Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Anish Kapoor has built a career out of exceptionally engineered, slick-looking objects – gleaming dishes, gaping voids and monumental installations. While his work seems to descend directly from the tradition of 1960s Minimalism – the viewer’s physical presence being a requirement for the completion of each work – its wonder-inducing scale points more at German Romanticism: awe for adults, fun for the kids. The reference here is a surprisingly traditional one: the dazzling 19th-century landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, painted to inspire amazement, with a splendour more vivid than reality’s.
Much of the work in Anish Kapoor strains the seams of the MCA. Kapoor’s works bulge: Memory (2008) fills most of the room it is installed in, to striking emotional effect, while When I am Pregnant (1992) breaks with the basic assumption that museums have flat walls. A museum, experienced in this way, can feel like an amusement park: approachable, but the rides are over in a flash.
On first viewing, My Red Homeland (2003), a work that sits alone in a room, seems to offer something different, perhaps richer and less fun than the other works, neither sucking us into an abyss nor making us vertiginously aware of our surroundings. It is more visceral than the others, with its arm rotating through thick, blood-pigmented wax. But one soon becomes aware of being in the presence of an elaborate and seductive fabrication, for the ready-piled wax isn’t moving as it seems. This leaves one with the feeling of having worked out the secret behind the illusion.
Although Kapoor pursues the big existential questions in his work, materiality takes precedence, as it does for many of his blockbuster contemporaries. In his case, Kapoor engages the imagination in a way that feels close to that of a didactic science exhibit – one designed to elicit a very particular moment of astonishment. The distortions reflected in Sky Mirror (2006) – a giant dish-like mirror sitting out the front of the MCA – bring to mind Roland Barthes on the work of Harold D Edgerton, the man who photographed, among other such things, the explosion of a drop of milk (to the millionth of a second): “I am too much of a phenomenologist to like anything but appearances to my own measure.”
Kapoor’s works overwhelm – not only the spectators who stand astounded and entertained before the at times enormous, at times deceptively simple installations and objects, but the very museums they are presented in. This is certainly their power.