The Reluctant Urban Artist: Anish Kapoor

In the omphalos of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, Chicago

The contemporary art world can be a fickle place. Less than a decade ago, Damien Hirst somehow managed to earn an overnight fortune by preserving a dead shark in a fish tank. That was before a host of personal troubles — and the ongoing recession’s damper on the market for ostentatious art. These days, Hirst’s star is falling — fast. But at least one international art sensation of the last decade, sober sculptor Anish Kapoor, is still rapidly on the rise.

Born into Bombay’s community of former Baghdad Jews and educated in Israel and Britain, Kapoor has always been a consummate cosmopolitan, but he’ll have a truly unique place on the world stage all to himself in 2012, when his wild design (co-conceived with Cecil Balmond) for a centerpiece to the London Olympics — a 115 meter high tower, complete with a sort of pretzeloid roller coaster frame that looks even more mad than the games’ controversial logo — is likely to be lingered over by the cameras of broadcasters around the globe.

If Kapoor’s Olympic piece is a coup — it’s already touted as a future landmark on par with the Eiffel Tower — it may cement his everlasting fame. But as a practitioner of urban art, the work he’s left behind to date — more intimate, intricate, and people-friendly — may yet prove more valuable. Warmly embraced wherever it’s been exhibited, Kapoor’s outdoor oeuvre has represented a rare popular success for conceptual sculpture — reflecting, and unavoidably engaging with — the surrounding city, even if that isn’t quite what the artist originally intended.

One of the best examples of Kapoor’s public work, Cloud Gate, stands out even in Chicago’s architecturally-overstuffed Millennium Park, where it’s been permanently installed since 2006. It’s already surpassed the Sears (now Willis) Tower — long the US’ tallest skyscraper — in annual visitors. The appeal is not hard to see. The sculpture’s reflective surface twists and distorts passersby like a funhouse mirror, taking the ordinary fun of people watching to the next level. And in a city that’s always been appreciative of fine architecture, the sculpture isn’t merely a fascinating structure itself — it celebrates those surrounding it, gracefully bending the geometry of the towers — elegant old edifices and blunt new buildings alike — lining adjacent Michigan Avenue.

It may seem somewhat strange that Cloud Gate resides here, near the shore of Lake Michigan and its empty, often steel-gray sky, rather than in a more confined space, like nearby Daley Plaza, where colorful Alexander Calder sculptures loop playfully against the deep black, precision-engineered backdrop of buildings by Mies van der Rohe. There, surrounded completely by some of Chicago’s most celebrated art and architecture, the reflective properties of Kapoor’s sculpture would be on full display.

But to have installed Cloud Gate in such a lucifugous location would have undermined Kapoor’s very point. Although he works frequently with bending metallic surfaces, the sculptor is not so much concerned with distorting his sculptures’ immediate surroundings, but with dualisms — between dark chasms and bright reflections, between the cluttered, urban surface on which his works rest and the sky they reflect down to the ground — that cancel each other out, calling into question the reality of the material world. Compact Millennium Park is the perfect size for the purpose because it offers a satisfactory amount of both city and the open sky — helping Cloud Gate demonstrate their equivalence and interchangeability.

In fact, the mirrored surface of the sculpture — modestly calling more attention to the surrounding world than itself — is partly meant to emphasize the work’s own immateriality. It’s a philosophy that stems from the Asian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism) that have inspired much of Kapoor’s work. Hence the artist’s insistence on his sculpture’s proper name — over locals’ insistence on nicknaming it after the vegetable it closely resembles.

Heavens on earth: reality reflected in Kapoor’s Cloud Gate

Kapoor’s ideas may be better illustrated by the temporary installation of his sculpture Sky Mirror in the small plaza at New York’s Rockefeller Center in 2006. Anyone approaching that complex’s central tower normally has to crane his or her neck to glimpse the top — and the open sky beyond. But Sky Mirror inverted this traditional perspective, allowing the viewer to witness clouds streaming over the top of Rockefeller Center by looking straight ahead at a mirror reflecting the overhead view. Conversely, anyone looking up would see Sky Mirror‘s reflection of a busy Fifth Avenue floating in the air.

Sky Mirror, which most often resides in Nottingham, will spend this fall in London’s Kensington Gardens, setting for an exhibition of some of Kapoor’s most notable work. The sculptor has always been enamored with the space, and the new installation represents a fulfillment of a four decade long dream. Kapoor seems enthusiastic about his works’ potential to reflect — for a change — nature, specifically the foliage that will begin to brighten the gardens with color as autumn moves along.

But something crucial is missing from the Kensington show. It’s true that Kapoor’s mirrored sculptures will likely “dematerialize” as they reflect the falling leaves, “disappearing” into the park’s vegetation, and fulfilling the sculptor’s basic conceptual intentions. But when installed in closer proximity to city streets, his sculpture elicits the public’s curiosity and enjoyment — enlivening the surrounding cityscape, and, by transforming it through reflection, garnering deeper appreciation to its immediate urban environment in turn. In other words, Kapoor’s sculpture invites viewers to be more self-conscious about the city they’re experiencing — if they’re not too busy examining the way his work distorts themselves.

These features may seem trivial compared to the spiritual transcendence Kapoor is striving for thematically, but even superficial engagement invites curiosity about the artist’s intentions. And the city doesn’t necessarily disrupt them: when Kapoor’s work is set closer to bustling streets, it also benefits from the wider range of interpretations that the specific duality generated between highly geometric city and the amorphous vastness of the sky. His point would have been made more effectively, perhaps, outside the park than in.

Still, openness to the public is one trait this prominent public artist seems unwilling, ironically, to embrace: Kapoor’s anti-materialism has also led him to lament the “spectacle” his works generate. The artist has ratcheted up tensions by maintaining strict copyright control over all his work. In Chicago, for example, photographers require permission from both Kapoor and the city to legally sell any work depicting Cloud Gate (an earlier system requiring anyone who photographed the sculpture to obtain a permit was, thankfully, abandoned).

Kapoor’s insistence on close personal oversight of his property is not his only position undermining his purported anti-materialism. So, too, does his untroubled affinity for corporate sponsorship. Cloud Gate rests on “AT&T Plaza”, and Millennium Park, the product of a public-private partnership, is occasionally closed off for corporate events. Kapoor’s Olympic tower will be christened ArcelorMittal Orbit; ArcelorMittal is the international steel conglomerate that will supply its metallic frame.

If built, Orbit, looks as if it will engage with the artist’s themes in an altogether different way, and it may indicate that Kapoor has moved on from reflective public art. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s turned away from public projects altogether. One recent project is a subway station for Naples, which he described as “very vulva-like. The tradition of the Paris or Moscow metro is of palaces of light, underground. I wanted to do exactly the opposite – to acknowledge that we are going underground. So it’s dark, and what I’ve done is bring the tunnel up and roll it over as a form like a sock”.

Kapoor seems to want to focus more deeply on another self-denying medium, one which envelops, rather than embraces the light and lit world that surrounds it: the void. The appeal to the artist is clear. Calculated to confront materiality with emptiness rather than ethereality, the work remains “public,” but there is almost certainly less risk that it would become, in any way, a victim of its own success.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Tuesday October 05 2010at 01:10 am , filed under Art and Design, Europe, Public Space, United States and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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