Form, colour, and a bit of the old in an’ out

Sex equals controversy ‐ probably the most well established equation in the art world. Think of Manet’s naked Olympia, confronting us with her knowing glare, or Allen Jones’ various X rated sculptures of PVC clad women. But what happens when sexuality is used in a less obvious, confrontational way? Well, a cannon spewing out bloody red wax, a few phallic relics and vaginas carved into just about every surface imaginable is what happens, at least if you’re Anish Kapoor. Kapoor is the artist‐come‐architect who rose with the New British Sculptors in the eighties and came to the wider public eye after winning the Turner Prize in 1991. As seems the prerequisite with any Turner Prize artist, Kapoor’s work is somewhat difficult; whopping great warped mirrors and odd protruding blimp sized blobs of metal pierced with gynaecological holes. Spectacular, yes. But what is it about?

Anish Kapoor

Nothing. It is about nothing, about voids and sublime emptiness. And this is where sexuality comes in. Let’s take, for instance, his 1990 series Void Field ‐ essentially, this was a collection of large flat rocks which Kapoor took his drill to, creating (or un‐creating?) mysterious black holes in the surface of each. Simple, theoretically. In actuality, though, the result is uncanny and disconcerting. His most recent public work, Ark Nova, has a similar effect. Ark Nova is the world’s first inflatable concert hall, a huge purple rubberised creation currently in Japan. Though in many ways it is wildly different to Void Field (and, indeed, to most other things on Earth), it is also characterised by a single hole.

And these strange vagina‐esque holes crop up throughout Kapoor’s oeuvre, to variously explicit extents (it requires little imagination to see that Hive, installed at the Royal Academy in 2009, places the viewer firmly in between two female legs). Is Kapoor, then, just a little… sexually frustrated? It wouldn’t be too far‐fetched to suggest so. But there is a reason that these pieces are so disturbingly powerful. They are Kapoor’s means of accessing an otherness beyond our material world. They are internally conflicting, at once symbolising the origins of existence but embodying utter nothingness. To say that they are just sexual seems inadequate; rather, they are representational of an ultimate unity of internal and external, negative and positive space, and being and non-being. Because sexuality is as close as we get to this unity, this is how we view the empty space.

It’s not all ins-and-outs, though. Colour is also integral to what he does. This was most blindingly apparent at his 2009 solo Royal Academy exhibition, which featured a piece called Shooting Into the Corner ‐ a cannon which would intermittently fire globs of crimson wax into (you guessed it) the corner. Complementing this was Svayambh, a train of crimson wax which moved slowly through the rooms of the Academy, painting the place red as it heaved itself along. These pieces were, well, a lot of things. Difficult, again. How do you respond to a huge sculpted mound of bloody red wax, pushing itself around an interminable track like something out of a post-apocalyptic film? These pieces were terrible and stunning at the same time. Partly this is because of Kapoor’s incredible inventiveness, but it is also because of the inescapable intensity of the deeply evocative red. Would the pieces have worked if they were a mixture of wax with a deep blue pigment? Probably not. And this is why crimson dominates Kapoor’s work. It is the colour of blood, lust, anger, menstruation and flesh. It is the colour of femininity and sexuality, but moreover it is the colour of vitality, and therefore one which we instinctively respond to.

But if it all seems a little too gynaecology‐central, there are a few phallic creations lurking in his wake. The Orbit tower comes to mind, the 115 metre high sculpture that Kapoor was commissioned to design for the Olympic park. It is a tower, so its form is phallic. Yet for Kapoor, this would be too simple; it may stand straight and upright, but it is teased by the helix tubes which curve and tangle around it, mocking masculinity. The Orbit, though, is not really where Kapoor’s interests reside. He does not work with outwards, concrete space, but with inwards non‐space. Superficially, this is why his works are preoccupied with the hollow feminine form, through which he can achieve a unity of being and nonbeing. Sexuality, here, is not served up as controversial subject matter, but is integral to creativity.


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August 2021
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