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Anish Kapoor, Yellow, 1999. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery, London.

Reflecting on Anish Kapoor

by Floriana Piqué

Everywhere stillness, yet in this abeyance:
Seeds of change and new beginnings near.

--Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus
(trans. Robert Hunter)

I first saw Anish Kapoor’s sculptures in 1983 in Turin, Italy, my hometown. I was immediately enchanted by the pulsation of colour, the joy of the surface, the velvety sensuousness of the skin of the works. At that time, I wrote that one doesn’t have to enumerate all of his work’s meanings, but mostly try to feel and discover through one’s own perception. I’m still in the same mind today when I start my journey, at first an emotional journey, through the galleries of the Royal Academy of Arts. This exhibition is not a retrospective, nor is it ordered following a particular discourse of the evolution of themes. Each room is a staccato that stands on its own, and we are invited to proceed from one room to the next by a multitude of sensations, both physical and psychological.

“Mirrors: fugitive essence”: Rilke’s verses from the Sonnets to Orpheus guide my steps in the courtyard where we are confronted by Tall Tree and the Eye(2009), a large scale, monumental tower of 76 spheres of stainless-steel, each one reflecting, distorting, inflating, and multiplying the beautiful Palladian architecture of the surrounding buildings. The images slide, disappear at the borders of a sphere, only to come back, to reappear higher up in other spheres.


Born in Mumbai in 1954, Anish Kapoor moved to London in 1973. He came to prominence with numerous solo exhibitions across the world, including shows at: Patrice Alexandre, Paris, 1980; Lisson, London, 1982; Barbara Gladstone, New York, 1984. His career, marked by his selection to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and the award of the Turner Prize in 1991, has seen great achievements. Among his works in museums and public spaces, I’d like to mention the Marsyas at Tate Modern in 2002, the Cloud Gate at the Millennium Park, Chicago, 2004 and the Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, New York, 2006.

Anish Kapoor, Tall Tree and the Eye, 2009.
Photo courtesy Royal Academy of Arts.

In the central hall of the Royal Academy more reflections come to life in the Non-Objects of 2008-2009, highly polished, twisted and curved mirrors. In this room, the mirrors command the Space with their body of Void and master the Time with their elusive fabric. Passing by these mirrors, we feel as if we are being followed by our own reflection, or a whisper, something substantial enough to play the role of a shadow. We are left with the sense of “dreading [our] own disappearance” (Rilke).

Here, in this perfect space of stuccoed, gilded ceilings, the power of reflection, the feelings of disorientation, of destabilization are overwhelming. And yet it is also here that the exhibition really unveils itself, in this moment of suspension, when the works of art start revealing their sacred nature.

As Norman Rosenthal writes in the exhibition catalogue: “In an age of massive global migrations and their inevitable cultural cross-fertilisation, he has carved out for himself in a thirty-year career a position in which his Indian, his Middle Eastern – Iraqi and Jewish – and finally his European and British memories all come into legitimate play in the thought processes that lead to the making of his art.”

We can read Kapoor’s early works from this perspective: 1000 Names(1979-1980), White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers (1982) forms reminiscent of architecture and symbols, triumphs – in a baroque sense – of brightly coloured pigments.

We are also invited to perceive, to investigate, the new works from this perspective: Greyman Cries, Shaman Dies, Billowing Smoke, Beauty Evoked (2008-2009) the beautiful poetry of the titles opposing and hiding the technicality of the process in which a computer-controlled three-dimensional printer, following a design drawn by the artist, extrudes forms in cement. The agglomeration of these forms creates a new materiality, somehow free from the heaviness of the cement. A hint, a suggestion of decadence.

Two installations that depend on machine-generated action (a cannon shooting tons of deep red wax on a wall and a train – a huge block of the same deep red wax – inexorably moving up and down five rooms) amazingly attract a mesmerized crowd.

In Shooting into the Corner (2008-2009), the audience fills in the twenty-minute wait between cannon shots with memories, experiences, emotions. Kapoor accentuates this process, deliberately stretching the time like in a ritual ceremony as a black-clad attendant oversees the process slowly and with composure. In Svayambh (2007), from the Sanskrit for “self-generated,”, the barely perceptible movement of the train freezes the spectator in a moment in time and at a specific point of perspective: when the arch is completely blinded by the red mass or at the opposite end of the tracks, in the instant of stillness when the movement reverses.

Going back to see the exhibition again, I noticed the effect of accumulation of the red/crimson wax shot into the corner of the next room or deposited along the tracks and on the archways. It is not just a stratification of matter, but essentially of Meaning and of Time.

The exhibition Anish Kapoor is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 26 September-11 December 2009

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Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London. 

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