A few days before Christmas the glitterati of the Sydney art world assembled at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) to hear Mumbai-born British artist Anish Kapoor deliver the third Ann Lewis AO Contemporary Visual Arts International Address prior to the opening of his first major show in Australia. The exhibition, named simply “Anish Kapoor,” contains a dozen or so works from 1979 (1000 Names) to 2010 (Non-Object [Plane]).
There were more artists in the audience than lights on a Christmas tree, as well as the philanthropist and MCA chairman, Simon Mordant, glowing with a healthy tan and zealously guarding his front row seat. Kapoor hovered at the back of the faux art deco Foundation Hall. As he moved to the lectern a palpable silence descended over the room. His first utterance was a disappointing claim that he did “not have anything to say.” But this was Anish Kapoor who could be forgiven many things, and this conceit, perhaps just a display of nerves, dissolved quickly, and he went on to talk almost non-stop for 90 minutes.
Kapoor spoke of his prodigious output, of the creative anxiety he encounters when sculpting and how he is able to engage the sublime by working on a vast scale. His monumental site-specific sculptures have inflated in size over the years to fill the cathedral-size turbine hall of London’s Tate Modern (Marsyas, 2002) and stretched across 85 meters of Alan Gibb’s sculpture park in New Zealand (Dismemberment Site 1, 2009).
Kapoor went on to make the candid admission that he had been in psychotherapy for 20 years, which somehow allowed him to label himself as “completely mad.” Whether such a statement was disingenuous or not, it certainly added a je ne sais quoi to the evening, and his address continued to be spiced with such self-denigrating asides as: “I honestly don’t know what I am doing”; “From this idiocy there are moments when something emerges from the darkness I hold in myself”; and “Sculpture is an idiotic thing to do.”
It may be idiocy, but sculpture and installation are what Kapoor does best. We are tempted by the seductive mirrored surfaces of his polished steel works and by the light-absorbing colors of his concave “void” pieces, much as standing on the edge of a cliff we are drawn by the vastness of space toward the precipice. One hapless visitor at the exhibition’s private view leaned a little too close to a one “void” work, My Body Your Body (1993), and ended up with a blue pigmented line down her clothes. The incident led to an immediate review of gallery security, and barrier lines were drawn to deter any future transgressors.
Kapoor likes to disrupt our sense of what is real, and he is most successful in doing this in his largest installations. Memory (2008), for example, presented in a specially constructed room in the MCA, demonstrates Kapoor’s ability to manipulate spacial perception. However, this particular aesthetic is not so apparent in smaller works, such as Blood Cinema (2000), a blood-red steel and acrylic disc that sits oddly mute on level one of the MCA gallery space.
On his own admission, Kapoor has never been one for retrospectives. He said it is not what he is “interested in doing.” A visitor can understand why he should make such a claim. After spending an hour at the exhibition, one’s senses are left reeling—is this an art gallery or a fairground amusement park, with its endless array of distorting mirrors and visually confronting voids? The show is, as one media wag cruelly commented, like Questacon, the popular exhibit at the National Science and Technology Centre, Canberra, where children are encouraged to touch scientific exhibits in pursuit of sensory thrills and discovery.
Kapoor, hamming it up for the media, trudged around the exhibition, his reflection assuming grotesque shapes in highly polished steel works, such as Non-Object (Door) (2008) and Non-Object (Plane) (2010). He stood briefly alongside the 24-ton, gravity-defying Memory, becoming a diminutive figure in the constrained space between the bulbous Cor-Ten steel sculpture and the walls. Regardless of Kapoor’s showmanship, he is capable of producing work imbued with a sublime beauty.
Memory’s isolation from the rest of the exhibition is its strength. This is also true for My Red Homeland (2003), 25 tons of wax and oil-based paint, which is continuously being shaped by a mechanical revolving blade. Located in the new MCA Mordant wing, it is best viewed from a Juliet balcony on the upper level of the building. The success of these two works highlights the problem with all of Kapoor’s gallery exhibitions, where less is most definitely more. The more works we encounter, the less individually compelling they become.
The most appropriate setting for his work becomes immediately obvious when one leaves the MCA. Outside, in front of the old gallery façade, angled toward the sky, is the monumental Sky Mirror (2006). Reflections of clouds scudding across its brilliantly polished surface give the viewer the sensation of at once gazing into infinity while being anchored to the temporal. The enigmatic Kapoor might be mad, as he claims, but if such madness can deliver such moments of sublime joy, then really, who cares what he says.