A wax canon, a pregnant wall, and several funfair mirrors are among the assortment of treats currently being shown at the Royal Academy of Art. But the exhibition is just a taster of the celebrated career of contemporary sculptor Anish Kapoor. Kapoor worked his way to international recognition in the early 90s, when he represented Britain in the Venice Biennale and won the Turner Prize. His sculptures remain a more classic alternative to the explicit workings of the YBAs; one must peel back the surface of his sculptures to discover their darkly sexual, or confusingly philosophical undertones. It is this subtlety that appeals to both the public and the critic alike.
As you enter the exhibition , the tone of the show is somewhat modest . Kapoor’s early pigment pieces dapple the floor and walls. There are small sculptures that inject the room with colour , reminders of his Indian roots. In this space there is also a bulging white wall, that the pigment pieces appear as if born from the gallery space itself. Dr Adrian Locke, co-curator of the exhibition, explains, “Deciding it wasn’t going to be a retrospective and realising we don’t have the space to do that, it became a question of how we best represent the artist. Kapoor’s answer was through the pigment works. We wanted to give people who came to the exhibition a sense of Kapoor’s journey to date. He chose to do that by showing the pigment works and Yellow in particular. Most of the other sculptures are far more recent.”
It is Kapoor’s more recent works that posed a logistical problem for the Royal Academy. Locke who worked with Kapoor during the installation of the exhibition, and explains that this was no simple task: “This has been, by far, one of the most technically challenging exhibitions we’ve ever had to do at the Royal Academy; we had to think in terms of bringing in the work and sitting it in the gallery, and we also had to think about how we would preserve the space, making sure that nothing would have a harming effect.”
Locke explains, “The exhibition was built around the piece that the Royal Academy wanted more than anything: Svayambh. A large wax train, which is totally site specific.” The piece glides slowly along a track built within the gallery. The arched doorways of Burlington House shape the kinetic sculpture, but in turn, are smeared with blood red wax. One might describe it as a three-dimensional imprint of the architectural cavities: “Everywhere it has been shown, and it’s only been shown twice before, it is tailored to the architectural space in which it fits.” It is like an animated Rachel Whiteread sculpture.
Throughout the exhibition, there is conversation between sculpture and architectural space. Kapoor’s concave, convex and spherical mirrors warp and distort the space in which they lie. Locke, along with other critics of Kapoor, describes these sculptures as “non-objects” for they seem like an intangible presence.
“One of the things Kapoor has been exploring with this particular body of work is the sense that although objects exist in themselves, it is really when the viewer comes into contact with them that they come to life; they respond to every movement, every change of lighting. Take the mirrored pieces: the viewer’s perception to them changes as you get closer to them, or as you walk further away. You get to a point where you are very close, but actually your form disappears so in a sense you are looking at something that’s a bit like the surface of water, or mercury. They change your perception in that they produce a completely different pictorial frame.”
This interaction between sculpture and viewer is, as Locke explains, an important feature of the show. “People are really engaging with the works and it is really interesting to see. The crowds really like the interaction. The audience is very different from our normal shows. An incredible number of young children have attended the exhibition – you often see them sitting on the floor drawing.”
While audience interaction seems heightened in this exhibition, the interaction between artist and sculpture is, at times, deliberately minimal. Kapoor seems to be questioning what is art? The object or the idea? The collection entitled Greyman Cries, Shaman Dies, Billowing Smoke, Beauty Evoked is a good example.
“This is a new body of work Kapoor has been making with concrete, and it’s all to do with the notion of the artist being removed from the production of the work; production without the hand and arm. It is something that he has been developing over the last eighteen months, so he was very keen that this should be the first time this work is shown. It is vital that they sit on palettes, as it is a very raw and unadulterated way of exhibiting his work,” describes Locke.
Despite the lack of colour, the pieces resemble Svayambh in that they are the materialisation of the space within an object. Many critics have described them as dung-like creations, and Kapoor himself refers to them as “architectural shit”. There is something oddly human, or at least animalistic about these mechanically created sculptures. In this respect, they resemble the wax-shooting canon that, for me, steals the show. Shooting into the Corner’s performance aspect thinly veils the social criticism Kapoor is inferring, and lightly disguises the work’s brutally sexual connotations.
Locke explains, “Shooting into the Corner is essentially a canon that fires 11 kg pellets of wax across the room into another room at roughly 80 km per hour. It is a very violent and physical work that can be read on many different levels. It is used for the creation of another work of art in the room where the pellets end up. But, as you say, there is a whole sense of ritual and drama surrounding the loading and discharging of the canon. The people who operate the artefact are instructed to do so in that particular fashion. It is really rather spectacular.”
Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy of Art is a feast for the senses. The exhibition creates a platform for one of the nation’s favourite artists. This is definitely a show that must not be missed!
Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy of Art from 26th September until the 11th December.