I think it would be unusual for any fans of art not to be familiar with the name of Anish Kapoor by now. He is that extremely rare blend of critically acclaimed and popular, as if somehow the two cannot coexist. But coexist they do. The question is, why?
For a kick off, there’s Kapoor himself. Not particularly high profile in terms of an art world celebrity, so therefore he’s got me interested already. He’s not a part of the Britart brigade, although he is a Turner Prize winner. He says himself that he doesn’t really need to explain his work; he doesn’t have any great message to impart to anyone else. There is his artwork and there is you, the viewer. If he takes a risk with his sculptures and goes somewhere he’s not sure of, all he’s asking is that you join him on the journey.
And what a journey it is. I first became familiar with his work in 1998 when I went to the Hayward Gallery to see his exhibition there after a very enthusiastic flatmate returned home and insisted that I go because it was the most amazing thing he had ever seen and I don’t think I’ve ever been so blown away by an exhibition either prior to that, or since.
Certainly in terms of the audience I’d never witnessed anything like it. People were actually talking to each other, interacting with the work, trying not to touch it, but having a sneaky feel when the curator’s weren’t looking, so it all felt a bit naughty which was one of the characteristics that made it so attractive. People were playing and laughing and found themselves bemused and delighted with all that Kapoor had put on display for us.
There is something magical about the colours that Kapoor uses in his work. Yes, some pieces are made of steel and metals and are therefore reflective, but the ones that use pigment really do seem to have an emotional quality that is hard to define. How can I describe in words how the colours make me feel when the pigment goes beyond language? But it is not just about the pigment, it’s the combination of colour and the sheer saturation of it, combined with whatever Kapoor has applied it to, and for me it does work best on his larger-scale works. They become immense, colossal, overwhelming. Language escapes me in the moment when I’m standing in front of one of these pieces, I am rendered speechless, lost for words but it doesn’t matter, I don’t need words, I just need to stand there and feel whatever it is that I’m feeling and it goes way beyond the lexical, it might even be pre-verbal.
When I stood in front of Yellow at the Royal Academy I wanted to climb into it, the colour made me feel really happy, it’s such a sunny, citrusy, juicy colour that it was hard not to feel anything other than excitement at seeing it. Like a huge lemon ’inny’ navel the concave shape of it reeled me in, yet I also felt that the colour of it was somehow, strangely inside of me. If I believed in chakras I might believe that Kapoor’s Yellow had my yellow chakra spinning like a whirling dervish on a waltzer. That’s what happens in front of his work at times, you’re neither within nor without but instead you occupy some strange and unfamiliar area in between. You don’t see the colours or forms you feel them.
His work is baffling yet easily accessible, it feels meaningful but you’re not sure why, it’s emotive but again, you don’t know why, it’s sensual yet you’re not allowed to touch it – which throws up that dichotomy, should you take the risk and reach out, touch it and feel it beneath your skin or do you stay within the rules and keep your hands to yourself? You want to respect Kapoor’s wishes and not touch it, for fear of causing damage and yet…and yet…it’s just so hard to resist.
When I saw Marsyas at the Tate Modern in 2002, I was again impressed at what Kapoor had done. On one level I was now familiar with the shade of red so often favoured by Kapoor. What is this colour about? Is it the colour of blood and therefore life (and death)? Or is it suggestive of the earth, deep down, below our garden soil? It’s a wanton red, not scarlet, but it’s succulent and impure, there’s a lot more going on in this red than red alone. It’s blended and it’s impure. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what it reminds me of, it doesn’t matter what else it alludes to, it’s just there and it’s gorgeous. The most impressive thing about Marsyas was that you could never see it in its entirety. You entered the turbine hall and had to be careful not to be sucked into the sculpture itself. Wham! It hit you like a surprise punch in the face. As you wandered around the gallery you saw different parts of the sculpture and so vast was it in scale that you could never escape it, not that you would want to particularly, but as you moved around you pieced it together in your head and made the fragments whole. Again, Kapoor had managed to put craftsmanship, engineering, cleverness, intelligence and playfulness all together in one glorious, awe-inspiringly amazing piece of work.
The same colour was used in his last U.K. exhibition in both the huge block of wax that was moving through the gallery known as Svayambh (which reminded me in shape of a loaf of bread, maybe I was just hungry that day), and again the colour was present in the wax that is fired from a cannon, Shooting into a Corner until finally it appears in Slug on the lips of the piece. “Is this a bit rude?” asked my friend. “We’ve just been standing in a room, with the tension building and building until the cannon fires off a huge, loud ball of red wax which explodes and splatters on the wall and you ask me if this is rude?” I laughed in response. Yes, it could be interpreted as some great Freudian symbol, for sure. Or it could be appreciated on its own merits. It’s about what the viewer gains from standing in front of Kapoor’s work and I defy anyone to gain something from it.
One cautionary note however, we were in agreement that Greyman Cries, Shaman Dies, Billowing Smoke, Beauty Evoked was probably the least successful work of Kapoor’s that we’d ever seen. Here, colour was noticeably absent and to use a computer programme to build a piece of work left a real sense of disappointment. I think it just felt like there was no sense of Kapoor in the work or of ourselves. So, a cautionary note, if you’re thinking of doing this again Anish, don’t. I’m all for experiments, that’s how you find out what works and what doesn’t, and this one didn’t.
Overall though, being in front of a Kapoor work is always a rewarding experience.
Last thing before I go I have a little and rather odd favor to ask of you guys. A good friend of mine is doing a show in a theatre and needs a set of shutters for this play that is opening next month. If you know of anyone who has any for cheap please let me know.