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Ana Kučan: Versailles, l’Espace Infini

Geometry and Enigma

We owe the term “heterotopy” to Michel Foucault. Utopias, Foucault says, are places, which do not have real locations in our world; they are literally “no-places” (as the etymology of the word utopia already tells us), imaginary dreamed up places, a screen for our projections and ideal thoughts; but also our nightmares, as in the case of dystopias. In contrast, heterotopies are localized places in the real, which open another space in the middle of our world; they offer another reality and introduce distinct rules. They maintain themselves in communication and in tension with the real world, to which they offer their own type of antipole or paradoxical fulfilment. And perhaps precisely with their difference and exceptionality they reach into the very core of our world, which represents the rule. Heterotopies are exceptions that present a mirror to the rule and according to their exemption they enigmatically indicate a gap in the rule, disclose its overlooked truth, or expose its negative or inner contradiction.



Among other capabilities, heterotopia, according to Foucault can »juxtapose in a single real place several spaces, several sites, that in themselves are incompatible.” In heterotopies, therefore, different spaces, which are otherwise incompatible or greatly distinct from each other, can co-exist in a particular and limited space. As the primary and most striking example of this Foucault refers to the garden: “Perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden.« A garden is a microcosmos, which reflects a macrosmos: »The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity.“ A garden is limited and singular, a small parcel circumscribed within the extensiveness of the world, yet it is from here that it reaches the universal and as a small part communicates with the whole.



The co-existence of mutually excluding worlds is perhaps nowhere more evident than here: a garden is the coupling of nature and culture, a self-growing nature and an autonomous spirit, who upon this nature imposes rules and forms, thereby taming it, but also at once allowing it to come to self-expression. The natural and the cultural intersect in this small piece of earth and enrich each other – culture needs its natural antipole in order to show its power and skill; it is only as formed and shaped that nature demonstrates its hidden potential, which waits inside it like a sleeping princess waiting for her prince-gardener.



And perhaps this co-existence of contraries is nowhere more evident than in the Gardens of Versailles, which in the 17th century were shaped with a miraculous magic by André Le Nôtre. These gardens, absolutely exceptional in their dimension and in the span of their composition and gesture, arose at a distinct point in our history, in the century of the rise of the enlightened mind and new ideas, in the century of Descartes and a new view of the world, such that these gardens are also inventions of this new world at the outset of modernity. The rise of the science of mathesis universalis; but alongside this also emerges a new sublimity, a sensibility, and an unsuspected subtlety. It is possible to view the Gardens of Versailles as the triumph of the spirit over nature, the taming of nature according to the measure of rational forms, the geometrical mastery of chaos, the triumph of the enlightened order over nature’s disorder; but such a perspective would perhaps miss something essential. Orsenna somewhere says that Le Nôtre “was always on the side of nature, although he worked upon her with a force that was unprecedented before him.« He took nature as his interlocutor, he negotiated with nature, he incessantly strove for a point where nature would divulge to him her secret layers. The order that he gave to nature is not simply a violence against her, but is an ongoing secret union with nature’s inner possibilities, in dialogue with her alterity. The geometric ordering of French gardens – Versailles is the best example of these gardens, their model and measure – is itself misleading. Rather, it is as though geometric order itself does not cease to produce an enigma – the more it is transparent and ordered, the more it eludes us and secretly addresses us.



Le Nôtre was a master of perspective and illusion. In the midst of transparent orderliness he constantly offers traps for our gaze; in the midst of the expected he presents us with the unexpected. His order is constantly informed by anamorphosis: a frontal view encounters a view from the side, which distorts it and moves. Illusion is yet one more quality that Foucault confers to heterotopies: »to create a space of illusions that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory.« In gardens illusion lives and reigns; yet not simply as a misleading delusion of the real world, but as something which has a power according to which the real world begins to show itself as illusory and de-realized. Illusion and reality, which putatively stand in a relation of contradiction and opposition, here do not only intertwine, but change places: the illusion creates a certain real, with regards to which solid reality itself seems illusory and misleading.



The Gardens of Versailles are perhaps the most spectacular co-existence of opposites, in evident contradiction with regards to the historical circumstances of their formation. They arose for the glory of the king, for the glory of the at that time most potent ruler, who came into history with the epithet “The Sun King” (nothing less than the sun could be his measure). From the beginning to the end the gardens are marked by the intent of political propaganda, an arrogant display of power and wealth. Yet: »Le Nôtre and his enormous team succeeded in this miracle: they connected the subtlest art with the most shameless propaganda. Which garden is so political?« Absolutism, raison d’État, the king’s capriciousness, tyranny, self-importance, hegemonic calculations – and in the middle of all this the king for thirty years almost every day walked and spoke with his gardener, discussing endlessly with him all aspects of that which stood at the centre of his power: the gardens. The ostensiveness of display; but at its centre is a subtlety in retreat, a sublimity, an enigma of this exempt space, which is outside of space, in the centre of power, but yet something which transcends it, and in one sense is not of this world. Of course, there is the megalomania of the ruler – at times Le Nôtre employed an armada of 36,000 workers in the King’s gardens –, but in these extreme circumstances arose something that is at the same time grandiose and intimate, and which reaches far beyond the conditions of its origin.



Heterotopy is at once a heterochrony; alongside another space it also opens another temporality, exempt from the temporality of our world. Here, it is as though time had stopped, as though time now passed like in a slowed-down recording, with another rhythm and measure. Although firmly embedded in the singularity of a historical moment, which made possible their realization through the coincidence of unique circumstances, the Gardens of Versailles at once reach to a time that is outside of time.



The magnificent photographs by Ana Kučan, made with the penetrating eye of a landscape architect of the highest rank, place before us all the unusualness and magic of this object. These photographs disclose the duality of this heterotopic space, its materiality and sublimity in one, its historical and trans-historical reach, its decelerated time, its sublimity created for the glory of the king, but exceeding all the calculations of power, its illusory presence, oneiric and phantasmic, yet very sensible and close, at once enveloped in fog and thoroughly distinct. And perhaps most of all, in this geometrically precise space, in this apparent victory of a rational plan over the disorder of nature, these photographs conjure up and describe the enigma of these gardens, a riddle, which does not take place beyond, but within a geometrical schema, in the junction of nature and culture. In that which is known and meticulously planned these photographs track down the unknown and the unexpected.



Photographs have been taken at the gardens of Versailles, on February 2015. They accompany the Slovenian translation of the tiny but marvellous book Portret srečnega človeka – André le Nôtre 1613–1700 (Portrait d’un home heureux – André le Nôtre 1613–1700), translated from French by Zoja Skušek, *cf., 2016, written by a renown French author Érik Orsenna, who, among other things, for five years presided L’ École nationale supérieure du paysage at Versailles.

more about Ana Kučan
more about Mladen Dolar

The exhibition at the Božidar Jakac Art Museum at Kostanjevica na Krki, Slovenia, has been set up under an honorary patronage of the French Institute of Slovenia and with the help of Biotechnical Faculty of the University of Ljubljana.

Published on October 8, 2017

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