RA Magazine Autumn 2009
Issue Number: 104
Anish Kapoor’s ethereal explorations of the interplay between light and space have made him famous, but his latest works are an almost scatological celebration of ‘stuff ’. Sarah Kent talks to the sculptor as he prepares for an ambitious new exhibition at the Royal Academy, while photographer Leon Chew documents the work in progress
Anish Kapoor photographed in his studio by Leon Chew As a moment of anarchic comedy it will be hard to forget. Picture the scene. At the prestigious MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Vienna earlier this year, Anish Kapoor is exhibiting his new work Shooting into the Corner (2009). Dressed to the nines, the friends of the museum sip their pre-dinner drinks. The director is midway through a lengthy speech when, behind him, Kapoor’s cannon suddenly fires a gobbet of wax across the room at 50km per hour that lands on the wall in a corner of the room with a loud splat – the sculptural equivalent of a resounding raspberry. A titter of approval ripples around the room; the artist, it seems, has found an acceptable outlet for those primal urges usually restricted to private fantasies.
Earlier in the day I had enjoyed a more sober introduction to the sculpture that will be a highlight of Kapoor’s show
at the Royal Academy this autumn. The cannon sat behind a barrier that created a ritual space akin to a bullring. The barrel pointed at the corner of the gallery, where the walls were splattered from floor to ceiling with crimson goo. The sticky mess had also fanned out across the floor to create an almost obscene sludge that resembled congealed blood and shredded flesh. Like the aftermath of an execution, the spectacle was mesmerising in its appalling beauty. The violence and audacity of it took one’s breath away; but once the adrenalin had stopped pumping through me, I was able to ponder the implications of this extraordinary work.
Anish Kapoor is known primarily for sculptures that divert attention from themselves as physical objects. Polished to mirror perfection, stainless-steel pieces such as Non Object (Pole) from 2008, complicate their own identity by reflecting the world around them. Works such as Yellow (1999) on the other hand, draw one's eye towards mysterious inner spaces; a six-metre wall impregnated with chrome yellow hollows into a deep, bowl-shaped recess. Bouncing back and forth across the bowl, intense yellow light induces a dizzying sense of euphoria; one could imagine being a bee, drunk on pollen, peering over the petals of a large flower.
Shooting into the Corner is clearly quite different. As much an event as an object, it relishes the visceral impact of the sticky stuff it ejaculates over pristine gallery walls; instead of seeking to transcend the realm of the physical, this act of mock rape or carnage unashamedly celebrates base matter while evoking the unruly urges that threaten civilised society.
‘It’s about the theatre of the object,’ Kapoor explains. ‘The barrier creates a symbolic space where metaphorically anything can happen, including death. A painting is being made in a ritual act of violence; it’s like Goya’s painting The Third of May, 1808 (1814) [a French firing squad executes Spanish prisoners during the Napoleonic invasion], but it’s also a Cy Twombly [the American artist who allows paint to dribble down the canvas like blood or tears].
And it is a proposition about space – one way of occupying space is to shoot from one end of it to the other. It’s sexual too, of course; the corner is feminine and is also the beginning of culture; there’s no architecture without the corner.’
A few weeks later in his studio – a row of factory buildings in south London – our conversation continues. Kapoor shows me the model for the layout of the Royal Academy exhibition. It will be one of the most ambitious sculpture shows ever mounted in Burlington House. Seeing the toy cannon in its cardboard chamber reminds me of a painting by René Magritte: On the Threshold of Freedom (1929) shows a cannon aimed at an image of a female nude. In Burlington House, Kapoor’s sculpture will be installed in the Large Weston Room to fire through a doorway, splattering the walls of the adjoining gallery; you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to unravel the symbolism of this inspired placement.
Why, though, has the 55-year-old artist begun exploring his wild side at this point in his career? Kapoor came to England at the age of nineteen to study art, first at Hornsey, then at Chelsea School of Art. Soon after graduating in 1978, he made a return trip to India, which gave him some essential inspiration, but since then he has based himself in London.
His international reputation has grown rapidly. In 1990, aged only 36, he was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale and won the coveted Premio Duemila Prize; the following year he was awarded the Turner Prize. He had his first London retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1998 and, a year later, became an RA.
In 2002 Kapoor stretched a giant membrane of dark red plastic the entire length of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and the year after was appointed a CBE. Five years ago, his public sculpture, Cloud Gate (2004-06), shaped like a giant gleaming blob of mercury, was unveiled in Chicago’s Millennium Park where it attracts a thousand or so people every day. Kapoor is now working on the world’s largest public art project, the Tees Valley Giants, five huge environmental pieces with a massive budget of £15 million, destined for towns in the north-east of England.
The first of these, titled Temenos, at Middlesbrough Dock, will be a staggering 110m long and 50m high. Is his recent preoccupation with processes rather than products a reaction to the red tape generated by working on public projects?
‘No, I’ve always behaved like that,’ he replies. ‘Play is fundamental to what an artist does; the studio is a place where things get discovered. I don’t want to do things I already know about; not knowing is one of the keys to the work. I’ve often said that, as an artist, I have nothing to say, but when meaning arises, I’m willing to take it seriously. The power of a work comes from its ability to accrue layers of meaning – whether poetic, political or historical.’
The model of the RA exhibition reveals how brilliantly Kapoor has orchestrated the journey through the galleries to create an experience in which one sculptural proposition contradicts the next and reminds one of the different phases of his career. ‘I see the exhibition as an installation,’ he explains. ‘It’s vital to create an interplay between the rooms. In my show at the Hayward Gallery [in 1998], I had a lot of dreamy, expansive, monochromatic work and I want to make this very different. Putting a show together is a challenge that involves moments of pure torture and deep joy.’
The first gallery contains elements from the series 1,000 Names (1979-1981) some of which were shown at this year’s Brighton Festival, where Kapoor was Guest Artistic Director. I first saw the work in 1981 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London. Weird shapes grew out of the walls and floor, like exotic flowers; sprinkled with a mantle of pigment in primary colours, their intense radiance made them appear potent yet vulnerable. The series comprises a seemingly limitless array of shapes that, over the decades, keep recurring in Kapoor’s work.
‘I think of 1,000 Names as a source book,’ he confirms. ‘I’ve always been interested in negative space and, although it wasn’t obvious at the time, they are like icebergs with an invisible object behind or below them. And the theme of the invisible object keeps coming back.’
In the next room the scale will shift from micro to macro with the aforementioned Yellow (1999) enveloping the viewer in pure sensation; then in the main gallery, an array of stainless steel sculptures will fill the space with a multitude of shimmering reflections. A giant concave mirror piece, more than three metres in diameter, is made from triangles of varying sizes. The surface looks faceted like an exquisitely cut diamond, but it is the reflections that count. Close-up, you appear giant-sized, but stand back and you fracture into a kaleidoscopic pattern of repeated details.
Outside the RA in the Annenberg Courtyard, meanwhile, 74 stainless-steel spheres will appear to hover miraculously overhead. Look up, and the sky will be framed by thousands of shining bubbles as each element mirrors its neighbours ad infinitum.
‘I’m interested in illusory or non-spaces,’ explains Kapoor. ‘The light bouncing around will create something completely immaterial that will be totally disorientating for the viewer. It will be a space full of mirror; one will be lost in a house of self-reflection.’
The mirror pieces are hugely entertaining, but aren’t they ultimately more playful than profound, I suggest? Kapoor disagrees; indeed he makes great claims for these works. ‘If you are going to make new art you have to make new space,’ he says. ‘In a painting the space is beyond the picture plane, but in the mirrored voids it is in front of the object and includes the viewer. It’s the contemporary equivalent of the sublime, which is to do with the self – its presence, absence or loss. According to the Kantian idea, the sublime is dangerous because it induces vertigo – you might fall into the abyss and be lost forever. In these sculptures you lose yourself in the infinite.’
Loss or transcendence of self is an experience Kapoor has been aiming to achieve in his work for many years. One could argue that, by its very nature, all sculpture is an attempt to transcend the physical – that, for the artist, the challenge is to transform his or her raw material in such a way as to invest it with meaning and vitality.
In earlier work, Kapoor highlights the dialogue between matter and spirit by, for instance, dusting stone with multiple layers of raw pigment so that solid substance appears to dissolve in radiant colour. Several years ago he described his work as ‘the transcendence of matter to non-matter or spirit... I take an alchemical view of matter as being in a state of flux progressing toward the spiritual and, as an artist, one is helping it along.’
With the mirror pieces, though, the balance has noticeably shifted. Dissolving in myriad reflections they have lost their anchorage, as it were, in physical substance to seem liquid and as insubstantial as light itself. So it seems likely that Kapoor’s recent love affair with blood-red wax stems from a desire to counter this mercurial instability with the raw physicality of matter.
Chugging (silently) along rails through the adjoining rooms, for instance, will be Svayambh (2007) – the title is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘auto-generated’. As it passes through doorways that are slightly too small to accommodate its bulk, this huge block of crimson wax will slough off some of its fleshy excess onto the elegant marble surrounds. Instead of acting as a doorway to subliminal experiences, the obdurate lump will barge through actual doorways, leaving a messy trail that seems to mock the aspirations of those sculptures seeking to disguise their physicality.
In recent months, another element has entered the repertoire. In the studio, I can no longer ignore the huge, concrete excrescences piled up on the floor. Kapoor takes me to see the machine that produces these monstrous accretions. On the wall are drawings of simple shapes and, using a computer programme similar to those employed by architects, a technician translates them into instructions that guide the machine. The process is simple: liquid concrete is shovelled into a hopper, from where it travels along a plastic pipe to be extruded in long, intestinal coils or short, turd-like lengths that accumulate to make up different forms; so far there are pyramids, nests, boats, triangles, ovals, lattices, spirals, beds, cubes and cylinders. The texture of some is dry and crumbly, while others appear liquid; some are dark grey, others spotted with white blobs of the polystyrene added to lessen the weight.
All are repellent, primordial and fascinating. ‘The machine is extruding a whole new area of form, which I’m calling “something between shit and architecture, a model for the 21st century”,’ says Kapoor. ‘It’s a ridiculous idea; that’s why I like it! The machine carries on inexorably, but the material does its own thing, so the process is unpredictable. This leads to weird and interesting objects that are deeply primitive and go in many different directions – scatological, archaeological, sexual.’
It’s striking that an artist known for his perfectionism should so willingly hand over control to an ungovernable machine. ‘I’m interested in entropy and decay as formal tools,’ he explains. ‘They’re processes that nature needs, but this is the first time I have properly let them into my work. I like the fact that high technology is producing low-tech results; some work less well than others, but I don’t see this as being about success or failure because what are the criteria? Have you ever seen forms like these?’
The new sculptures seem more like provocations than propositions, so he is right – conventional criteria scarcely apply. One thing is certain, though; Kapoor is not allowing success to curb his anarchic playfulness; on the contrary, it has given him license to explore the earthier side of his nature.
I don’t know yet what I think of Anish Kapoor’s scatological sculptures, but I applaud his courage in pursuing this unexpectedly wayward course and they make me smile, which I have come to recognise as a sure sign that they are breaking new ground and fundamentally challenging my value system.
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