2000): 77-96. doi:10.1177/136346000003001004.

Hayden, Dolores. The Power Of Place. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.

Holliday, Ruth and John Hassard. Contested Bodies. London: Routledge, 2001.

Hossenally, Rooksana. “Anish Kapoor On His Controversial New Exhibition At The Chateau De Versailles”. Forbes, 2015.

Jardonnet, Emmanuelle. “McCarthy Attacked For The Erection Of A Christmas Tree Ambiguous Vendôme”. Le Monde, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Fisher, Reuben M. Baron. “An Equity-Based Model Of Vandalism”. Population And Environment 5, no. 3 (1982): 182-200.

Jordan, Sherrill. Public Art, Public Controversy. New York, N.Y.: American Council for the Arts, 1987.

Jung, Carl. Freud And Psychoanalysis, Volume 4. London: Routledge, 1961.

Kant, Immanuel and J. H Bernard. Kant’s Critique Of Judgement. London: Macmillan, 1914.

Kristeva, Julia and Leon S Roudiez. Powers Of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Kristeva, Julia. “Anish Kapoor: Shooting Into Versailles”. Artpress, 2015.

L.E. Rees, Emma. The Vagina: A Literary And Cultural History. New York, London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production Of Space. Oxford: Blackwell, 1974.

McDowell, Linda and Joanne P Sharp. Space, Gender, Knowledge. London: Arnold, 1997.

McDowell, Linda. Gender, Identity, And Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Menninghaus, Winfried. Disgust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Mey, Kerstin. Art And Obscenity. London: I.B. Taurus, 2007.

Mical, Thomas. Surrealism And Architecture. London: Routledge, 2005.

Miles, Malcolm. “Another Hero? Public Art And The Gendered City”. Parallax 3, no. 2 (1997): 125-135. doi:10.1080/13534645.1997.9522393.

Miles, Malcolm. Art, Space And The City. London: Routledge, 1997.

Mitchell, W. J. T. “The Violence Of Public Art: “Do The Right Thing””. Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4 (1990): 880-899. doi:10.1086/448565.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Art And The Public Sphere. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

O’Neil, Megan E., Eric Reinders, Leslie Brubaker, Richard Clay, and Stacy Boldrick. “The New Iconoclasm”. Material Religion: The Journal Of Objects, Art And Belief 10, no. 3 (2014): 377-385. doi:10.2752/175183414×14101642921500.

Pearson, Ann. “Revealing And Concealing: The Persistence Of Vaginal Iconography In Medieval Imagery”. Ph. D, University of Ottawa, 2001.

Reza, Yasmina and Christopher Hampton. ‘Art’. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.

Richardson, Niall. Transgressive Bodies. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Pub., 2010.

Rodway, Anne. “Art And Sexual Taboo”. Patterns Of Prejudice 3, no. 5 (1969): 21-23. doi:10.1080/0031322x.1969.9968861.

Rosenkranz, Karl, Andrei Pop, and Mechtild Widrich. Aesthetics Of Ugliness. 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Rothfield, Lawrence. Unsettling “Sensation”. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

“Sculptor Anish Kapoor Defends Versailles ‘Vagina’ Artwork”, BBC News, 2015.

Senie, Harriet and Sally Webster. Critical Issues In Public Art. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Siebers, Tobin. “Broken Beauty: Disability And Art Vandalism”. Michigan Quarterly Review 41, no. 2 (2001).

Stéphanie, Belpêche. “Anish Kapoor Invite Le Chaos À Versailles”. Le JDD, 2015.

T., G. B. “Vandalism”. The British Journal Of Criminology 19, no. 2 (1979): 168-170.

“Vandals Attack ‘Queen’s Vagina’ Sculpture At Palace Of Versailles”, The Guardian. 2015.

“Vandals Deflate ‘Sex Toy’ Sculpture In Paris”, The Guardian. 2014.

Vayrynen, Tarja. “The Finnish National Identity And The Sacrificial Male Body: War, Postmemory And Resistance”. National Identities, 2015, 1-16. doi:10.1080/14608944.2015.1061489.

“Versailles Kapoor Sculpture Vandalisées”, Le Figaro, 2015.

Watson, Sophie and Katherine Gibson. Postmodern Cities And Spaces. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1995.

Whybrow, Nicolas. Art And The City. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.



[1] David Freedberg, The Power Of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 1.

[2] Christian Combaz, “Le Vagin De La Reine À Versailles Profanation De La Mémoire Et De La Spéculation Financière”, Le Figaro, 2015.

[3] “Versailles Kapoor Sculpture Vandalisées”, Le Figaro, 2015.

[4] Valerie Duponchelle, “Anish Kapoor Vandalisée À Versailles Sa ‘Profession De Foi’”, Le Figaro, 2016.

[5] “Anish Kapoor ‘Queen’s Vagina’ Sculpture at Versailles Vandalised Again”, The Guardian, 2015,

[6] The history of vandalistic acts in the history of art is as broad and detailed as the history of art itself. For the purpose of this essay, the term, will be taken from Tabitha Baldrer and Stacey Boldrick’s definition: “vandalism can be understood as ‘image breaking’”. In this definition, vandalism is taken as the “wilful destroy(ing) of what is beautiful or venerable,” The term derives from Vandals, name of the Germanic tribe that sacked Rome in 455 under Genseric, from the Latin Vandalus (plural Vandali), from the tribe’s name for itself (Old English Wendlas) here it is applied to the iconoclastic acts reserved for taboo. Baldrer and Boldrick further stated that through vandalistic acts – scratching, defacing, obliterating, beheading or burning – an object is taken from its original context and is transformed, becoming instead symbolic of the act of vandalism. See Tabitha Barber and Stacy Boldrick, Art under Attack (London: Tate Publishing, 2013).

[7] Julia Kristeva, “Anish Kapoor: Shooting Into Versailles”, Artpress, (2015): 11.

[8] Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968), II.4. The Signification.

[9] Julia Kristeva, “Anish Kapoor: Shooting Into Versailles”, Artpress, (2015): 12

[10] Stéphanie Belpêche, “Anish Kapoor Invite Le Chaos À Versailles”, Le JDD, 2015,

[11] The gardens, a perfectly preserved example of the aesthetic of the jardin à la Française, feature symmetry and imposed order on nature; An enormous expanse of 15,000 hectares of land ordered symmetrically on the east-west axis, featuring an enormous grand perspective, fountains, flowerbeds and hedgerows. The preciseness of the layout, the curatorship of light and shade and the use of features to harness the light of the sun, the emblem of King Louis XIV, contributed to a space that was all about the appearance of perfection.

[12] Rooksana Hossenally, “Anish Kapoor On His Controversial New Exhibition At The Chateau De Versailles”, Forbes, 2015,

[13]“Sculptor Anish Kapoor Defends Versailles ‘Vagina’ Artwork”, BBC News, 2015,

[14] Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time, And Perversion (New York: Routledge, 1995), 105.

[15] Rooksana Hossenally, “Anish Kapoor On His Controversial New Exhibition At The Chateau De Versailles”, Forbes, 2015,

[16]Belpêche Stéphanie, “Anish Kapoor Invite Le Chaos À Versailles”, Le JDD, 2015,

[17] Guillaume Durand, “Anish Kapoor: Vive Versailles!” Le Figaro, 2015.

[18] The word itself originates from ‘drit’ meaning ‘excrement’; it can be a physical substance, like soil or mud that soils something or someone, but it can also be taken metaphorically. To gather dirt on someone is to gather information on his or her ‘unclean’ activities, the intended victim of such blackmailing would be amiss to let their dirt go public and expose themselves as dirty members of society. For more, see Mary Douglas, Purity And Danger (New York: Praeger, 1966).

[19] Christian Combaz, “Le Vagin De La Reine À Versailles Profanation De La Mémoire Et De La Spéculation Financière”, Le Figaro, 2015.

[20] Michel Foucault, Discipline And Punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 105.

[21] Emma L.E. Rees, The Vagina: A Literary And Cultural History (New York, London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 253.

 [23] Joanna Frueh, “Vaginal Aesthetics”, Hypatia 18, no. 4 (2003): 138.

[24] Ann Pearson, “Revealing And Concealing: The Persistence Of Vaginal Iconography In Medieval Imagery” (Ph. D, University of Ottawa, 2001), 30.

[25] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais And His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 26.

[26] Georges Bataille, Visions Of Excess (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 60.

[28] This is expanded upon in Bataille’s definition of the Formless: “Formless is […] a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape.”[28] This quote, taken from Georges Bataille, could serve to express why the vagina, in its amorphousness, serves to remove an inherent hierarchy and to bring an object down from a higher place; it is because form is constructed as a necessary quality for objects to exist. See Georges Bataille, Visions Of Excess (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 31.

[29] Georges Bataille, Visions Of Excess (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 59

[30] Sigmund Freud, “Medusa’s Head”, in Writings On Art And Literature, 1st ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 264.

[31] Julien Gester, “Anish Kapoor at Versailles: we are facing a political problem” Liberation, 2015,

[32] Phallus as described by Elizabeth Grosz: “Although the term is derived from Freud’s understanding of the phallic stage, in which he claims that only one sexual organ – the penis – is relevant for both sexes, in Lacan’s reading, the term has two meanings. In the first place (chronologically and logically) the phallus does not refer to a biological organ but to an imaginary organ, the detachable penis, the penis that the child believes the mother to possess. The phallus is thus the effect of an imaginary fantasy of bodily completion, represented by the mother, against which the child compares itself. In the second place, as a result of the castration complex and the child’s acknowledgement of the mother’s castration, the phallus is no longer a detachable organ, but a signifier which makes an absence present. See Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time, and Perversion (New York: Routledge, 1995).

[33] Joanna Frueh, “Vaginal Aesthetics”, Hypatia 18, no. 4 (2003): 151.

[34] It would be impossible in so short an essay to go into the detail in which this was constructed sociologically and historically, but A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis By David M. Friedman, features a really compelling history. See David M Friedman, A Mind Of Its Own (New York: Free Press, 2001).

[35] Henri Lefebvre, The Production Of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974), 98.

[36] Plato in Jerry S. Clegg, “Plato’s Vision Of Chaos”, The Classical Quarterly 26, no. 01 (1976): 52; The human body is biologically incomplete, indeterminate amorphous (whereas representations of the body are fixed), the tension between these two incompatible representations is interestingly explained in Winfried Menninghaus, Disgust (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003).

[37] Joanna Frueh, “Vaginal Aesthetics”, Hypatia 18, no. 4 (2003): 151.

[38] Karl Rosenkranz, Aesthetics of Ugliness, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 67.

[39] Mary Douglas, Purity And Danger (New York: Praeger, 1966), 2.

[40] “Sculptor Anish Kapoor Defends Versailles ‘Vagina’ Artwork”, BBC News, 2015,

[41] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Praeger, 1966), 2.

[42] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course In General Linguistics (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 65.

[43] “Sculptor Anish Kapoor Defends Versailles ‘Vagina’ Artwork”, BBC News, 2015,

[44] Joseph W Childers and Gary Hentzi, The Columbia Dictionary Of Modern Literary And Cultural Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 308.

[45] Lisa Beljuli Brown, “Abject Bodies: The Politics Of The Vagina In Brazil And South Africa”, Theoria56, no. 120 (2009): 10.

[46] Winfried Menninghaus, Disgust (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 55.

[47] Georges Bataille, Visions Of Excess (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 59.

[48] Carl Jung, Freud and Psychoanalysis, Volume 4 (London: Routledge, 1961), 260.

[49] In Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, on which modern aesthetics is grounded, pure aesthetic critiques were based entirely on disinterested pleasure, a pleasure that does not depend on or generate desire, framing the genital area as off limits for aesthetic appreciation. See Immanuel Kant and J. H Bernard, Kant’s Critique Of Judgement (London: Macmillan, 1914).

[50] “Vandals Attack ‘Queen’s Vagina’ Sculpture At Palace Of Versailles”, The Guardian, 2015,

[51] Kieran Cashell, Aftershock: The Ethics Of Contemporary Transgressive Art (London: I.B Tauris, 2009), 2.

[52] The foundations of these sentiments lie in Cartesian dualism, where the exclusion of sexuality from aesthetics fuelled the later distinction that intellect was separate to bodily experience. In aesthetics, an orificial aesthetic is problematic, a challenge to the perceived ‘higher’ intellectual endeavours of the mind. Until the 19th century the body in western painting and sculpture traditionally assumed one of two roles – it either stood for an idealised mythical, biblical or historical figure such as Venus, or it was presented as the likeness of a contemporary person of importance. In the quote, the recognisable figure of a Roman god, one that embodies the classical function of an object both aesthetically pleasing and male, represents a piece of artwork that is unthreatening aesthetically. The history of the body’s representation in art has been more preoccupied with idealisation rather than veracity. The female nude has also been similarly treated, cast as a symbol of classical beauty or allegory, or pictured revelling in nature and sensuality. Expressing an aesthetic aversion to the horrible and repulsive, due to its function to disrupt this order, is a concept inextricably linked to the gradual emergence of a private-public dichotomy as a feature of a developing bourgeois society. See Kerstin Mey, Art And Obscenity (London: I.B. Taurus, 2007), Introduction.

[53] Sigmund Freud, Totem And Taboo (New York: Norton, 1952), 75.

[54] Georges Bataille, Visions Of Excess (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 141.

[55] Phallogoentrism as defined by Elizabeth Grosz: “This is a form of logocentrism in which the phallus takes on the function of the logos. The term refers to the ways in which patriarchal systems of representation always submit women to models and images defined by and for men. It is the submission of women to representations in which they are reduced to a relation of dependence on men. There are three forms phallocentrism generally takes: whenever women are represented as the opposites or negatives of men; whenever they are represented in terms the same as or similar to men; and whenever they are represented as men’s complements. In all three cases, women are seen as variations or versions of masculinity-either through negation, identity or unification into a greater whole. When this occurs two sexual symmetries (each representing the point of view of one sex regarding itself and the other) are reduced to one (the male), which takes it upon itself to adequately represent the other (see also Logocentrism)”. See Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989).

[56] Mary Douglas, Purity And Danger (New York: Praeger, 1966), 2.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Michel Foucault, The History Of Sexuality (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 7.

[60] Julia Kristeva and Leon S Roudiez, Powers of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 14.

[61] Ibid, 15.

[62] Julia Kristeva, “Anish Kapoor: Shooting Into Versailles”, Artpress, (2015): 12.

[63] Rooksana Hossenally, “Anish Kapoor on His Controversial New Exhibition at the Chateau De Versailles”, Forbes, 2015,

[64] Fore more information on heterosexual anxieties surrounding the ‘butt plug’, see Hastings Donnan and Fiona Magowan, The Anthropology Of Sex (New York: Berg, 2010).

[65] Andre Breton wished to counterpart phallic architecture in Paris with a female, wishing to transform the Vendôme tower into a “factory chimney being climbed by a nude woman”. The purpose of this was to highlight the phallic nature of the tower, and to sexualize the space even further. For more, see Thomas Mical, Surrealism And Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).

[66] Henri Lefebvre, The Production Of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974), 410.

[67] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 9.

[68] Despite this his association of public art and violence is not new, and has gone back to the destruction of public monuments in Chinese dynasties to the religious iconoclasm in the west. See W. J. T. Mitchell, “The Violence Of Public Art: “Do The Right Thing””, Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4 (1990): 881.

[69] Jeremy Rees identified some of the problem of art when placed in a public space, and comments that very few of the works commissioned for a location are made for the site they inhabit. He states that this often provokes unpredictable and hostile reactions of the public. Rees points out that the work in these exhibitions needs to be attentive to the scale of the site they are working in, needs to be related to other sites, and attention must be given to audiences. He further states that the site must be appreciated as separate to that of an accepted area of art display. He stated, “the problem of public sculpture lies with the public, not with sculpture”. Artists face real problems when trying to engage with a public’s sympathy. For more, see Pavel Büchler and David Harding, Decadent (Glasgow: Foulis Press, 1997) and Sherrill Jordan, Public Art, Public Controversy (New York, N.Y.: American Council for the Arts, 1987)

[70] Niall Richardson, Transgressive Bodies (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 120.

[71] Paul McCarthy was quoted as saying: “it all started with a joke: originally, I thought the anal plug has a shape similar to the sculptures of Brancusi. After, I realized that it looked like a Christmas tree. But it is an abstract work. People can be offended if they want to refer to the plug, but for me it is more of an abstraction.” See Emmanuelle Jardonnet, “McCarthy Attacked for the Erection of a Christmas Tree Ambiguous Vendôme”, Le Monde, 2014,

Anish Kapoor had stated on being asked whether Dirty Corner was the queen’s vagina: “Oh, it’s completely ridiculous. If you really look at the form, it’s a long tube and then it has the big opening, you could equally say it’s very phallic because of the long cylindrical tube that stems from it. It’s completely silly. Look, if the work is controversial for whatever reason, it goes somewhere, it brings something that is problematic”

See Rooksana Hossenally, “Anish Kapoor On His Controversial New Exhibition At The Chateau De Versailles”, Forbes, 2015,

[72] Elizabeth Grosz, “Women, Chora, Dwelling.” in Sophie Watson and Katherine Gibson, Postmodern Cities And Spaces (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1995), 57.

[73] Julia Kristeva and Leon S Roudiez, Powers Of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 13

[74] Mary Douglas, Purity And Danger (New York: Praeger, 1966), 39.

[75] David Freedberg, The Power Of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 1.

[76] Georges Bataille, Erotism (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 64.

[77] Georges Bataille, Erotism (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 65.

[78] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 95.

[79] Kieran Cashell, Aftershock: The Ethics Of Contemporary Transgressive Art (London: I.B Tauris, 2009), 9.

[80] Georges Bataille, Erotism (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 65.

[81] Kieran Cashell, Aftershock: The Ethics Of Contemporary Transgressive Art (London: I.B Tauris, 2009), 9.