Kensington Gardens has just got bigger. The installation of four of Anish Kapoor’s reflective stainless steel sculptures has suddenly opened up four new spaces, extending grass, soil, water and sky. Rather than shrinking the park with their own surface area, the mirror images that they house have extended it. A subtraction becomes an addition. True to the singular logic of his work, Kapoor has once again turned the world upside down.
Techniques of inversion have played a central role in the artist’s work, from making holes that extrude rather than intrude, to the manufacture of mirrors that offer opacity rather than reflection. The new installation develops this motif as an almost anthropological project. When visitors to the park encounter these eminently artificial objects, they will see both the warping of their own images and the multiplication and inversion of the surrounding reality.
Anthropologists have often studied how the ceremonies and rituals of many cultures reverse order: slaves become masters, women dress as men, starters are served at the end of the meal. Interpretations which focused on symbolism didn’t get very far, as they neglected the most obvious point. Turning the world upside down, after all, implies that such an operation is possible: we can have our starter last because we only have it first by convention. It is the presence of symbolic systems that construct our reality, and so, at certain moments, we can invert them.
These ritual inversions occur when some event – puberty, childbirth, trauma – challenges the continuity of everyday life. At such moments, the world can quite literally be turned upside down: a loin cloth may be worn on the head rather than the loins, for example, inverting the high/low relation, and through this reversal, we are made aware of the arbitrary, symbolic nature of our reality. The points of change or trauma invite an emphasis on the nature of signs themselves.
The new siting of Kapoor’s works in the park remind us of the dimension of artificiality as well as encouraging us to explore it. Like cinema screens in the middle of nature, offering us a moving or a frozen spectacle, the world becomes a pageant or a show, a make-believe. The question of nature and culture is addressed neatly here: it’s not that culture is a reflection of or imposition on nature, since nature itself is an artificial construction.
We are taught to see natural vistas as landscape or park, and eighteenth century humorists made much of this conditioning, poking fun at how the public was being taught to see certain outdoor scenes as ‘nature’. Jane Austen evokes this artificiality slyly in ‘Northanger Abbey’ when we learn that Cathy has dismissed the view of Bath from Beechen Cliff as “unworthy to make part of a landscape”. In the same way, Kapoor gently loosens the park from its immediacy. As we look at the inverted or distorted images, we must ask not only ‘Is the reflection real?’ but ‘Is the park real?’, in the sense of what it represents, what it means, what it signifies.
Meanings can never be created without some minimal symbolic system, the simplest form being a binary opposition. A red light means nothing without a green light. Kapoor has always investigated such systems, from his dazzling pigment works to the later void and mirrored pieces. The movement here has been from multiplicity to the most basic structure, from works like 1000 Names to the minimal inscription of a cut in the gallery wall. Rather than simply reading such interventions as representing bodily apertures, why not see them as embodying the essential binary necessary for symbolic functioning? A cut, after all, both creates a surface and introduces a break in continuity. Symbolic systems rely on precisely this, the portioning of the world into discrete units, such as colours. This minimal act of partitioning is the same as the act of making a hole, and it is why Kapoor’s voids figure so well the moment of creation itself.
If Kapoor’s reflecting surfaces explore the symbolic nature of reality, they also evoke the role of mirror images in the constitution of the human body. Unlike most animals, the human infant is born prematurely. Unable to fend for itself, to find food or shelter on its own, it depends entirely on its caregivers. Mastery of motor functions is incomplete: a baby cannot hold a bottle or a spoon, stand up or take flight. In the early twentieth century, psychologists studied the role of mirrors in the assumption of human form, arguing that identification with the image enables progressive control of the body.
They distinguished the body schema – our internal perception or sense of our body – and the body image. The image, they argued, is first of all someone else’s image. Painfully aware of our lack of motor mastery, we are drawn towards the promise of the whole, completed image, supplied by other people or by a mirror. We identify with this, internalising the visual image we see outside us, to form the human ego. But since this image is both outside us and, fundamentally, the property of someone else, the birth of our ego is simultaneously that of our alter ego.
What gives us our imaginary completeness is at the same time what takes it away. Infants who identify with an older child may be able to stand up sooner, but they also remain alienated in the other’s image: which means that what the other wants, they want. Visual assumption of our body, then, allows us to enter a certain kind of social space, where we are not only drawn to others but also seek the objects that they appear interested in. Since the desire for these objects depends on the other, possession of them brings little joy, a fact we are all familiar with.
The space in which we are first captured and captivated thus opens up on to the wider social space, which always carries this invisible shadow of the body image. We come to know the world through following the route mapped out by an external body image. In this sense, Kapoor’s magnification and positioning of mirrors in public, social spaces brings out the way in which this very space has been initially invested for us through the reflecting surface.
And just as the mirror first offers an image of wholeness and completeness to cover an incomplete, unintegrated body, so Kapoor’s works present us with images of marvellous landscapes or figures, which, as we swiftly realise, contain distortion. The key here is the fact that Kapoor avoids a simple polarisation. Some of the artist’s works emphasise the two-dimensional body image, and others, such as ‘Untitled’ 1998 or the glutinous wax and Vaseline pieces, present what we are without an image, our being as pure bodily substance. Yet many of the mirror works complicate this, by showing the dimension of the real body within the very imaginary space that is supposed to mask it.
The reflecting surface becomes the framework of virtual space and at the same time what disrupts it. Just as Francis Bacon took the thinnest, most immaterial element of the human figure – the shadow – and made it thick and substantial, so Kapoor contaminates the virtual space of the image with this voluminous and massy presence. We can delight in our reflections in Cloud Gate, yet experience a rather different sensation on encountering such a vast, unnamable thing, both terrifyingly real and unreal at the same time.
The ever-present shadow at its base reminds us of where the image dissolves, creating a tension between the world as image and what cannot be intergrated within it. As Kapoor has said, evoking his early work using powders, “The polished surface is in fact not different from the pigment”. These mirrors, indeed, have a substance, as if to remind us that they are not just there for us to lose ourselves in. Whereas most mirrors require a transparency, so that we can recognise what we see and ignore the material of the reflecting surface, Kapoor’s do the opposite: they are real objects, protruberances, that bulge and suck.
This active, dynamic dimension to Kapoor’s scultptures is brought out beautifully in the Serpentine installation. Through their form and their angled positioning Sky Mirror (2006) and Non-Object (Spire)(2008) evoke both the vast satellite dishes that once generated awe with their promise of a contact with outer space, and also the ubiquitous Sky dishes that have grown over Britain’s homes like ivy. The early dishes were once perceived as our gateway to other worlds, emitters of messages to find extraterrestial life. Yet now they have become purely receivers, receptacles for new forms of consumerism: no opacity or enigma or Otherness, just uniformity.
As viewers gaze at Kapoor’s outdoor mirrors, we could think of these dishes and of how, once again, the world has been turned upside down. The dish is now less the empty receptacle of the television transmission than the transmission itself. It is in the dish, after all, that the images are collected. And this collection is not mere imprinting: the dish is not a passive medium but an active and transformative one.
These mirrors do not just reflect the world. As Homi K. Bhabha writes of Kapoor, “If the mirror sucks in, it also spits out – it reflects and refluxes” (1). They pull us in, their concave forms and positioning evoking the suckers of some cephalopod (Her Blood, 1998) or the unseeing eyes known as ocelli used by animals to entrance predators or prey. The mirrors include us whether we like it or not, and we are drawn into the concave form (Untitled, 1997, Turning the World Inside Out II, 1995). These are not inert, static objects but have a real pull, setting up force fields and eddies that Kapoor has actually materialised in some of his works. How could we elaborate further this action of the viewer?
Critics have often found sexual, organic forms in Kapoor’s work, yet the clearest and most consistent bodily motif is not the vagina or the penis but the hearing apparatus: the ear drum, the tympanum, the cochlea. The massive Marsyas, installed in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2002, could certainly be linked to the female reproductive system, yet it was more simply an ear drum, a fact that became all the more apparent when music was staged in the space. Many of Kapoor’s mirrored enclosures, likewise, distort and warp sound, and the physical disorientation we may experience when we approach his works can remind us that it is the ears that guarantee our sense of balance.
If works such as ‘Marsyas’ may seem very different from Kapoor’s mirrors, they share the theme of conduction, a questioning of how it is that we become receivers, of both the visual image and of sound. If C–Curve (2007) tapers at both ends as if to create the sensation of looking through the cross-section of a giant eye, the edges also evoke the ears bounding our head, just as the spire of ‘ Non Object’ (Spire)' resembles both the optical nerve and the form of an ear cornet. Works such as Double Mirror (1998) operate the same ambiguity, the doubling of convex structures evoking both eyes and ears.
Although we may tend to associate sound and hearing with immaterial structures – since it is often believed that sound cannot be seen – Kapoor shows how brute, material objects are vehicles of conduction. They can materialise sound, and it is perhaps in this process that the sculptures exert their pull on us, their centripetal effect relying on a dimension of language that operates through vision. How?
Classical linguistics divided the study of language into three main fields: the referential, the emotive and the conative. The referential dealt with the denoting and connoting aspects of speech, how words refer to objects; the emotive treated the speaker’s relation to their own words, how they were expressing themselves; and the conative dealt with the relation to the addressee (questioning, ordering etc). Yet these areas of research left out perhaps the most crucial dimension of human language. By focusing on the relation to the addressee, they ignored almost entirely the experience of being addressed.
Yet being addressed is our first relation to language. As infants, we are spoken to and spoken about, well before we can understand the meaning of our caregivers’ words. Even if we have no vocabulary and no grasp of the messages conveyed to us, we know that we are being talked to. The experience of being addressed, of being interpellated, is thus prior to the other functions of language. The speech we receive will be in one sense enigmatic, since it predates meaning, and in another persecutory: we have no defence against it. We can respond to most adult interventions – by refusing to be fed, to use the potty etc – but how can we refuse to be addressed?
This interpellative dimension can give language a menacing quality, and we see this clearly in psychosis – ‘The car that went by is signifying something to me, but I don’t know what’ – or even in voodoo – ‘The bit of fabric I receive singles me out, even if I don’t know what for’. It is this dimension of singling out, of addressing, yet divorced from meaning, that is introduced for us by language. If it is established through being spoken to, it can then operate through vision, as Kapoor shows us.
So many of his works succeed in producing in the viewer a sense of interpellation, of being addressed, as if they even required a verbal reply. The enclosures that seem to grow out of the concave mirror works become like sound studios, where silences are created. Reality itself becomes a sound device, as we see in the extraordinary Dismemberment Site I (2003-9), in which a vast hearing apparatus emerges out of the countryside. Rather than understanding such works as indexing a pre-verbal state, as is sometimes claimed, why not see them as exploring the effects of language on the world, in the sense of the initial function of interpellation, the coordinates of which Kapoor recreates for us.
Kapoor, in a sense, is a sound artist. His unique way of knotting the ocular and the acoustic, and the experience of his works as receivers, brings out this strange but powerful circuitry. If recent works such as Past, Present, Future (2006) and Svayambhu (2007) involve mechanical trajectories, in which a block of wax travels along a predetermined path, the mirror works are equally explorations of movement in circuits. The very forms that interpellate us so actively, after all, are also embodiments of the more passive structure of hearing. The one invaginates the other, or, to use Kapoor’s phrase, turns the world not only upside down but inside out.
(1) ‘Anish Kapoor: Making Emptiness’, p.171-7, in ‘Anish Kapoor’, Royal Academy of Arts, 2009.