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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Stone fire, black flame
by Swapna Vora

March 09, 2007

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)


Sky Mirror

"I do not want to make sculpture about form, I wish to make sculpture about belief, passion, experience that is outside the material concern."—Anish Kapoor.

For a few brief weeks last September and October, Anish Kapoor’s new ‘Sky Mirror’, an enormous stainless shimmer, a giant’s salad plate, sat at Rockefeller Center. It stretched New York and reflected it upside down. We, New Yorkers, had come undone after September 11 and had clutched each other, unable to do anything except weep and sit silently on sidewalks. Last September we admired ourselves on wonderful convex surfaces, where expensive, upside down Fifth Avenue buildings hung tremulously and the grand Rockefeller Center floated above our heads like Mary Poppins. The silvery stainless dish reflected the dark cobalt sky with its stars and glowing stripes trailing from nearby planes. It was a time for delight as New Yorkers smirked at themselves, jumped up and down, grimaced at their images and ‘do si doed’ around the Sky Mirror, possibly the most instantly interactive art installation in the world. (Chicagoans importantly insist their Kapoor, the Cloud Gate aka Silver Bean, is hot and gets that title but then, that is the city of big shoulders.) Everyone had something banal to say: It’s from outer space, does it fly, oh look at me, look at me now.

Sky Mirror
The world heard of ‘Britain’s leading living sculptor’ in the 90s when he won Premio Duemil at the Venice Biennale and today his work continues to offer so much lingering complicated pleasure. First this, then that, then they, then a turn, then a smile, then a tremor, - ah, the pleasure, a glimpse of innocence and glee, but sophisticated, really. A texture, you want to own it, know it belongs to everyone and you can’t get enough of it. Ah, Anish, what have you done? A spun out memory, a tang of metal, a stretch of silver: one does so want that again and again. Yes, I was enthralled, shamelessly smitten and saw cold galaxies, warm earths, sky kissers, big mouths. Star hikers half way across our galaxy would know what to do with Sky Mirror, I merely smiled and smiled.

The British love their history which, after the dust is settled, is someone’s sly opinion. They chose Kapoor, among the top dozen of the world’s sculptors, to create a monument at New York’s Hanover Square: the Directors of the British Memorial Garden Trust announced that the renowned Anish Kapoor had won their competition and would create a monument to Unity for the park at Hanover Square. With an eye to diplomacy, it is deftly called a symbol to Unity, the Unity of America and Britain. This proposed sculpture, a focus for Remembrance Day and other British observances, was selected by a jury of art historians, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and other grandees. Usually summer grass is all that remains after soldiers have been and gone but Kapoor gallantly proposed an illusory black flame in stone.

Anish Kapoor says: “The proposed memorial is for an object roughly 6 meters high by 2.5 meters wide by 1.5 meters deep. It is a block of black granite into which a vertical chamber is carved of approximately 1 meter by 2.5 meters by 80 centimeters in depth. The inner chamber is polished to give a mirrored surface. The chamber reflects light so as to form a column, which hovers, ghost-like, in the void of the stone. This very physically monolithic object then appears to create within itself an ephemeral reflection akin to an eternal flame.”

Kapoor’s sculpture gives an experience of more than its matter or even its form, it offers both the manifest and unmanifest, like something imminent. The flowing curves are sensual, asymmetrical, like nature. What we like is rarely rational, simply long embedded memories, some chance encounter, some thoughts from a generation before or after us. Nothing logical, just love because. So, this almost flame in stone, is it going to be masculine, phallic, perpendicular? Not really, rather like the yoni which holds the Shivling in each temple’s womb, it seems to be a hollow, creating the image of a phantom flame. Perhaps like love, which offers god and reality and turns out to be images and desire. Anish gives us international, modern spirit combined with Indian ghosts, for Indian sculpture created images and auras and was meant to be used, lived in, perhaps decorated with vermillion and crimson powders.

Pier Luigi Tazzi delightfully describes Kapoor’s work as ‘irregular like holy places, the landscape of the soul’ not intellectual design but the imperative of holy sites of gods and desire. Soulfully, he observes that Kapoor’s sculpture with its pure color or pitted stone should ideally be below the level of the earth, in caves or under the sea. Art may offer a darshan of reality, Kapoor offers delight, damp, velvety, colored shadows, female wounds, hurt lips, perhaps remembering the ‘Rivers of Blood’ predicted by Enoch Powell. 'Flowing, organic, Japanese' come to mind, or inspired by liquid mercury as Kapoor says.

Kapoor was asked by Naples to build a Metro station. He thought they wanted a few thoughtful, sympathetic installations but was astonished when they talked about the entire station. He then created a giant work of art, to enter like a loose, knitted garment, not simply engineering, but an insistent reminder of travel and art.

Some more of his work: ‘Suck’ is like the Hindu void, with no beginning and no end, unimaginable eons of time. His huge Marsyas, gives a sense of being flayed, like in the legend. The sculpture’s dark red colour suggests something ‘of the physical, of the earthly, of the bodily.’ Kapoor simply commented, ‘I want to make body into sky'. and added, “The Turbine Hall is a giant space. Most earlier exhibits used one-third of it. I decided I would use the whole building. It was the only way I could make sense of it.”


Cloud Gate

“Bigger isn’t better. Scale is one of the possible forces or energies,” says the artist about his 25-metre long stainless steel installation, tall and high, near Lake Michigan. Locally loved and called ‘Silver Bean’, it reflects viewers and the city. The 110-ton ‘Cloud Gate’, forged from seamless polished stainless steel "plates" reflects and refracts Chicago’s skyline with the park hovering near and around it. Often his entire sculpture cannot be seen or even sensed from one position: we do get separate views but do not ever feel we possess it.

‘At the Edge of the World II’ takes your thoughts from the mortal to the immortal.
His assorted works show mastery over power, powder and pigment and offer us belief, passion, and transcendental experiences. His work is in curves, often in deep monochrome or with bright pigments with powder sometimes lying on the floor, like India’s rangoli heaps.

‘My red homeland’ is a cylindrical 12 meters in diameter made from 20 tons of deep-red Vaseline, offering a depiction of chaos and pralaya, the ascent and descent, not of man, but of the universe.

In Austria, his illuminated wall has colored light and disorienting dark. Some more of his lovely titles are: ‘The missing piece’ about artists with the Dalai Lama, ‘Whiteout’, and ‘Descent into limbo’. And the really lovely, ‘As if to celebrate, I discovered a mountain blooming with Red Flowers’ is peaks and valleys of red joy, like the holy heaps of powder on Hindu foreheads and temples.

Kapoor’s mother is Jewish and for Hannukah he contributed to New York’s Jewish Museum. Next he designed a backpack for Doctors without Borders. It is, of course, elegant with a solar panel for charging phones, removable compartments, a laptop sleeve, an electric adaptor, pockets for a camera, a flashlight and a water bottle and is in ballistic nylon with, perhaps, a wistful silver lining. There are 500, numbered and signed…

Born in Bombay in 1954, Kapoor studied at the Doon School and went to Hornsey College and the Chelsea School of Art Design. In the ’80s he worked for London’s powerful Lisson Gallery, a midwife which delivers stars. In 1991, he won the coveted Turner Prize, was elected Royal Academician in 1999, and Queen Elizabeth named him a Commander of the British Empire in 2003. Debrett’s Peerage gives him over 60 lines while listing his exhibits for he works non-stop. As soon as he finishes one enormous sculpture, he commences on another to put up elsewhere, usually in revered forums like Spain’s Reina Sofia, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.

© Swapna Vora &

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