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Anish Kapoor at Monumenta 2011

The major challenge – and draw – of Monumenta, France’s (mostly) annual grand art exhibition, is making the most of the 13,500-square-meter (over 44,000-square-feet) Grand Palais, Europe’s biggest and one of its oldest glass-roofed structures. Built in the Beaux-Arts style for the Universal Exposition of 1900, the Grand Palais boasts huge ceilings and an expansive exhibition space, so choosing the right artist to commission a site-specific piece from is key. In the past, Monumenta has had success with Anselm Kiefer, Christian Boltanski and, that lover of the large-scale, Richard Serra. This year’d exhibition features a piece by Anish Kapoor, whose huge and hugely popular public sculptures like “Cloud Gate,” the enormous mirrorized pebble-shaped piece in Chicago’s Millennium Park, make him an apt choice.

For Monumenta, Kapoor created “The ArcelorMittal Orbit,” a 380-foot-high, user-friendly sculpture installation that dominates the great glass belly of the Grand Palais. The liver-colored, globular form “was a technological feat to conceive and achieve, from the computerizing calculation of the flatness of the bottom and the size of each two-millimeter-wide strip of material” (CoolHunting). From the outside the piece looks like something you might unearth in the large intestines of a strange animal, but inside the dark red shell is luminous and womb-like, illuminating patterns of the Grand Palais’ iron structure from above. The quality of light inside changes daily with the weather, creating a variety of moods and tones, making it a quiet, comforting and peaceful space on one day and a bright, exuberant playground the next.

Back in the day, the exhibition space at the Grand Palais was originally intended to showcase cutting edge technology and innovation at the series of turn-of-the-century Universal Expositions. Cars were exhibited (of course back then they were called automobiles) as were household appliances right alongside the latest in aviation, like the very “ArcelorMittal Orbit”-esque zeppelin (see the last picture below) from the 1909 Universal Exposition. Coincidence or homage? See for yourself. Monumenta 2011 runs through June, 2011.

The Universal Exposition in 1909