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Progression of Art
Inspired by the rich colors of India and embracing his Eastern heritage, Kapoor used saturated pigment and geometric shapes to create groupings of sculptures that were strikingly simplistic. Kapoor worked on such sculptures throughout the 1980s and decided that as each and every piece was somehow related to the next, he would give them all a generic title of 1000 Names, to suggest infinity. The series consisted of arrangements of monochromatic objects set on the ground or hung from the walls. Inspired by sculptor Anthony Caro's removal of the plinth, Kapoor placed his geometric sculptures directly on the ground, as an integrated part of their surrounding environment. In a performance influenced by his time at art school, Kapoor ritualistically laid loose pigment in red, white, yellow, and blue over the simple forms, with the pigments eventually spilling beyond the objects themselves and onto the floor or wall. As Kapoor explains, "1000 Names implies that the objects are part of a much bigger whole. The objects seem to be coming out of the ground or the wall, the powder defining a surface, implying that there is something below the surface, like an iceberg poking out of the subconscious." These early sculptures are the first works in which Kapoor began to manipulate the viewer's perception of space and form.
Although at this point still relatively small, built to fit the gallery environment, Kapoor's sculptures are architectural. The shapes recall pyramids, temples and skyscrapers, but also paradoxically - incense cones and candles. There is a union of the sacred and the profane, the social and the domestic at work, and also a meeting of the mind and the body. However uplifting spiritually and apparently meditative in tone, other works by the artist confirm that he is as equally concerned with the bodily.
When Kapoor returns 30 years later to pigment work, but on a much larger-scale in Dismemberment of Jeanne d'Arc (2009), connection to flesh is made more obvious through Kapoor's creation of an abstract "dismembered body" of the martyred saint. Staged in a large warehouse-like space during the Brighton Festival in England, the public work consisted of two colossal breasts, two outstretched limbs, and a pit signifying a womb and female genitalia. The mounds and pit were then covered in red powdered pigment to evoke Joan's naked, bloody, and tortured body. Dismemberment of Jeanne d'Arc helps to highlight the fact that however minimal, 1000 Names speaks of a path to enlightenment that marries ethereal musings with the importance of flesh.
Wood, gesso, and pure pigment - Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain
Having made a name for himself with his pigment pieces, controversy soon followed Kapoor as he was selected to represent Britain at the 1990 Venice Biennale while still officially an Indian citizen. Aware of the cultural and historical clashes between the East and the West, he created Void Field, a work that quite explicitly both highlights and soothes the dichotomy. By combining British stone and Indian pigment, he marries his roots and wings. Consisting of 16 large, roughly cut Northumbrian sandstone blocks, Kapoor carefully carved holes in each one, filling them with a deep powdered black pigment. The result is at once womb-like and celestial, making reference to the space where we all once were, and also to a mystery place where we will never get to go.
The presence of the artist's hand is a subtle intervention engaged with the power of nature felt strongly, aligning Kapoor's piece to works by his contemporary Antony Gormley, and also to the more explicit land artist, Richard Long. Furthermore, the act of bringing the stones into the display pavilion in 1990, which interestingly, had been built in 1887 during British colonial rule of India, was seen as a subversive gesture since the heavy stones were costly to move and required the building's floor to be reinforced. Overall, Kapoor understood that Venice was a fitting site to display this particular work because as Henry Meyric Hughes, art historian and British Commissioner for the Venice Biennale in 1990 explains, "Venice is an interchange of East and West [and reflects] the way Kapoor borrows from both cultures."
To focus too strongly on nationality in exploration of Kapoor's work would be a mistake as he is ultimately interested in the sameness of the human condition irreverent of background. The artist himself says, "I am Indian but to see everything in terms of nationality is limiting. I don't see myself as an Indian artist; neither do I see myself as a British artist. I am an artist who works in Britain. The work has to be looked at from as wide a base as possible." In response to this work, and to his efforts at the Biennale, Kapoor was awarded the Premio Duemila for a Work of a Young Artist under 35.
16 sandstone blocks and pure blue pigment - Venice Biennale, 1990
When I am Pregnant
Revealing itself only when viewed in profile, When I am Pregnant, consists simply of a white bulge protruding seamlessly from the gallery's white wall. The seamlessness of the sculpture's protrusion allows it to be simultaneously its own entity and part of the entire wall, at once a body and a piece of architecture. Depicting a pregnant belly extending from the fabric of the building, Kapoor reveals once again that however minimalist his sculptures may first appear, that they are in fact always interested in the complex deeper meanings of how and why life is created and born. There is also the sense here that making art is itself an act similar to the experience of pregnancy; the artist conceives an idea and then they live and grow with this idea, until it has become ripe and ready to be born. At this point, the artwork (or the child) is guided into the world, and the creator must let go, which can in both scenarios be an intensely difficult process.
Later, Kapoor would continue to explore the same theme and begin to make works that are the inversion of When I am Pregnant. Yellow (1999) for example, is a large, concave wall piece painted a bright, saturated yellow, creating a sunny, circular void seamlessly within the gallery wall. Pregnancy and womb related images featured in the earlier years also, including the series referring to Mother as Mountain (1985), and later Madonna (1989-90). This is a recurring interest for Kapoor, one shared by other contemporary sculptors, including Juan Munoz and Damien Hirst. It has also been said that When I Am Pregnant is part of a continuing exploration of Kapoor's ideas surrounding what constitutes nothingness and substance. "The idea that if I empty out all the content and just make something that is an empty form, I don't empty out the content at all. The content is there in a way that is more surprising than if I tried to make a content."
Fiberglass and paint - Du Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, Netherlands
Commissioned by the Nottingham Playhouse in England, Kapoor's first Sky Mirror is a public sculpture consisting of a 20-foot-wide concave dish angled upwards towards the transient sky. Turning the world upside down, he alters perspective and asks the audience to think differently. The polished, stainless steel surface, planted firmly on earth provides a porthole to watch the ever-changing and passing clouds. By moving away from pigment and stone, to using mirrored surfaces to make his work, Kapoor makes it more obvious that he wants his viewer to reflect upon her surroundings and herself. It is the artist's intension that the audience contemplates the work by becoming a part of it. Kapoor himself refers to the work as a "non-object" because its reflective surface allows the sculpture to disappear within its surroundings.
Inspired by the realistically depicted landscapes of Romantic painter, John Constable, Sky Mirror is a conceptual variation of a landscape painting. Like Constable, who believed no two days were alike and tasked himself with capturing the daily variations of the landscape in his work, the self-generating Sky Mirror is a continuously-changing view of a landscape. It is also entirely part of the environment in which it is placed; thus boundaries between things and people are broken down as everything begins to connect to, and to impact on, everything else.
The public's general love of Sky Mirror, encouraging much-needed self-reflection, has generated demand for Kapoor's mirrored sculptures in many cities around the world. Always determined and inclined to push his abilities, Kapoor constructed a colossal 35-foot version of Sky Mirror at the Rockefeller Center in New York City in 2006. Exemplifying that which makes Kapoor's work so popular among everyday people, however profound, these sculptures are easily accessible and gently introduce what can otherwise be a heavy endeavor, a process of becoming more self-aware. One cannot also - humorously and with a hint of science fiction - help but look forward to and imagine a time when one can enter a Sky Mirror in Nottingham and exit it in New York City. There is an element of the otherworldly at work in such Kapoor creations.
Concave mirror made of polished stainless steel - Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham, England
While the Venice Biennale brought Kapoor international acclaim, it was his sculpture for the Tate Modern in London that is considered his most celebrated work of art, and one of Kapoor's first massive-scale sculptures. Marsyas, named after the ancient Greek satyr who was an expert on the double pipe instrument known as the aulos, consisted of red PVC canvas stretched over a steel framework to create a giant, double trumpet-shaped structure. As music induces contemplation upon listening, a sculptor tries to imitate the same affect using visual stimulus. The trumpet is the instrument that most resembles a megaphone, as though an announcement will be made to command our attention. Furthermore, it also resembles a funnel and suggests scientific usage as much as it introduces visual poetry.
Situated precisely within the confines of the gigantic space, its size and positioning made it impossible for the viewer to perceive the work in its entirety from any one spot. The message seems to be that a full understanding of the work will be hard to grasp. To make a start though, the structure appears genital in nature, both vaguely phallic and very obviously similar in shape to a woman's fallopian tubes. It is through these tubes that a fertilized ovum makes its first journey to reach the womb. Indeed, the installation recalls the themes of Louise Bourgeois, who also took over the Tate Turbine Hall two years prior to Kapoor. Bourgeois situated three towers in the space, which the public could climb and then see themselves in large circular mirrors at the summit. She also included a bell jar in each tower, home to the sculpture of a mother and child. As well as the interest in origin, and in presenting mirrors for reflection to the public, Kapoor also shares Bourgeois interest in towers. In 2012 he designed, Orbit, the tower that is now part of the Olympic Park in London. Similar to Bourgeois's spiral stairs, Orbit is wrapped in woven red metal, as metaphor for the life-giving umbilical cord.
Marsyas instantly became iconic because it was the first time that any artist had filled the Tate's Turbine Hall with one massive work of art. Rather than subtly manipulating space as he had done in the past, Marsyas was Kapoor's first sculpture to utterly consume the space around it, as though somehow the artist's ideas had solidified and demanded further recognition. Understanding that the sculpture's success lies in its size, Kapoor explains, "every idea has its scale. Marsyas wouldn't be what it is if it were a third of the scale. The pyramids are the size they are because they are. Scale is a tool, a tool of sculpture."
Infatuated by notions of space and scale, Kapoor would continue to fabricate various iterations of large-scale red PVC canvas sculptures, both indoors and outdoors. In 2009, Kapoor constructed Dismemberment Site I, a permanent sculpture at Gibbs Farm in Auckland, New Zealand. Set into a recess carved out of a hill, PVC canvas was once again stretched between two steel-framed ellipses to create a double trumpet form. At almost 280 feet long and 82 feet high, the structure is an imposing sight, demonstrating how Kapoor's sculpture has become increasingly more monumental. Interestingly though, although the artist himself feels that such a size increase is essential, the idea at work (surrounding a connective understanding of human origin) is the same as that found in a small red pigment triangle or a non-intrusive pregnant wall made decades earlier. One must raise the question as to whether it is the art that needs to become huge, or if indeed, that is a separate requirement of the man.
PVC and Steel - Tate Modern, London
Continuing to utilize a reflective surface and large-scale, Kapoor created Cloud Gate, a site-specific sculpture located in Millennium Park in Chicago. Nicknamed "The Bean" and inspired by liquid mercury's silver color and thick viscosity, the 33 feet high by 66 feet long sculpture consists of 168-polished stainless steel panels seamlessly welded together to create the illusion of a singular object. Like his Sky Mirrors, the surface of the bean-like structure reflects an altered image of its surroundings, including the famed Chicago architecture. Visitors are encouraged to walk around and underneath the sculpture to observe the way it distorts their reflection. Encompassing a repertoire of repeated motifs, including voids, bulges, mirrored surfaces, and the manipulation of scale and space, he borrows ideas and materials from Minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd but also incorporates emotion (once again his signature pregnant belly faces the world) into the work to create a distinctive Kapoor sculpture.
Like all of the artist's large-scale sculptures, Cloud Gate was expensive and technically challenging to build. Engineers tasked with creating the sculpture first believed the design would be impossible to construct, while the projected $6 million cost ended up closer to $23 million upon completion of the project. Security guards continue to be present 24 hours a day to prevent anything from happening to the expensive object, adding to the exorbitant cost and raising further debate about the 'worth' of art when money has become so inextricably intertwined.
Stainless steel - Millennium Park, Chicago
Shooting Into the Corner
Developed with the assistance of engineers, Shooting Into the Corner consists of a pneumatic compressor constructed to resemble a cannon, which loudly shoots 24-pound balls of wax 50 mph across a room and into a corner at 20 minute intervals. Meant to evoke the fleshiness of the body, the red wax residue created upon impact drips down the walls into a suggestive congealed puddle of blood, slowly accumulating on the floor with every shot of the canon. The gesture is reminiscent of Richard Serra's Splash pieces from the 1960s, in which the artist would fling molten liquid lead against a wall. It also recalls the dramatic performances made by the Viennese Actionists during the 1960s, which often involved real raw meat.
Indeed Kapoor himself says, "the act of making a mark is violent", and the explosive aggressiveness displayed in both his and Serra's work it has been argued is inherently 'masculine' and confrontational. It is important to note though that both Marina Abramovic and Ana Mendieta worked with actually 'bloody' materials, whilst Kapoor imitates the flesh and introduces the aggressive gesture of his red wax hitting the walls. The red could equally refer to the messiness of our passage into the world as it could to blood spilt in war. Recently, perhaps symptomatic of a political moment, provocation has become increasingly more important to Kapoor. The violent gesture of firing balls across a room creates a visceral and unsettling scene intended to antagonize the viewer, and to recall conflict both current and gone.
Kapoor himself says, "After years and years of looking for a kind of wholeness in my practice, I find myself over the past couple of years dealing with tragedy and anxiety - with things that are fragmented." Unlike his previous work, which sought to create a state of awe and wonder within the viewer, and to inspire self-reflection from a place of meditation and inwardness, it seems that Kapoor has shifted to consider the self in relation to outward issues. He used red wax, a sticky, heavy, and difficult to mould material to create a body of work including Shooting Into the Corner to force viewers into a state of unease, highlighting the futility of violence by borrowing from the conflict's own language.
In a related piece, Svayambh (2007) (meaning self-made in Sanskrit), he also uses wax; it is a performance piece in which a 40-ton block of the weighty substance, mounted on rails, is slowly pushed through gallery doorways, eventually (and painfully) forcing the corporeal material into the shape of the empty space of the doorframe. Both works reveal Kapoor's interest in creating sculpture that actively participates in its own creation; they introduce an element of trauma, and move away from being colossal. Such works introduce a new phase for Kapoor, and they illustrative that even the most reflective of individuals must constantly reassess, required again to deal with distress and imbalance, having previously found equilibrium.
Mixed media - Royal Academy of Art, London, England
First realized for India's Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014 and then constructed as a large outdoor sculpture piece for his solo exhibition at Versailles in 2016, Descension consists of a giant circular whirlpool of water spinning in a vortex, which appears to collapse into a bottomless center. Continuing to expand his notion of voids, Kapoor treated the swirling water with a black dye to give the illusion of a black hole. While also acting as the antithesis to public fountains, the sculpture's imposing physicality highlights water's potential to behave unpredictably. "Water is kind of an interesting material because it's the most common stuff, but in certain circumstances, it can do extraordinary things," notes Kapoor. "It has this kind of power." Manipulating ordinary materials in an extraordinary way, the work is indicative of Kapoor's ability to undermine preconceived assumptions of the physical world.
Shown in several exhibitions around the world, Descension's most recent iteration at Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2017 alludes to the current political uneasiness felt across America. As Kapoor explains, "we're all in this terrible, difficult time. The quotidian questions of our time - in politics especially, but not just in politics - present us with questions we feel we have to answer or find motivation to answer... I toyed with the idea of trying out the title Descension in America to be more particular and to point harder at the current state of things, but I don't think I need to."
Aside though, from standing as comment on a particular moment in history and on a particular set of problems, the work is also imbued with the same universality as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970). Whilst the spiral of Smithson's jetty presents a more obvious primordial symbol, Kapoor recalls origin through the hole from which we are all born and through our remembrance of marbled ink pictures made as small children. Kapoor's work appears less connected to this earth than Smithson's, and instead looks more metaphysical. Perhaps Kapoor is encouraging his viewer to consider other ways to live and to explore alternative ways of thinking beyond the current.
Funneled water and black dye - Installed in Brooklyn, New York