Some artists have greatness thrust upon them, others keep waiting but it never seems to turn up. Even if you are among that select group of the rich and famous, with every museum and collector clamouring for your latest creation, there is no guarantee it will make life easier. Material success has a strange tendency to drain the power from one’s work.
Some artists have chosen to forestall this problem by acting as if they were indifferent to success. Francis Bacon had more money than he could spend, but chose to keep living and working in the same squalid studio. Alberto Giacometti was an even more extreme case: residing in a concrete bunker with the most rudimentary plumbing, although he was worth millions. His wife, Annette, demanded that he buy her an apartment, where she went to live by herself.
Such dedicated Bohemianism seems quaint and old-fashioned today, in a world in which a small number of contemporary artists delight in being treated like pop stars. It could be argued that with characters such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, their celebrity status is the biggest part of the art. Would anybody be interested in a dot painting made by assistants with stencils if it didn’t carry the Hirst brand? Would anybody pay large sums for a stick figure drawn by an artist other than Emin? Collectors are not buying artworks but status symbols.
There is no questioning Anish Kapoor’s membership of this charmed circle of international art celebrities. When he recently decided to film a version of Gangnam Style with a cast of art world groupies, in support of Ai Weiwei, this was the act of a man enamoured of his own fame. Most articles on Kapoor, currently the subject of a survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, seem to dwell on the size of his studio or the wealth he has acquired.
None of this tells us anything useful about Kapoor’s work. Although he is a far more substantial figure than Hirst or Emin, it is hard to escape the feeling he has been the beneficiary – or the victim – of a ludicrous amount of hype. His work is startling at first impact, but the repetitive themes and reliance on a few ‘special effects’, suggest he has increasingly fallen into the habit of producing luxury items for the high end of the market.
Kapoor is arguably the most acclaimed and successful sculptor of our times. In 2009 he was given the unprecedented honour of a one-man exhibition in the main galleries of London’s Royal Academy, while his ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012) – a sculpture that wrapped itself around a tower like a parasite – was the major public art work associated with the London Olympics.
In any part of the world nowadays one might encounter an enormous Kapoor sculpture. One of the biggest and best is Dismemberment Site I (2009), at the Gibbs Farm, just outside of Auckland. A vast red trumpet, made from steel and fabric, the piece is 85 metres in length and 25 metres high. It reposes in a niche carved into a grassy hill, and needs be seen to be believed.
This could be said about many of Kapoor’s works of the past two decades, which have grown increasingly monumental, to the point where it is difficult to say ‘good’ or ‘bad’. These sculptures are so vast it would be like standing in front of a mountain and asking if it’s resolved. The Sky Mirror (2006) set up in the forecourt of the MCA facing the harbour, is exactly this kind of work. A gigantic steel disc that reflects the heavens, it is as neutral and simplistic as an overgrown traffic mirror.
Kapoor is well aware of the visceral impact of size and scale. He talks about the experience of awe and wonder as if he is merely the conduit that has ushered such forces into the world. In general, he is very chatty about the work while scrupulously avoiding any discussion about what it all means. Such matters are best left to the viewer, who will invariably come up with a better interpretation than anything the artist might provide.
For the most part audiences find these works to be full of cosmic and sexual connotations. Pieces that create the illusion of a void conjure a window on to infinite space, but also the dark recesses of the womb. The only certainty is the strange magnetism of these voids which impell us to gaze deeply into them, as if we might pass through to the other side, like Alice through the looking glass. At the same time there is something disturbing about staring into an infinite darkness. It hints at a loss of temporal and spatial co-ordinates, and ultimately a dissolution of the self.
Sex, death and the cosmos are big themes for any artist, let alone a sculptor, who might be expected to make solid, three-dimensional works that sit squarely in the centre of a gallery. Kapoor has found that by systematically breaking all the unwritten rules of sculpture, he has been able to create pieces that engage with the viewer on a completely different level.
Whether we are talking about a marble statue or an abstract construction in welded steel, most sculptures maintain a relationship with the human figure. Even when there is no obvious figurative element, we still relate to the scale of a work, to its verticality, and the way it addresses the ground. Kapoor has complicated these instinctive relationships with pieces that brazenly deny their own mass and presence.
With most works in this survey we are either looking into a void, or a mirror. As a consequence, we see either nothingness or ourselves. This is momentarily surprising, as we struggle to discern the contours of a sculpture that seems intent on looking back at us. If I move my arm or leg, a distorted reflection does the same thing, shooting the limb out at a weird angle.
The problem is that the novelty soon wears off, and we are left with the same feeling we get standing in front of a mirror in a sideshow. It’s diverting, but superficial. Even with large-scale pieces such as S Curve (2006) and C Curve (2007), which are wall-sized sheets of stainless steel that cast reflections in different directions, there is nothing to prompt another kind of reflection – the meditation on meaning that is a habitual part of the art experience. It’s tempting to draw comparisons with the leading British sculptor of the preceding generation, Anthony Caro, whose works engage us through formal inventiveness, not through shininess and spectacle.
Kapoor’s mirrored pieces are technically impressive, having been produced with the aid of top engineers and fabricators, but they produce an ephemeral, theatrical effect. The sculptural part of the equation, which consists of a curving, shiny wall, is relatively banal. It makes one think fondly of those hulking, rusty Cor-Ten steel walls that Richard Serra erects. In such works there is a powerful sense of weight, texture, and an implicit menace. All of this is missing from Kapoor’s steel curves, which act like a parody of Serra.
In the void works there is a wink in the direction of James Turrell, the American sculptor who will usher his audience into a darkened room in which it takes five minutes for the eye to discern a dimly glowing rectangle. With Kapoor’s voids there is never any pay-off. One could stare all day at My Body, Your Body (1993), and not be able to tell if one is looking at a flat, dark blue shape attached to the wall, or a recess cut into the surface. For the record, it’s the latter.
The most satisfying installation in this show may be the earliest – One Thousand Names (1979-81) – a series of simple forms covered in brilliantly coloured pigment. These works retain their three-dimensionality but seem to glow with an inner radiance. As the title suggests, this is a metaphor for spiritual experience, for the revelation of a deity – and a convincing one.
This work has an uplifting feeling, quite different from the studied claustrophobia of Memory (2008), which crams a huge, industrial-style tank into a confined space; and My Red Homeland (2003), in which 25 tons of red oil paint and wax is spread by the slow, purposeful action of a mechanical arm. The paint, piled up like red earth at an open-cut mine, forms a dense, gluey mass that keeps slowly changing.
It’s mesmeric but also oppressive, with the same relentless mechanism as a clock-face. We feel as if time has been transformed into a physical substance and spread out before us. Even as we look from the sidelines, we are conscious that are lives are spent in the midst of that inexorable rotation. We go round and round, until we disappear into the quagmire. It makes one feel like going back and standing in front of the mirror works, if only to verify one’s own existence.
Anish Kapoor: Museum of Contemporary Art, December 20, 2012 – April 1, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 26, 2013