Since the early 1980s, Anish Kapoor’s investigation into notions of scale, volume, color and materiality has redefined contemporary sculpture. From the piles of pigment in his early works to the monumental building-embracing sculptures and installations for which the artist is now known, his focus has always remained on investigating the interaction between the subject and the object. In making his art, Kapoor himself stays hidden, describing his works as resulting from “the fiction of auto-generation.” Kapoor’s term “proto-object”—the object that comes into being before language, before aesthetics, before thought and before conditioning—is a leitmotif in his career. The enigmatic nature of this manifestation attracts viewers to each work, enticing them into a relationship, or even a role, in respect to its completion.
Born in Bombay in 1954, Kapoor moved to England in 1972 to study art at the Hornsey College of Art and later at the Chelsea School of Art and Design. At that time, Kapoor’s creative milieu was dominated by the compositional ideas of abstract sculptor Anthony Caro, known for his assemblages of pre-fabricated metal parts such as I-beams and steel plates. For inspiration, Kapoor turned instead to artists redefining the limits of sculpture through the use of evocative, non-art materials and unconventional presentation, such as Paul Neagu, Joseph Beuys and Paul Thek. Kapoor was also fascinated by another aspect of—in particular—Beuy’s work: a numinous but not ethereal quality that is often qualified as being shamanistic or alchemical.
An untitled installation by Kapoor from 1975 demonstrates not only these influences, but also how even as a young art student he had already begun to synthesize them into a single vision. The installation consisted of a floor drawing of a hermaphrodite figure in chalk connected to simple geometric forms, including a sphere and a cube. According to Kapoor, the work deals with “the body as a cosmological entity having within it a picture of the universe.” Between 1978 and 1983, Kapoor combined these early geometric shapes with forms drawn from nature in a series of pigment works that propelled him from art student to successful artist. In these works, figural representations such as the hermaphrodite disappear and spheres, cubes and cones—apparently made out of piles of pure pigments—take over. In actual fact, many of the forms have a support structure of bonded earth, wood or cement, but the pigments successfully combine the illusion of color and surface. Furthermore, they are carefully arranged: these ritualistic clusters create archetypal landscapes akin to the piles of pigments casually found all over India.
It is with these pigment works that Kapoor’s practice fully entered the realm of fictionalizing the “auto-generated.” All evidence of the artist’s hand is either absent or irrelevant. The wonder generated by the shapes of pure color does not center on who made and arranged them, but on the fact that they exist at all and on what possible meaning their existence implies.
Indeed, Kapoor thinks of color metaphorically, as a condition of being. It is thus bound integrally to the purpose of the work and to the reading of its form. It not only displays spatial qualities but embodies space. It also inculcates temporality—the space that color establishes elongates the act of seeing. Time becomes elastic, stretching into a reverie necessary for sustaining the mystery of an object. As Kapoor explains: “The wonderful thing about color is that it is completely non-verbal—it has a direct route to the symbolic, to in some ways the proto—the before words, the before thought, that thing in your gut, the visceral.”
One color that Kapoor finds particularly powerful is red. Although most colors are appreciated for their quality of light, Kapoor is drawn towards red’s quality of darkness. He states, “Red has a very particular kind of black—the body is always implied.” From the mid-1980s to the present red has been a kind of muse to Kapoor, linking together his work from the pigment series with the mammoth sculptures and installations of the last 10 years. Apart from the obvious corporeal and visceral connotations—flesh, orifices, blood and wounds—Kapoor’s work taps into sacred and ritualistic values. Red has rich, associative powers pertinent to most cultures and religious traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.
For one of his first large-scale installations, Taratantara (1999), Kapoor invested the shell of a 1950s flour mill—now the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England— with a sinew-like sculpture made of red PVC stretched to fill the building’s interior, where grain silos had once stood. Evoking the trumpet-like openings at either end of its 50 meter length, the work’s title was, in fact, taken from a famous line by the father of Roman poetry, Quintus Ennius: “at tuba terribili sonitu taratantara dixit” (but the trumpet sounded with its terrible taratantara). The work’s impact does not depend on knowing the onomatopoeic meaning of the title, although it does enrich it. The red, thrusting form suggested the sound itself as it filled the interior and expanded beyond the building.
In 2002, Kapoor was invited to fill another ex-industrial site, in this instance the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. Once again, red PVC stretched like sinew through a monumental space. Once again, the title, Marsyas, had a classical reference: in this instance to the unlucky satyr who for his arrogance in challenging the god Apollo to a musical duel (and then losing) was flayed alive. Kapoor pegged taut PVC skins down to three massive steel rings. Two vertical rings created trumpet-shaped openings, while a third descended horizontally over the Turbine Hall’s mezzanine-level walkway. The installation warped and suspended sound. Standing under the third ring and looking up into a vortex of swirling red, one could hear echoes from elsewhere that seemed immanent, provoking a state of awe and wonderment. And while the red of Taratantara was suggestive of exuberance, the connotation of pain and suffering on a monumental, legendary scale is inescapable with this piece. An important feature of both works, however, is that they dwarf their viewers. Unable to encapsulate the experience easily, or gain one dominating view of the object, we must scramble (2006) and Svayambh (2007), which both featured the same wax and paint mixture. In Past, Present, Future (2006), a hollow, hemispherical dome of red wax is shaved into form by the slow rotation of an arcing, mechanized arm painted white to simulate a gallery wall. It takes an hour for the “wall” to cross the circumference of the dome as it presses against the surface of the viscous wax.
The title of the most recent work, Svayambh, comes from the Sanskrit word, svayam, meaning, “in person, oneself, itself, of one’s own accord.” Given such a title, the work can be considered the apotheosis—to date—of Kapoor’s engagement with the “auto-generated” and a reflection of his well-known statement, “I insist the form made itself.” Originally created for the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, and later adapted for the Haus der Kunst, Munich, the site-specific installation is an eight-ton block of wax that crawls at an almost indiscernible pace along giant tracks suspended through the gallery halls. Passing through doorways, the wax is squeezed into shape by brute force, taking on the curvature of the arches in the 19th-century neo-classical building in Nantes, and in turn leaving red smears on the architecture. The work creates a radical dynamic between artwork, exhibition space and viewer, as all three must adjust to each other spontaneously.
As with the early pigment sculptures, Kapoor’s recent installations engage the architectonic qualities of space. These massive objects create a new perception of space through physical and mental scale. We not only have more to see, but need to exert more effort in the act of seeing. Kapoor describes them as “mental sculpture.”
A parallel can be found in the work of American abstract painter Barnett Newman, who urged viewers to get close to the surface of his paintings so that the experience of the image at a short distance would be one of intense color, offering a sense of the “whole.” This “wholeness” is defined by an environmental or participative space, wherein the viewer is swallowed up by the enormity of color. Newman wanted the viewer to feel “present.” Standing in front of and under the gaping red apertures of Marsyas or interacting with the inexorable progress of Svayambh’s red block, we also feel “present.”
Kapoor’s sculptures require that we bring meaning to the act of seeing; as participants, rather than as mere spectators, we become hyper-conscious of our own position in space and of our own scale, with nowhere to hide. Color, architecture, and technology then each play a part in creating the fiction of “auto-generation.” Kapoor states, “I believe very deeply that works of art, or let’s say things in the world, not just works of art, can be truly made. If they are truly made, in the sense of possessing themselves, then they are beautiful. It has to do with the meeting of material and nonmaterial…of a thing existing in the world because its full existence has mythological, psychological and philosophical coherence.”
Kapoor draws us into powerful, immersive sensory encounters. His objects are riddled with paradoxes, manifesting an open-ended, equivocal and propositional style. As we try to negotiate the temporal and spatial warps and inversions set up by his sculptures and installations, the challenge is no longer to decode what the artist is exploring in the work, but rather to understand what the work compels us to explore.
Sandhini Poddar is an assistant curator in Asian Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. A version of this text will appear in the exhibition catalog accompanying Anish Kapoor’s commission for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, in late 2008. “Anish Kapoor: Memory” opens on October 30, and will be on view until January 25, 2009. “Memory” will subsequently travel to the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in late 2009.