For Part 2, click here
If you’re a fan of Anish Kapoor, this is a good time for you. And if you’re not a fan, it’s as good a time as any to become one. Kapoor, the Bombay-born sculptor who lives in England and has an international career, is the subject of a major retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and two solo shows of new work (one still up) at the Barbara Gladstone galleries in New York City.
Since this is a tale of two cities, it will also be a tale told in two parts. Here, Part 1: Kapoor at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston: Past, Present, Future (through September 7)
Although you’ll know a Kapoor sculpture when you see it, describing one does not come close to reflecting what a Kapoor sculpture is. A sculpture by Anish Kapoor is monumental, yet it pulls you in close. It defines and reflects space; yet it suggests the topography and orifices of the body. It’s concave; it’s convex. It’s hard and smooth; it’s soft and powdery; it’s shiny, translucent, opaque, gooey. The materialty of the forms defines both what’s there and what’s not. Like the blind men defining an elephant by touch, Kapoor’s sculpture is all those things. And more. And less.
Reflecting on the exhibition: It’s simplistic to call this sinuous and beautifully polished structure a funhouse mirror because while it distorts, it makes you think about the ways in which all the work in the gallery changes your perceptions of shape and space. Image by John Kennard, courtesy of the ICA, Boston
Take the the enormous polished red disc installed along one wall of the large rectangular exhibition hall (you can see this work reflected in the image above). Standing before the disc you feel yourself get woozy. Are you falling into it? Is it somehow expanding itself to touch you? Eventually your eyes become accustomed to the spatial distortion and you see that it’s bulging out—until you check it from the side and realize the surface is concave. Next to it, a polished metal disc with a recitulated surface engages you with its reflecton–make that its thousands of reflections. What you see is never quite what you see.
Looking at Lisson: I couldn’t photograph the show, but these two images–above and below–shot at the Lisson Gallery booth at Art Basel/ Miami in December, are of the same reticulated piece that’s in the ICA exhibition
Similarly, across the room, you see what appears to be a perfectly formed depression, about 48 inches in diameter, in the gallery’s white wall. It’s barely noticeable, but there’s a slightly darker ring that defines the concavity. A guard prevents you from getting too close, and this is a good thing because in fact that depression is a bump which protrudes about two feet into room. A pregnant wall! The effect is totally disorienting in a heady Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole way—and do let yourself take the trip—while at the same time it summons all your rational thinking: what, how, where, how big.
And so it goes around the room, 14 works created since 1980, each one challenging your perceptions of space and reality, as you fall visually into and out of the work. In the center of the gallery is the undulating form of an enormous polished stainless steel sculpture. It’s tempting to call it a funhouse version of Richard Serra, but given its reflectivity, it engages you in a totally different way way. The structure is both concave and convex, so what you see at one moment changes—elongates, compresses, inverts—as you walk its length. It is constantly reflecting and distorting the shapes which, on their own, have already altered your perceptions and disoriented you. Has the floor actually risen? Are you sinking? Where is the object you thought was behind you?
Past, Present, Future is the title both of this work and of the exhibition itself. Overnight when the template is still, that wax skin begins to slide. Image by John Kennard, courtesy of the ICA, Boston
Then you get to the dome, positioned against the far wall. Now this is solid; no distortion, no reflection. Here is an enormous quarter sphere, some 30 feet in diameter, coated in viscous red wax. Given your experience with the other works in this gallery, you nevertheless find yourself wondering: Is the sphere pushing into the room or retreating from it? Indeed it’s moving, but not in the way you think. A large template is passing ever so slowly over the dome. You can hear its motor. During a 90-minute traverse, it reshapes the rubicund goo that is slipping ever so slightly down the surface of the dome.
(What you can’t see is that about three inches of viscous wax has been slathered onto netting that’s stretched over a cast resin skin, which is in turn set onto a foam armature composed of 10 wedges, like the segments of an orange. The template is turned off at night, and its first pass in the morning smoothes and reforms the surface, smooshing the extra wax up against the wall (reader, I touched the smoosh).
But the back story shouldn’t take away from what’s before you. Experiencing Past, Present, Future is sort of like watching paint dry—except that you can, if you are still enough and patient enough, watch it all take place in real time. And there is a reward for such close and patient viewing. Given its reference to planetary shape and the way it is constantly remaking itself, its placental color and primordial goo—and of course, its title—you realize this imposing structure is nothing so much as a metaphor for creation itself.
Next post: Part 2, Anish Kapoor at the Barbara Gladstone galleries, New York City.
Post Script: The ICA is itself an impressive sculpture of a building.
The Diller & Scofidio-designed building is set into Boston’s redeveloping waterfront, not far from where the historic Boston Tea Party once took place. The dramatically cantilevered fourth floor contains the main exhibition space as well as a glass-walled gallery with a panoramic view of Boston, from a small knot of downtown buildings at one end of the visual span to Logan airport at the other.
Links: Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Via You Tube, a guided tour of the exhibition by Nicholas Baume, curator of the exhibition and chief Curator of the ICA; Via You Tube, 30 seconds of the red wax being applied ; a Flickr set showing the installation of the show, including unpacking and the application of the red wax; Roberta Smith’s review for The New York Times ; Sebastian Smee’s review for The Boston Globe ; Richard Lacayo’s review for Time magazine