Royal Academy of Arts

The problem with 'Australia'

So I went to the press preview for 'Australia' at the Royal Academy on Tuesday. I'm writing a review for Artlink and for a couple of weeks now I've been worried my instincts (that it would be disappointing, conservative, terrible... that my snobbery and cultural bias would cloud my objectivity...) would get in the way of me looking at the show with an open mind.

And so I tried. And I failed. Because it really isn't great. Does it warrant the casual racism and vitriol dressed as criticism it's receiving in the British press? Well, no.  But it's not great. It's not even very good. I'm going to need to let my thoughts marinate for a while yet in the hope that something by way of coherent argument emerges. Because right now it's just an exasperated mash of frustrations.

I can't believe this is the same institution that hosted the seminal Sensation back in 1997I mean, where's all that curatorial chutzpah gone?

What a missed opportunity. National Gallery of Australia, I'm blaming you too.



REVIEW: Anish Kapoor, Royal Academy of Arts

26 September - 11 December, 2009

Anish Kapoor, Tall Tree and the Eye, 2009.

The problem with ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions is that, amid the tube posters and the street  banners and the Sunday magazine features, you risk not being able to see the art for the  hype. Seeing the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in the last week  of its two and a half month run the problem here was not being able to see the art for  crowds. The hype clearly worked, but did the art? Happily, yes it did.

A graduate of the Chelsea College of Art and Design, Mumbai-born Anish Kapoor has  been living and working in Britain since the early 1970s. He represented Britain at the  Venice Biennale in 1990, won the Turner Prize in 1991 and in 1999 was elected a Royal  Academician – Kapoor’s reception here only reiterates his ongoing critical and popular  contribution to the British art establishment.

Challenging traditional notions of sculpture through a physical and psychological engagement with scale, space, colour and texture, Kapoor’s work explores, and consequently reveals, the confrontations and challenges of both sculpture as a practice and sculpture as a material object. The exhibition at the Royal Academy brings together a wide-range of Kapoor’s work from the last three decades and the encounter is, perhaps surprisingly, as diverse emotionally as it is visually.

Approaching any one of Kapoor’s works, be it a wall-infused installation, a free-standing reflective sculpture or an enormous cannon that systematically and destructively heaves large pellets of red wax against the wall, there is inevitably a process of engagement and negotiation, of space and/or expectation, that takes place. Curiosity and participation are key – works must be walked around, ducked under, weaved through or peered at and the response provoked is by turns thoughtful, delightful and affective. And it begins in the courtyard.

Anish Kapoor, When I Am Pregnant, 1992.

Tall Tree and the Eye (2009) is a luminous, seemingly ephemeral work – a series of bubbles or reflective baubles that climb giddily towards the sky. Their shiny reflective surfaces manipulate the scenes about them and their sense of fleeting and weightlessness is only reinforced by the classical and symmetrical architecture of the courtyard. You are drawn in, around and upward – it is an early instruction of things to come and a beguiling introduction to the exhibition.

The first of several rooms holds Kapoor’s collection of pigment works, which he began in the late 1970s. Like delicate but extravagant sandcastles, these red, yellow and black floor-based works belie any human hand such is their precise execution. Their seeming precariousness is at odds with the vibrancy of the pigment and they are fascinating studies of colour and construction but arguably, the more effective piece in this room is the wall work When I Am Pregnant (1992). As the title suggests, When I Am Pregnant is a swollen, unknown volume that emerges seamlessly from the wall. Pregnant with expectation, the work suggests process and indeed plays with this idea of expectation. The bump changes as you navigate your way around it – it can be seen from the side but standing in front of the bump it elusively disappears, a trick of both perspective and light. This subtlety and its visual softness, like the head of a newborn, prompts a surprisingly maternal sensation.

Anish Kapoor, Yellow, 2009.

It is a similarly affective experience standing in front of Yellow (1999), another wall-based work, only here the space is inverted, something you are not fully aware of until standing directly in front of it. It is like looking at a 2D image of a 3D-work as the convex/concave element never quite resolves itself. Again, there is a softness to the gentle curve of the womb-like space and this submersion in colour is strangely both pacifying and slightly disconcerting.

Anish Kapoor, Shooting into the Corner, 2008/2009.

The uses of colour, pigment and curvature gently connect these first two rooms – going left or right from here is quite a departure. Much has been made of Kapoor’s quasi-performance sculptural work Shooting into the Corner (2008/2009). A large working cannon is sectioned off behind a guide rope and a growing collection of pallets, holding empty wax canisters the size of house paint tins is to the left. The cannon is aimed through the doorway of the next room, through which an oozing, carnage of red wax can be seen. Every 20 minutes a gallery attendant loads the cannon with another 9kg pellet and fires it through the doorway, at a clocked 50km/hour. There is much going on in this work, besides the violation of the Royal Academy’s Small Weston Room. Physiologically as viewers there is the waiting, then the nervous anticipation as the cannon starts to tick before the sudden and violent explosion that startles the entire room, despite the expectation.

Intellectually there is something childishly gleeful in seeing an artist like Kapoor literally destroy an establishment that is so hugely a part of that other establishment, the Art Establishment, but overwhelmingly it is the visceral elements of this work that are the most memorable. The deep blood red wax, splattered against the walls and fittings is brutal both in its beauty and its violent associations and it is with a heightened sense of anxiety that the viewer walks away from the entire mise-en-scene.

Anish Kapoor, Hive, 2009.

The comparison then with the room of reflective Non-objects could not be starker. A series of mirrored concave sculptures, these works, with their highly polished surfaces are an exercise in self-conscious spatial awareness that continues the lesson from the courtyard. Reflections are inverted, perverted or altogether vanished and there is a refreshing purity to them after the cannon work. However, their literalness makes them perhaps the most easily overlooked of all the works on display here.

More recent works, such as Hive (2009) and Greyman Cries, Shaman Dies, Billowing Smoke, Beauty Evoked (2008/2009) are more texturally engaging, through their use of Corten steel and cement respectively and Hive is certainly an imposing work, challenging in both scale – it is barely contained by the room – and form, with its unseen empty middle (but for a highly sexual Origins of the World-esque glimpse). The large jostling collection of cement structures, Greyman Cries et al, that sit on pallets filling another whole room, feel unfinished, abrasive and oblique. Perhaps that was Kapoor’s intention but it felt like a hurried finished to what was overwhelmingly a hugely successful exhibition.

Anish Kapoor, Svayambh, 2007.

The last work on show, which ran through three rooms as a sort of spine, was Svayambh (2007), a large block of red wax that moved continuously and imperceptibly along a track, wedging its way through two different arches in the process. The title comes from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘self-generated’ and there is a fatalistic, beautiful sadness to this work as it is irreversibly changed by its unavoidable journey back and forth through the too-small doorways.

More a presence than a physical work, and not just because of its state of flux, Svayambh feels profoundly mortal and as a sculpture-cum-philosophy it engenders an awareness of space and time and our place in both. The work has been described as a ‘manifesto’ in Kapoor’s oeuvre and that could certainly be the case but overwhelming it is a visual and emotional experience that is bolstered by the many other incredible work on display here. Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy may well be unavoidable thanks to all the hype. It should also be unmissable.