The mind is a treacherous archive.
If you ask it for one image, it hands you another; the narrative it presents for your scrutiny may not be the one you were looking for. While thinking of Anish Kapoor’s art, an image that might come to mind is that of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, a now legendary photomontage from 1960. Decades after it was produced, this image is still charged with a gravity-defying will. Klein proclaimed: ‘I believe that fires burn in the heart of the void as well as in the heart of man.’1 So too a burning void might be sensed in the work of Anish Kapoor, although calibrated at a different level of intensity. In Kapoor’s work there is a similar enactment of the symmetry between the cosmos and the body, each with its enfolded, pleated, whorled complexity of darkness and light, emptiness and plenitude.
If Klein’s art was informed by the occult Rosicrucian belief in space as ‘Spirit in its attenuated form’2, rather than an empty void, applicable to Kapoor’s art is the Buddhist philosophy that the void is a plenum rather than a vacancy. As Anish Kapoor observes: ‘You cannot enter the void, but viewing gives prospect to the wholeness it contains.’3 The energy of this void, which Buddhists describe as shunyata 4, cannot be paraphrased; it can only be approached through the indexical directions and approximations of a visionary poetics, examples of which include the paradoxical songs of the Siddha adepts and the riddling koans of the Zen masters. In the same spirit, Kapoor’s sculptures are not objects so much as propositions, staging complex reconfigurations of space and perception.
In works such as Adam (1989), Void Field (1990) and Descent into Limbo (1992), the void manifests itself as a force field in which materiality becomes immaterial, the solidity of objects is negated by recessive and vanishing spaces, and the finite is punctured with apertures indicating the infinite. Once inside the event horizon of each work, the viewer is invited to reflect closely on the micro-physics of viewing: this yields up a disturbingly intense self-awareness. Kapoor’s works oblige the viewer to become sensitive to the continuous processes of cognition and imagination, instinct and dream, sensation and inference, by which the mind constructs the world. Indeed in such an act of aesthetic response, the mind has a sudden and uncanny experience of looking at itself.
In other works, such as My Body Your Body (1993), Marsyas (2002) and Marsupial (2006), Kapoor continues to stake a claim to infinity by extending and deepening the physical space of the gallery and the museum, employing spatial allusions. Central to Kapoor’s vocabulary, these allusions include the digging of a deep shaft in the floor, the insertion of a pouch into a wall, and the belling out of a trumpet-like form through which an aria may travel as fluently as the howl of a flayed satyr. These forms suggest the various mathematical models proposed by astrophysicists to convey the possible shape of the universe. They also allude to the intimate landscapes of the body: the ducts and conduits through which its primal utterances of being, belonging, pleasure, anguish and dread are expressed. If the holes and cavities that Kapoor inserts into gallery and museum spaces signal pulsing zones of outer space and erogenous apertures of the human body, they also embody that velvet darkness at the deepest levels of the human consciousness: just beyond the reach of reason, but not beyond the grasp of myth.
Kapoor works from a sumptuous reserve of mythological sources, among which, I suspect, is the ancient Greek idea that the artist who seeks perfect understanding and creation risks challenging the gods, who regard creation as their prerogative alone. Arachne, who questioned the supremacy of Athena as a weaver, was turned into a spider. And the satyr Marsyas paid with his life for questioning Apollo’s supremacy as a flute player. The god of light and music flayed him; the satyr’s last song was a howl wrung from his harp-torn body. As the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote in Apollo and Marsyas:
…meticulously stripped of his skin
before the howl reaches his tall ears
he reposes in the shadow of that howl
shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument…5
Significantly, the Romans came to regard Marsyas as the embodiment of parrhesia: the gift of candid speech, the ability to speak truth to power. Kapoor’s Marsyas turns the satyr’s flayed skin into an apocalyptic instrument, whose silence is its finest music. When installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (London), this gigantic work surely articulated, among several possible meanings, the hard-won double triumph of Kapoor’s postcolonial subjectivity. The first triumph is in its successful challenging of the accumulated cultural ascendancy of empire. The second lies in its transcendence of default assumptions about postcolonialism by shifting into a robustly transcultural register. To me, postcolonialism is a stance that enables the reclamation of cultural and material space from the controlling frameworks of colonial knowledge and power; however, its attendant hazard is the promotion of a defensive self-characterisation that can trap the postcolonial self in a narrow, supposedly authentic regionality.
By contrast, a transcultural approach proposes the confident assertion of affinities between one’s preoccupation and practices and those of others located elsewhere; the transcultural imagination becomes complicit in the crises of others and articulates itself through compelling images and narratives drawn from the global archive. Anish Kapoor was perhaps one of the earliest artists to make the transition from a postcolonial to a transcultural position.6
Artists are not made by inherited mythologies; rather, they revitalise and extend mythologies through acts of choice and making. Indeed, as Kapoor observes: ‘artists don’t make objects, artists make mythologies, and it’s through the mythologies that we read the object.’7
For centuries, the sculptor was understood to be a maker of solid objects charged with symbolic significance, which, as physical masses, occupied volume in space. Since the 1960s, however, a critical and self-reflexive movement within sculpture set out to overturn this premise. Some sculptors insisted on blurring the distinction between man-made and natural objects, artificial exhibition space and natural setting. More radically, they chose to treat sculpture as a way of marking the absence rather than the presence of an object. Sections of material, whether limestone, sand or rock, were cut away and this act of displacement was identified as the sculptural gesture. I am thinking, specifically, of the ‘negative’ sculptures that Michael Heizer made from the mid-1960s onward, in his home states of Nevada and California. Inverting the customary understanding that sculpture was the art of positioning objects in space, Heizer worked with the displacement of masses from mountains, deserts and gallery floors. Double Negative (1969) comprised two gigantic trenches left behind after he had dug out several strata of sandstone in a desert mesa near Overton, Nevada. Similarly, negative volumes were the leitmotif of North East South West (1967–2002), a series of geometric objects dug twenty feet deep into the gallery floor at Dia Beacon, New York, in receding order.8
In some of Kapoor’s architectural works, we see an analogous shift of emphasis from volume to void, from the positive mass to negative space and negative volume: the remainder, in these works, is not a surfeit but a surplus. Kapoor’s art occupies many different contexts, but here I wish to situate it in critical relation to the expansions of sculpture that have come to be called Land Art and Earthworks. Kapoor’s Descent into Limbo, especially, can be said to share an affinity with Heizer’s North East South West. In this piece, we walk into a concrete cube that resembles a monastic cell. Its pristine geometry centres on what looks like a dark circular patch on the floor. On drawing closer, we are pulled into the vortex of this black drop of infinity. Alone in the silence of an empty cell, we must engage with the paradoxical fullness of the void. Compare this with the depths of North East South West, in which, according to Michael Govan, the ‘volume that traditionally defines a sculpture is described… by a void, by absence rather than presence.’9
The difference is that Descent into Limbo leads us, not to the void as absence, but to the void as a threshold of presencing. I use the gerund form advisedly, to indicate the capacity for transformative insight that Kapoor’s works offer the viewer. The artist defines his recessive and elusive registers of space as instances of ‘negative, interior form’.10 Such form resists simplistic and reductive interpretation, instead prompting reflection as to its significance; this is in sharp contrast to sculptural objects that act as visual declarations. As such, Kapoor’s ‘negative, interior form’ far transcends the stasis of ‘negative space’, which is conventionally assigned the function of a background – a foil to the objects and images projecting from it. Kapoor’s use of the sculptural negative opens up a realm of spaces that are abstract yet viscerally compelling, archetypal in their evocation of bodily orifices yet figurally suggestive of such sacred topoi as the omphalos, the yoni, and the door to the netherworld.11
In Kapoor’s art, the mythic and the philosophical are not in opposition, but alternative modes of approaching a complex reality; this is in consonance with an Indic account of knowledge, which does not insist on such a distinction. From the very beginning, Kapoor has orchestrated an interplay between the sensuous and enigmatic materiality of the mythic and the conceptual and abstractive tenor of the philosophical. Thus, while his work may take pigments, architecture and icons as its points of reference, these are not its subjects. His art cannot be reduced to a correspondence with sources or referents; instead, as I have indicated earlier, it could be read as a series of propositions concerning the ontological status of the art object in a secularised public space of cultural experience and image-reception.
To draw on Michael Baxandall’s concept of the 'period eye' 12 it seems to me that one of Kapoor’s inquiries concerns the destiny of a kind of proposition – as embodied by a class of objects – that is no longer readable, because the necessary, philosophical eye that can read it no longer exists. And yet, a surplus of resonance, an immanent charge, remains vested in such propositions and objects, some of which deal with the relationship between form and the infinite, the body and space, the imagination and its creations. A key question seems, sometimes, to be about how to receive this surplus; what kind of experiencers do we need to be, in order to grasp a proposition or object? In some deep sense, Kapoor conducts a theatre of inquiry into behaviour by means of compelling objects that are intensely themselves yet point beyond, to forms of attention not yet manifest. His sculptures work, therefore, both as pauses in consciousness (to adapt from the vocabulary of the wisdom traditions) as well as invitations to a phenomenology of reading.
One of the artistic mythologies to which Kapoor has dedicated himself is ‘Svayambh’ or the ‘fiction of auto-generation’13 – I take ‘fiction’ as the operative term here. In its original context, of course, the descriptor ‘Svayambhu’ is assigned to the Supreme Being or the Divine, whether Shiva or Vishnu: it indicates the sui generis or self-generated nature of the Divine. Could we speculate that Kapoor’s use of this concept signals a certain resistance to assumptions concerning his national, ethnic or regional identity? In the Britain of the 1970s, perhaps, Kapoor did not wish to be assigned the default position of the ‘Indian’, the ‘Asian’, or even the ‘postcolonial’ (although that term had not then acquired the valency that it was to subsequently). Instead of responding to the interpellations (to use an Althusserian term) of being termed ‘Indian’ or ‘Hindu-Jewish’, he wished to act as an independent agent: not one held hostage by anterior histories of location and ethnographic description. At the same time, he reserved the right to deploy Indic conceptions of inquiry and creation, as a matter of choice rather than of inevitability.
By playing with fictions of origin, Kapoor has confounded and eluded a canonical art history that has long been centred on European and American trajectories. Regarding these centres as the measure of art-historical evolution, canonical art history has treated contemporary art from almost all other cultural zones, especially the global South, as the expression of some ‘timeless’, ethnographic identity or as an area report, rather than the outcome of individual artistic choice and agency. Within western art history, Kapoor has idiosyncratic preferences, and not necessarily those sanctified by the canon at any given time. Thus the lesser-known Marcel Duchamp , who engaged with occult studies, interests Kapoor more than the Duchamp of ironic readymades around whom an academic industry has organised itself. In the same spirit, as an art student, Kapoor followed the shamanistic Beuys 14 and Paul Thek the American artist who developed a series of performative ‘environments’,15 rather than the prevailing ‘Greenbergian formalist approach to sculpture’.16
One of Kapoor’s major formative influences however was the Romanian-born artist Paul Neagu , who taught him at Hornsey College of Art (since incorporated into Middlesex University).17 Having grown up and inaugurated his career behind the Iron Curtain, Neagu moved to Britain in the 1970s, where he started over again. Whilst remaining in dialogue with high-modernist seriality and the late-modernist preoccupation with generating permutations within a deliberately limited vocabulary of industrial-type forms, Neagu marked a distinct departure from the ironic and sceptical ethos of western contemporary art in works such as the Hyphens and Starheads series. His chosen mode was a figural one; his references to meditative states and ideas of cosmogenesis, to the sacred and the oneiric, were unmistakeable. Sidestepping the conventional dichotomies of figurative or abstract, and expressive or readymade, he focused instead on the productive tension between the discursive and the unsayable.
As Kapoor wrote in his obituary for Neagu : ‘He arrived in Britain… at a time when there were very few artists working in the cross-cultural context. Inevitably, he struggled against a British art world that preferred to see the artist as a maker of things rather than, as he saw it, art, and therefore the artist, as a generator of a philosophical worldview.’18 It could be inferred that from Neagu’s off-centre position Kapoor imbibed the courage to conduct his specific artistic exploration, especially in pursuit of the figural; and just as significantly, to provide an account of his practice that assumed the armature of the sacred, an approach that was not calculated to win favour with the ideological taste of the 1970s global art world.
To return to the conceptual proposition ‘Svayambh’, I would like to discuss it not in terms of its possible political undertone, but to emphasise its role in Kapoor’s preoccupation with concealing the imprint of the artistic ‘hand’. A major strand in his work concerns the organisation of modes by which the inevitable narcissism of a creative self can be devolved into collaborative procedures. When Svayambh (2007) was exhibited in the the Royal Academy of Arts (London), it made for a spectral sight: a block of red wax, moving on rails within the Victorian galleries, was carved by the intervening door frames. As embodiments of a chain of institutional, discursive and symbolic relationships between artists, viewers, curators, theorists, pedagogues and architects, galleries and museums are in danger of becoming fossils. Svayambh serves as a fertility rite, a ‘grave festivity’ (in Heinrich Zimmer’s phrase) that penetrates the galleries, exceeding the bounds of the framing architecture, smearing the doors and floors. Acting out a ritual of regeneration and surplus, it has a Beuysian, shamanistic aspect. However, there is a crucial difference: in Svayambh the performance is not centred on the personage of the artist, but rather follows an elegantly precise programme. Equally, Svayambh re-sensitises us to the void of gallery and museum spaces, obliging the viewer to confront the abyss of history, the maw that has swallowed lives, desires and hopes. Leaving behind a viscous trail of blood-red wax, Svayambh loops back into our memory, returning again and again like a sealed train: the train to Auschwitz carrying Europe’s Jews to the death camps,19 the train between India and Pakistan filled with the bodies of Partition victims, and countless other such sealed trains that have fallen below the radar of historical memory.
If Svayambh dramatises the fiction of ‘auto-generation’, Greyman Cries, Shaman Dies, Billowing Smoke, Beauty Evoked (2008–09) quite literally leaves the artist’s hand behind. Kapoor wanted to place ‘art beyond human touch’, and ‘set art beyond expression’.20 Here, we enter a desolate landscape of ‘architectural shit’ (in the artist’s words): mountains and heaps of turd-like forms looped together.
These faecal piles have been ‘auto-generated’ by a computerised cement printing machine, and although generated mechanically, do not look particularly uniform; they set up a visual paradox, machine-made but organic-looking. Moreover, as Kapoor observes, they have ‘the air of objects that might have been made by an animal.’21 In its strange primevality, this work implies a profanation of the hallowed precincts of the gallery space – as if Laocoön and his sons had vanished, leaving the writhing sea-serpents to proliferate; or as if Beuys’ coyote had exited the shamanistic rehearsal, but not before marking the chamber with his turds.
If Svayambh consecrates the space of the ‘white cube’, Greyman… desecrates it. Both rituals shift the ground of meaning away from fixities of understanding, and renegotiate the relationship between the artistic imagination and the institutions of art – between a signifying practice premised on discovery and unpredictability and the stabilising and potentially neutralising structures of economic and cultural capital within which it unfolds.
The mind is a treacherous archive.