Anish Kapoor at the Hayward Gallery 1998
A critical review of this exhibition of Kapoor's work "The sculpture glorifies the marble." Maurice Blanchot
Anish Kapoor's work at this exhibition consisted in large-scale sculptural works, in a variety of materials, which either created various kinds of visual illusion or else reflected back images of the spectator. Thus Suck, a floor-level work in highly polished stainless steel creates the illusion of a bottomless well into which one might be drawn. Another work (Untitled 1998 ) has concave facing dishes ground out from the fronts of two facing pillars of highly polished granite - so polished that in natural daylight one's own image is clearly reflected back from the dishes.
The works are intially impressive in virtue of their scale, and the technical sophistication with which materials - some obviously very expensive - have been worked. One can imagine the works sitting comfortably in the foyers of the headquarters of large corporations. One work is, indeed, owned by Deutches Bank AG.
The works have or suggest occasional representational elements - a well, a breast, a globe, a coffin - and the work I shall consider in detail in a moment, At the Edge of the World II (1998) suggests the interior of a domed building, and since most domed buildings have religious purposes, it suggests such a religious building (if I said 'church' this would be to ignore Kapoor's cultural background in Jewish, Islamic and Hindu cultures). It is another question what the expressive properties of the works are, and this I shall postpone until I consider At the Edge of the World II.
How is one to engage with these works? At the Edge of the World II is an inverted cup, made from fibreglass and saturated with maroon pigment. It is eight metres in diameter and is suspended from the Hayward ceiling. Most visitors to the gallery crane their necks to look upward into the centre of the dome, which disappears and cannot be properly seen because of the intensity of the colouring. As I get a stiff neck rather easily, I sat under the dome and had a think while other visitors came and went.
Most works in galleries are on the walls (paintings) or the floors (sculptures). Kapoor's dome is unusual in being hung from the ceiling, though not without precedent. In the 1997 Turner Prize show, Cornelia Parker suspended a large work Mass from the ceiling - as it happens, this was in my view the most successful work in an unsatisfactory show.
Hung from the ceiling, the dome invites connection to a religious building, as well as at least a transient connection to Britain's much-disputed Millennium Dome. The scale is, of course, smaller and the dome is indoors. You could use it as a sort of domestic meditation space, and this is in effect how I responded to the installation, sitting down and having a think.
After thinking first of all in religious terms, I then thought that the maroon pigment took me into a womb - the word placenta came to mind. The maroon then reminded me of the Rothko paintings at the Tate Gallery and the thought struck me: Kapoor has taken the maroon off the walls and suspended it from the ceiling. This allowed me to ask what I was getting from the dome as non-aesthetic response to the primary and secondary qualities of the small-scale environment Kapoor has created and what might be available as aesthetic response through engagement with the tertiary expressive qualities of the work. At this point, I ran into a bit of difficulty.
On the one hand, I do feel Kapoor has created a successful small-scale meditative environment, exploiting his distinctive and remarkable understanding of the power of pigments. On the other hand, I'm not sure the work expresses anything. Indeed, if I take his title At the Edge of the World II I may have misunderstood the work by heading for its centre rather than walking around its edge. However, the edge of the world could suggest a different kind of edge - the edge between this world and some other world, that traditionally located above the earth, in heaven. That you instinctively look up when under the dome suggests that this is the right way to understand the title. What Kapoor has then done is simplify (minimalise) millennia of theology and religion into an upward gaze into a maroon void. Since maroon suggests the womb, he has also succeeded in linking the place from which we all come to the place to which we all go - a very traditional motif, but still an achievement in this work.
But I have got to this understanding by a conceptual route rather than through aesthetic engagement. I have not located the expressive properties of the dome, and this I cannot do because I did not have the right kinds of experience sitting under it - I did not feel awe, or wonder, or terror. I did not experience a sublime moment, though the quality of the sublime is often enough claimed for Kapoor's work. I am inclined to say: Kapoor constructed the work and I have responded to it as a construction. He did not engage expressively with his medium, and in consequence, I cannot engage aesthetically with the result. He's a clever man and he makes me think, but then that isn't a distinctive sculptural achievement.
The weakness of this argument is that it seems to circumscribe the expressive and the aesthetic into a remarkably narrow band of possibilities. It could be said that even if Kapoor constructed the idea of the dome in a series of intellectual steps, they were trial and error steps, and exploratory steps. There was an engagment. And it could also be said that what I have recounted, phenomenologically, about my experience and my thinking during my visit to the Hayward is also engagement.
Nonetheless, the question remains, how might one best characterise Kapoor's achievement as a sculptor? What is it about this work (or others in the show) which constitutes a sculptural achievement? For me, that question has to be answered in terms both of Kapoor's engagement with his materials and his engagement with sculptural traditions, his medium.
The materials include traditional ones (granite) and relatively modern ones (steel, fibreglass). They are all materials appropriate for sculpture, and raise no special problems. The use of intense pigments to coat some of the surfaces is distinctive and connects Kapoor's sculpture to paintings (see my remarks about Rothko above). I don't find that problematic. That the sculptures are abstract rather than representational or nearly so (I have indicated there are figurative elements) aligns Kapoor with much of twentieth century sculpture post-Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. The remaining question is whether there are aspects of the work which are non-figurative but representational? Does Kapoor represent thoughts, feelings, moods, visions in his work in such a way that audiences can recover (whether intuitively or analytically) what those thoughts, feelings, moods, visions are?
Kapoor talks about his work freely in numerous interviews, and has views about it - that it is not to be touched, for example. These views include claims that the work is representational in the sense that the non-figurative but expressive can be representational.
It is Richard Wollheim who is responsible for the idea that a non-figurative work can be representational, and the consequent conclusion that some work called 'Abstract'- like Rothko's - is not in fact so. Likewise, it would seem correct to regard Kapoor's work as at least in part representational and expressive. In my reflections above I have considered what some of these expressive elements might be.
1998, unfinished; not previously published