Sunday, August 25, 2013

Anish Kapoor in Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau

Anish Kapoor, Symphony for a Beloved Sun, 2013

My pick of the current exhibitions in Berlin has to be the Anish Kapoor at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, though I will admit, I spent most of my time in the permanent collections of the city’s major museums. Anish Kapoor in Berlin was my first experience of a Kapoor, single artist exhibition. Whatever one says about his sculptures and installations, his work ticks every box of what makes interesting and challenging art. The works are contradictory, they dispute the meanings we blindly invest in the materials they use, they create irresolution, both philosophically and materially, they are messy and chaotic and, at the very same time, as being mathematically precise, these installations technically brilliant. And I could go on. Kapoor does what great art is called to do: he breaks all the rules, and then has his audience asking how on earth he achieves what he does.

Anish Kapoor, Shooting into the Corner, 2009
Anish Kapoor in Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau is huge in every sense. Kapoor fills the spacious atrium of the building known for its troubled history with Symphony for a Beloved Sun (2013), a work commissioned for the exhibition. Setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition, this central installation is overwhelming in its discourse on destruction, violent destruction, and in the spirit of all German art, it is not without glimmers of hope, if not resurrection. Clearly, the piece remembers and refers to Joseph Beuys’ Hirschdenkmäler, 1982, when the German artist filled the same atrium with the contents of his studio and a clay mountain for the Zeitgeist exhibition. And in a noticeable departure from the work for which Kapoor is best known, Symphony for a Beloved Sun is a deluge, devastation, and bloody destruction still in the process of taking place. Deep red, like hardened blood, wax is splattered on the floor as it falls from conveyor belts that rise up into the air; the wax smashes and breaks and the “sculpture” on the floor changes throughout the length of the exhibition as more and more wax piles up like the refuse that filled the streets of Berlin at the end of World War II. A giant red disk represents a sun overlooks the whole process, burning and corroding the wax as the waste of war, or industrial destruction. In another room Shooting into the Corner, 2009 is a canon shooting pellets of wax, the same Kapoor red, into the corner opposite, splattering all over the wall, creating another changing morphing mess of red wax. The canon is so loud that visitors are given protective ear pieces, and like the violent shot of a canon at war, the performance is over and done with in seconds. Again, like Symphony for a Beloved Sun, Shooting into the Corner is messy, and yet, the mechanics of the process are so perfect and finely tuned.
Anish Kapoor, When I am Pregnant, 1992
Everywhere in the exhibition, this contradiction between the cold precision of machinery, of war and industry and the amorphous, malleable mess of wax, usually hardened, is realized. A forklift is caked in wax, immobilizing the machine. We see the cracked wax, and envision the forklift moving, breaking the wax. What is the relationship between the two substances? Steel and wax, two materials that ordinarily have nothing to do with each other? Thus, there is always a disharmony because of the unlikely coupling of wax and steel. Again, I am reminded of Beuys’ making strange of the materials in his works: clay caked steel, animal fat and felt, and so on.
Detail of Anish Kapoor Untitled, 2010
The wax is luscious and sensuous and often highly erotic when it is moulded around and shaped by steel, wood, and other metals. As a steel arm moves at infinitesimal slowness to shape a bell out of red wax in Untitled, 2010, I am surprised that there is no odour to any of these wax creations. Similarly, despite the cautionary barriers beyond which visitors are not allowed to step in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, there is nothing fragile about the wax forms. They are resilient, forceful, and at their best, redefining the space in which they are placed. Wax is meant to be malleable, ephemeral, waiting to be melted. But in Kapoor’s sculptures, wax is resilient, solid, permanent, that is, the opposite of what we expect.
Anish Kapoor, 1st Body, 2013
So much of Kapoor’s work is about the body, both inside and out. When he does not anthropomorphize wax, cement, resin, pigments create holes, or the appearance of holes, negative spaces that leave us confused both as to what we are looking at and where we are in relationship to them. In Descent into Limbo, 2013 we wonder whether we see an empty black hole drilled into the floor or a circle of pigment. The title has us recall Dante’s Inferno, and yet, within the context of a Kapoor exhibition, the red hole is a mirror into which we want to peer, but cannot. The museum barriers again ensure our limited experience of this and other works. The impediments to viewing all of the works on display here are frustrating, but I want to leave open the possibility that Kapoor has dictated the limited viewing position to guard against full understanding.
My reflection in Anish Kapoor, Non-Object (Square Twist), 2013
Kapoor’s mirrors too are scientifically determined, playing with the viewer as much as they do the material from which they are made. Our image changes radically depending on where we stand in relationship to the mirrors: we can be upside down and elongated, and then move millimeters forward and find our image the right way up, consuming the surface of the concave mirror. Fascinated by our image, unable to capture or control it, we become like Narcissus, eternally fixated on the image of our selves. But of course, before a Kapoor sculpture, our image is always distorted, made ugly. Kapoor said during the opening of this exhibition that Martin-Gropius-Bau “has a curious and difficult history that is inexorably linked to the history of Berlin and its Nazi era … you can't make a show here without some reference to all of that.” I imagine the distortions to the images we see of ourselves have been fashioned by the same history that leaves its deep red stain on the wall where the wax slides down having been shot from a canon. 

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