Like all lyrical poets before him, Pessoa takes solace in what he terms “the slow sunset of things” —the still movement of trees, the bustling silence of a fountain, the breath given off by the sap from a tree. However, even when we are shrouded in sorrow, beneath the majesty of the sky or the grace of falling leaves—wrapped in a loss caused by giving too much thought to things—we can find solace in works of art. “Why is art beautiful?” Pessoa asks. Because it is “useless”, he answers.
Pessoa celebrates “the beauty of ruins” because they, uselessly, remember the past. There are few places harbouring such ruins that are as beautiful as Death Valley, California. In this otherworldly gallery, some 230 feet below sea level, and with temperatures reaching highs of over 50°C, visitors find the crushed remains of unidentifiable objects. Perhaps the splintered wood is from an old wagon, or a prospector’s trough, or the fence of a corral, scattered across the desert floor. A tin cup, a shard from a mirror, a fragment from a sign, all glistening in the heat.
Visitors fall silent.
For a long time, I thought this space was incomparable. Then, in a place called “Racetrack Playa”, I saw my first “sailing stone”. These large rocks, carried in the winter by thin sheets of ice, move slowly across the desert floor leaving tracks in the sand behind them. “It’s a Kapoor,” I said to myself. Even though these sailing stones precede Kapoor by millions of years, they seem to come from the same place, existing in order to puzzle us. And so they did. For centuries, geologists, scientists, physicists and explorers struggled over the secret of their movement.
It has taken a long time for me to fathom why I thought of the stones as a Kapoor. I have associations. In the midst of a vast and indescribable space, the solitude of a single large rock endows it with a referred dignity and beauty. I felt that I had seen it before in some other time and place in which I had once lived. Pessoa: “We were that landscape that vanished from its own consciousness”. 
I grew up within 300 miles of Death Valley in Laguna Beach. As a child, I spent several hours of each summer’s day diving and snorkelling in the sea, exploring my favourite kelp beds, poring over “my” reefs, and meeting those beings we call “fish” that might as well be from another planet, yet are, as we are, of Earth. And so walking in Death Valley on the floor of a long-vanished sea seemed both intimate and an act of transgression. I was no longer a boy but a young man and I now knew that these were not my places—neither the sea present nor the sea past. They were instead realms of very different creatures and very different realities. I returned in daydreams to both seas many times, however.
One day, not long ago, I imagined wandering and turning a corner. I saw a vivid, red object in the distance, a Kapoor, and walked up to it. A sign next to the object said “Shadow Corner (2008–09)”. Nearby, an inviting, suctional object appeared. A placard read “Suck (1998)”. I allowed the daydream to extend its metaphoric reach, rather losing myself in a timeless wandering with no remembered point of embarkation or return. This movement seemed to have nothing at all to do with space and time, yet everything to do with both. I was not troubled by this contradiction: it was liberating.
Imagine yourself in a similar situation. Moving tirelessly, you have no idea how many such objects you have seen. After some time it is clear, as you turn many invisible corners, and come to witness these many objects, that you are now in a world you have never before, to your knowledge, inhabited, yet it seems as familiar to you as your home. It could be said that you are simply in another space, or that you are in a space that seems to have distilled all of your objects into unique forms, allowing a curious commingling of familiarity with freedom.
This might seem to be a contradiction. And yet what if the familiar, as Freud maintained, is really the uncanny? What if the objects that Kapoor has brought into our spaces are breathtaking because we have, in fact, always known them? How can this be?
Freud and Jung argue that in our dreams we fall into a world, constructed by our unconscious, with which we engage as if it were real. Indeed, as I move now into my late seventies I confess that the people and places I meet in my dream life are more vivid and memorable than those I come across in my waking life. But we still know little about the aesthetic intelligence of dreams. A night’s or even a week’s dreams can be easily forgettable, but then we have a dream that never leaves us. In our dreams we meet people and endure events that while familiar are also strange, knowing this to be simply the nature of dreams. And we often slip into dream construction in–situ, seeing our dream being written before our very eyes, sometimes resisting this, when we do not like the people, the environment or the events taking place, but often coming to accept that to be dreamt is to witness the odd logic of object presentation.
We see things in this space every night of our lives. Who curates this display? Of course, simply put, each of us does so. But even if a psychoanalyst might think they have understood some meaning communicated by the dream, no one knows why it is that dreamers vary in the art with which they spend each night. For example, for those who are unable to recall their dreams, is this because they have good reason not to? Or do their dreams simply lack memorable beauty?
The beings and places in a dream can be extremely distinct, as well as beautiful. Of the stunning and deeply empathic women of my dreams, I have heard myself say, “This might be a dream, but you are real.” Neither Freud nor Jung tell us why some dreams take such care to craft people and places with such beauty. But there is surely an aesthetic intelligence in this dream-craft that plays a crucial role in its evocative power, in making the dream memorable, knowing that a dream of a beautiful person who seems to know us so profoundly is one we are more likely to recall.
When we see Kapoor’s works, we come across that same intelligence, and we sense it deeply. We are not simply encountering an object of beauty but are experiencing an intelligence that knows how to make a lifelong impression.
It strikes me that the seemingly casual presentation of objects in an exhibition, reminds me of a certain type of found art. Not something found from the external world that is then fashioned, along with other abandoned objects, into a work of art, but something created from the material world that objectifies a “thing” found deep inside our internal world. In found art, the artist, meandering along a seashore, among foothills, or along a city street, happens upon an object that she or he brings into an artwork. Kapoor’s intelligence, by contrast, is one that shepherds the shape of something to come from within the infinite stream of proto-objects that runs through the unconscious mind. In both approaches, as in the psychoanalytic process, the object is brought into the realm of the found. Kapoor intuitively works these objects into material reality and then places them for us to find also. These are both his and our found objects, then, emerging from what we know but have never thought—that is, from the unthought known, which always constitutes primary unconscious thinking.
Another curious feature of dreams that we can also find in the works of Kapoor is their often-incongruent juxtapositions. In the dream, a camel might be standing next to a giant pineapple and for the dreamer this is a natural contiguity. Sometimes Kapoor’s works also make use of such evocative juxtapositions; while often startling to the conscious mind, they would appear quite natural to us if we encountered them in our dreams. In this respect, like Pessoa who brings dream-thinking into prose, Kapoor brings the enigmatic juxtapositions of our internal worlds into the light of day.
Kapoor often dreams his works in geometric shapes. Triangles. Orbs. Huge, undulating tubes. Gourds. Even his rock formations are protean forms, perhaps on their way to some remarkable reshaping that will transform them into something altogether different. I am reminded of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”: “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Never have so many distinctly still objects moved in such a way. Perhaps their movement is owed simply to our knowledge that these objects have been shaped. That, in some secret chamber of mind and physical space, a human hand has conducted them in a peculiar Music of the Spheres only to then deposit them, perfectly still, within the formality of a presentation space.
A Kapoor exhibition, gives the viewer the opportunity to inhabit this kind of dream-work, as if permitted to view the secrets of unconscious thought itself. However, just as Kapoor’s physical presence would be misleading—and just as, while we may appear in our own dreams, the intelligence that creates the dream does not—the unconscious from which Kapoor’s work is forged will not, in fact, reveal itself, even if its aesthetic intelligence is fully present. This perhaps explains how these works put us within the unconscious in a more natural, familiar manner than those of the Surrealists, for example, who saw the dreamscape as a psycho-romantic text of meanings blending and weaving through its menagerie of objects. By contrast, the meanings of Kapoor’s juxtapositions are less prescriptive, less narrative, their suggestive intent more open in terms of the viewer’s creative encounter with them. Their quiet placement thus leaves the mind of the wanderer to more authentically realise the enigmatic energy that a dream releases.
The titles Kapoor gives his works may offer us clues to the thinking that has born them, even if they sometimes seem incongruous, such as 1000 Names (1979–80). These mysterious groupings of pigmented forms appear morphed in other works that carry other names, as if stressing that the word and the thing are linked only by a passing affinity. This evanescent quality of these objects thus elides all comparison, even if the creator now and then names them.
It is in L’Origine du monde (2004) that Kapoor perhaps takes us to what Freud termed “the navel” of the dream. What is the seminal moment? Where is it to be found? The viewer looks up to an oval of black pigment apparently painted on a sloping floor (the enigma of the sign of a void and deep endless space within). They are gazing at an object that is seminal, singular, drawn to it as if it will somehow yield a hint of our origin—of the unknown force that started the world. Kapoor’s title derives from Courbet’s figurative L’Origine du monde (which Jacques Lacan owned at one time), linking his work to an artist and a patron who were both absorbed in presenting or representing the depth of human desire and the mystery of being. Kapoor’s L’Origine du monde suggests that to behold the thing-in-itself is a revelation by participation. Do we even believe we could know this object? That assumption would seem sacrilegious, contrary to a form of religiosity in which the act of beholding the enigmatic object is itself to participate in a form of knowing that cannot be thought but that is, nonetheless, deeply familiar to us, and informative.
Standing on the precipice of his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes that “the unsophisticated waking judgement of someone who has just woken from sleep assumes that dreams, even if they did not themselves come from another world, had at all events carried him off into another world”. And yet he also writes that it is possible to find in every dream “a point of contact with the experiences of the previous day”, and indeed that we can even find “the event of the previous day that set it in motion”. The “material” of the everyday creates “impressions” that “have given us cause for reflection”—they have “a high degree of psychical value”. But in “a factory of thoughts, … as in ‘the weavers masterpiece’”, the dream-work—through methods such as condensation, displacement and substitution—joins up the differing “trains of thought”. Freud quotes Goethe’s Faust to identify the process:
A thousand threads one treadle throws,
Where fly the shuttles hither and thither,
Unseen the threads are knit together,
And an infinite combination grows.
Slowly I allowed the diverse objects of Kapoor’s work to begin weaving themselves together in such a way as Freud describes dreaming. Gazing at these objects, I noticed that there were stones that absorbed light like black holes, others were purely reflective. Mirrors that refracted light; whilst others reflecting light in their concave surface sucked their surroundings in. Some glistened, neither reflective nor refractive. Others seemed to use light to describe their form . There were inert orbs lying on the ground, seemingly unrelated to anything; others in small villages with other objects, sometimes with some similarity, other times not. Some objects, deeply red, bled onto or into the surface on which they stood, or shed red dust onto their surroundings.
I was reminded of Saramago’s short essay “The Colours of the Earth”, which begins, “When hands work in the earth they get mixed up with it”.  Kapoor’s use of colour expresses that mix. “There are painters who cannot forget the colour of the earth,” Saramago writes. As he muses on the light in the work of these painters, he states that they “apprehend [light] as though it had come up to them from inside the dark earth”. He concludes that colours seek the “shapes they need in order for us to see more in them than mere colour”.
We can sense this search to merge in Kapoor’s Marsyas (2002) and Taratantara (1999), their vast shapes giving off the light from the earth, suggesting that this is as well their place of origin. In Dismemberment, Site I (2003–09), another vast form stretches blood-red through a cleft in a grassy knoll. In Dismemberment of Jeanne d’Arc (2009), an oval ochre void occupies the centre of the space. On one side of this opening lie large, long, crudely shaped coagulations; on its other side, two neat piles of ochre, materials in waiting. In the foreground of Shooting into the Corner (2009), meanwhile, stands a cannon from which large, red globs are shot with immense force and violence, splattering against the facing white wall. It brings to mind Yeats’s forecast in “The Second Coming” of the “blood-dimmed tide”, ending “the ceremony of innocence” in which we hide from the sight of our own murderousness. We have been giving birth and killing since the beginning of our species, our earth sodden with many hues of red. And thus we see more in these colours than mere colour. We see many shades of red that derive from human existence and exemplify what is good about us and what is evil.
Kapoor speaks these languages of presentation every week in his studio but we are able to “listen” to him only occasionally, when one of his thoughts, made material, leaves the studio—or when it is sometimes shaped right before us, in the great outdoors. When several of his objects are gathered into an exhibition, it is possible to see what Freud termed “the chain of ideas” in a “chain of objects” that speaks to us in the universal but silent language of form.
On occasion, a dream becomes the scene of a curious set of transformations. We are speaking to our partner or close friend but they are portrayed by someone completely different. We take no notice of this transposition in the dream; the person is still who we take them to be, even though their appearance has changed. Our friend might then undergo another transformation, this time into a physical object—a box, a triangle or a line, perhaps. We might become anxious, trying to find them in the decreasingly human environment, until the dream-work allows us to see, ever so briefly, that these changes are wrought by the magic of dreaming. Then we relax. Such dreams seem to have their content suspended so that we can experience the dream itself being constructed.
We can witness a similar process in the work of certain artists who take the “invisibles” of mental life and make them visible. As these are the invisibles of the artist, the viewer does not recognise their own dreams in them, but neither does the artist, being unfamiliar with the invisibles before their materialisation. The artist walks from the everyday into the studio, drawn by the almost-magnetic pull of the material before them, and summons an unknown organisation, carrying it forward through the sense we term “creativity” and working it into reality. In these moments, the artist’s hands get mixed up in all the working material of the inner world. As they proceed with their work, they will be always unable to fathom how and from where their work comes into being. The intelligence behind creativity remains forever out of view. All there is to do is to experience their work being constructed. So it is for Kapoor. As he accompanies his objects through their transitional phases, sketching them as they move from their invisible, inner life into the physical world, the guiding intelligence that he possesses is one that also possesses him, and so he is taken by surprise each time.
Some artists allow us the rare opportunity to glimpse the figure who made the objects we see before us. Following one work to the next, one invention to another, we begin to learn something about that figure, as well as about our own selves. Musing on the remarkable invention of self that marks Pessoa as unlike anyone who preceded him, Saramago wrote that he “never did find out for sure who he was, but thanks to his doubts we can manage to learn a little more about who it is we are”.
One senses that Kapoor, similarly, is as much a mystery to himself as he is to us. He is a dreamer we can entrust ourselves to, an informing intelligence that will always exceed whatever he or we will ever know. We need the challenge of such enigmatic communications. They convey clues, in encrypted form, to how to give birth, how to reach one another in love, and how to bring to an end the “blood-dimmed tide”.
1 March 2018
1.Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, ed. by Jerónimo Pizarro, trans. by Margaret Jull Costa (New York: New Directions, 2017), p. 13.
2.Ibid., p. 33.
3.Ibid., p. 41.
4.Ibid., p. 34.
5.Ibid., p. 3
6.Ibid., p. 44.
7.The Music of the Spheres is a philosophical concept, first attributed to Pythagoras, which conceives of the proportions in the movements of celestial bodies as being harmonic
8.Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (First Part), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, IV (London: Hogarth Press, 1995), p. 7.
9. Ibid., p. 165.
10.Ibid., p. 174.
11.Ibid., p. 283.
12. Ibid., p. 283, quoting Goethe’s Faust, part 1, scene 4.
13.José Saramago, “The Colors of the Earth”, in The Notebook (London: Verso, 2011), pp. 235–237 (p. 235).
14.Ibid., p. 235.
15.Ibid., p. 236
16.The word used by the great philosopher Hannah Arendt to discuss the invisible world of thought that constitutes human subjectivity.
17.Saramago, “On Fernando Pessoa”, The Notebook, pp. 24-26 (p. 26).
Published in 'Anish Kapoor–Obras, pensamentos, experiências / Works, Thoughts , Experiments'
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, 2018
Christopher Bollas is a psychoanalyst and writer. He trained at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London and qualified as a psychoanalyst in 1977.
He trained at the Tavistock Clinic in adult psychotherapy, group psychoanalysis, couples therapy, and organizational psychology.
He practices in Santa Barbara California.