As I am sure you my readers know, I seek out anything that is relational or participatory, socially engaged and performance-based. So I was very interested to see how the public might relate and interact with the relational aspects of some of the works in the comprehensive Anish Kapoor retrospective exhibition at the MCA in Sydney.
Museum director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, in the introduction of the give-away exhibition brochure aptly states:
“Anish Kapoor has created bodies of work that push the boundaries of sculpture through his explorations of the nature of perception in relation to space, form and mass. His ability to transform material into astonishing and often perplexing works of art which raise philosophical questions about the world and our position within it, has led to comparisons with alchemy, the ancient power to transform an ordinary substance into something of great value.”
For me, the overarching inquiry issuing from this survey of the artist’s career since the 1980s is “the nature of perception in relation to space, form and mass” but I would hasten to add, as I am sure Kapoor himself would corroborate, ‘and our relation to it’.
We should take heed of this point while viewing Sky Mirror, a large seminal sculpture positioned outside the old entrance to the MCA. The angled ten-metre concave dish of glass reflects an inverted view of the sky. The perfect blue-sky early autumn day sadly, while great for the glorious swim I had at Coogee in the morning, offered up no cumulus, so on first glance it was unclear that this seemingly colourless surface was indeed a mirror. Perhaps this was the artist’s intention – to encourage the question, to create the illusion. Only when standing on a very acute angle to the object could one see anything of the environment around – skyscrapers so elongated it recalled Holbein’s skull. Perhaps a pity that, looking from the opposite angle one couldn’t quite get ‘the Hanger’ in. Although it might have been somewhat naffly patriotic, it may have been an effective way to anchor ‘our relation to it’ and our relation to our environment.
Walking to the back of the work, this did became more than evident. Angled down, the viewers see themselves reflected in the mirror and very much in relation to the environment around them, or “our position within [the world]”, surrounded by the deco sandstone of the MCA.
Inside the gallery there was a plethora of small-scale mirror works reflecting more than as many versions of ourselves as there were mirrors – fractured and warped, elongated and shortened. Here Kapoor’s preoccupation with the notions of transformation – of material and perception – is clearly evident. Singularly, a Kapoor mirror work might have elicited a reflective (excuse the pun) response, but on mass they did became somewhat of a ‘hall or mirrors’ at a fun park and this is how the majority of the audience, I observed, approached them. I have never seen quite so many iPhone cameras at the ready. While I fully endorse the playfulness of the works, I worry that the theme of ‘being seen, while seeing’ that is so strong in these works was, to a large degree, lost. And for me, the white cube gallery environment was not conducive to seeing oneself in relation to anything but white walls and the giggling camera-snapping public.
There were two mirror works that I responded to more keenly than all the others for their uncanny ability to play with optical perception of movement and time as well as form. S-Curve from 2006 stands like a Richard Serra in mirror warping and skewing, forever transforming and distorting the reflections. In the manner of a Daniel Crooks video, time too is slowed down as the image thrown back to the viewer is stretched out disturbingly then flung back. C-Curve from a year later followed the same theme although not quite as effectively.
Similarly relational, although missed by many, is Memory, a spaceship-like steel construction seemingly forced into the confined space of the gallery in which it inhabits. The spectator is denied access to seeing the object as a whole and is left wondering what it really is. But it does make sense of a work that one comes to earlier. Down a corridor is what first appears to be a matt black painted square on the wall. A closer look reveals that it is in fact a portal to a black void. And shouting into this dark hole produces a hollow resonant echo. Later when presented with the large metal object, and hearing others calling into the void, one is forced to recall the earlier experience.
There are a number of works that play with these notions of the void using ambiguous shapes with meticulous and immaculate finishes. Like the black square of Memory, as the exhibition catalogue explains, “from afar [they] appear to be…flat… shape[s] of radiant colour. As we move closer to the sculpture we slowly become aware of the three-dimensional nature of the object, only to lose a sense of perspective the longer we look”.
The most disappointing of all the ‘genres’ represented was the earliest included in the survey, that of 1000 Names from the period just after Kapoor graduated. Curatorial justice was not done to these primary coloured raw pigment covered geometric forms. Tucked in a space behind too many pillars and raised on a white platform (an unnecessary pedestal perhaps?), although obviously needing to be kept out of arm’s reach, these sculptures felt obtainable and difficult to relate to.
In a gallery devoted solely to it, separated both in theme and spatial relationship and tucked away from the rest of the exhibition is a sculpture made out of wax from 2003. I was eager to see this work, having never seen any of Kapoor’s works in this medium. The impressively scaled twelve metre in diameter My Red Homeland did not disappoint. A large steel blade relentlessly rotates, seemingly quite radically shaping a mass of paraffin wax mixed with blood-red pigment as it courses through it.
Each rotation taking approximately an hour, it is fast enough to just see it move yet slow enough to be meditative. The metaphor of the blade standing in for the artist is strong – one does feel the lingering presence of Kapoor endlessly making his mark on this material. On closer inspection, after the initial somatic response of intrigue and disgust at the bloody flesh-like mass, one could find a more personal trace of the artist’s mark – hand and finger marks – in the working of the blobs of wax.
I had been very excited at the prospect of seeing so many works covering more than 30 years of the career of this enigmatic and important sculptor. On the whole I was satisfied. However, for the criticisms I have outlined, I was left feeling it was not quite all that I hoped for. With that said, as I had expected to respond most to the relational aspects of the work, and while the ‘camera-snapping public’ did wear thin a little, it was fascinating to see so many ‘performing’ so unselfconsciously in front of the mirrors.
PJ MacBridges, March 2013