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.



REVIEW: Mythologies, Haunch of Venison

12 March - 26 April 2009

If the scale, scope and sheer audacity of Haunch of Venison’s launch exhibition at 6 Burlington Gardens is any measure of things, the only myth being touted today is that the world is at the point of global economic collapse. Crisis? What crisis?

Taking over the 21,500 square foot gallery that previously housed the Museum of Mankind, Mythologies is both a breath-taking homage to the history of the building and a stunning ‘up yours’ to the suggestion that the contemporary art world is in dire straits.

Incorporating new and historical works from over 40 internationally recognised artists including Bill Viola, Sophie Calle, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Jannis Kounellis and Damien Hirst, Mythologies is a dizzying and mostly successful attempt to explore notions of the uncanny, the curious, the mysterious and the anthropological as a means for elucidating some of the more fascinating social and cultural mores of the world at large.

Envisioned as a giant cabinet of curiosities, the exhibition is, as claimed, ‘a labyrinthine journey of discovery’ that begins with the tactile wall-mounted works of Anita Dube and Hew Locke in the Entrance Hall. Yes, there is an entrance hall. Works by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and Carlos Amorales can also be found on the ground floor but it is the ephemeral, delicate shadow work of Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Wall of Shame (2005-2009) that is the most striking. White painted acid-etched brass shapes, shot with a light projector, cast dancing shadows of disturbing, anxious vignettes and creatures that tremble against the white wall. Simon Patterson’s nearby eponymous text painting Charles Darwin (2007) seems glib and by comparison and not a fair representation of his skill or his wit.

Ascending the sweeping staircase there are another seven large gallery spaces on the upper floor, each loosely afforded its own curatorial or thematic concept – Belief, Memento Mori, History and Magic, Material Culture and (Un)natural Histories. Galleries 4 and 9, featuring respectively a new installation by Kounellis and Christian Boltanski’s Theatre d’ombres (1986) are the only rooms bereft of a conceit but the all-room encompassing works really speak for themselves. Kounellis’s untitled installation features folded rows of second-hand suits framed by empty shoes and wrought with a subtle sense of sadness and nostalgia, it speaks to the passages of time and the imprint of the now absent. Boltanski’s famous shadow puppet work, with its carnivalesque parade of character, reminiscent of a macabre sideshow alley, appears to mock the universality of death and the fleetingness of life.

Highlights of the upstairs galleries include Guy Tillim’s black-and-white portraits of Mai-Mai rebel soldiers dressed in their magical camouflage. In capturing both the humanness and soulfulness of his subjects, Tillim rescues them from what might otherwise be a straightforward ethnographic study. And overtaking two large walls in a separate room is the subversive but visually stunning installation of Ed and Nancy Kienholz, 76 J.C.s Led the Big Charade (1993-94). With various images and kitsch replica icons of Christ mounted on 76 cross-shaped handles from children’s toy wagons, this well-known work by the Keinholz’s explores ideas about the abuses of spirituality and some of the inherent problems with organised religion.

Mythologies is an overwhelming experience, both for the art on display and the sheer grandeur of the building. The semantics of museum versus commercial gallery experience are articulated but far from resolved as visitors wander the rooms speaking in the sorts of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for the National Gallery. Still. Art is still art is still art, whatever the context, and it will be interesting to witness the development and reception of Haunch of Venison’s exhibition program going forward, given their intention to continue a focus on both historically significant and recently commissioned works from the gallery stable along with lesser known emerging artists. There is no doubt that the purchasing of Haunch of Venison by Christie’s International in 2007 has enabled much of this activity, not least of all the move to Burlington Gardens, but whether or not the blurring of museum and commercial gallery experiences and expectations will upset the purists who like to know when they’re being sold something, Mythologies marks an ambitious and considered development for the gallery and makes for a provocative and most worthwhile encounter for the visitor.