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Memory is a tool that reconstitutes us again and again
A conversation with Anish Kapoor on his retrospective at the ICA Boston

"Past, Present, Future" is the title of a major Anish Kapoor exhibition on view through early September at the ICA in Boston. The show, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, unites works from the past 25 years and documents the oeuvre of one of the most important sculptors of the present day. Cheryl Kaplan met with him as he was putting up the exhibition.

Anish Kapoor, Past, Present, Future,
installation of the exhibition at ICA Boston, May 2008
© Cheryl Kaplan 2008. All rights reserved.

When I enter Past, Present, Future, Anish Kapoor's first major U.S. retrospective in fifteen years at the ICA Boston, three men in Hazmat suits are looking rather bloody. Some have buried their heads in oil barrels in an enormous effort to scoop out globs of a waxy red pigment they are lobbing onto a dome bearing the same name as the exhibition's title. Stirring madly, the three men resemble Shakespeare's witches from Macbeth, minus the recant of "Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and caldron bubble." A strange procession unfolds as one of them scoots up a ladder onto a slowly moving beam that circles the work and forms the sculpture Past, Present and Future. The sculpture looks like a planet in formation, although it weighs a mere 15 tons. This is not the only exhibition Kapoor has been putting up lately; just days ago he finished installing two others in New York at the Gladstone Gallery, including the debut of Gladstone’s second location at 21st Street. One space is devoted to works in red and the other to highly polished mirror works.

Anish Kapoor with Barbara Gladstone at his opening
at Gladstone Gallery, New York
© Cheryl Kaplan 2008. All rights reserved.

Kapoor, born in Bombay to a Hindu father and an Iraqi Jewish mother, has been based in London since 1973. The 54-year-old sculptor is a generation older than the YBAs but younger than the Minimalist sculptors Donald Judd and Richard Serra, to whom he is often mistakenly compared. He was a Turner Prize winner in 1991 and represented Great Britain at the 1990 Venice Biennale. His work presents a tremendous scope ranging from the earlier pigment projects like 1000 Names to works tucked inside walls, such as Descent into Limbo (1992) and My Body Your Body (1993), to the more recent mirror-based public art projects like Sky Mirror (2006), which spanned three stories in Rockefeller Center, N.Y. In 2004, Kapoor's 110-ton polished stainless steel pillow-like sculpture Cloud Gate fascinated Chicago with its magnificent presence at Millennium Park. In the fall of 2008, he will produce a large-scale commissioned piece for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin.

Kapoor's new work is an intervention in the exhibition space that prevents any single overall viewing or experience of the work. Fabricated from 22 tons of rusting Cor-Ten steel, with industrial parts exposed, this new experiment for the artist tests the boundary between sculpture and painting. Loosely resembling a balloon or egg-shaped object, the sculpture's steel surface engages the extremities of two gallery walls and the ceiling with the utmost precision. A temporary walkway around the Deutsche Guggenheim will connect three distinct access points for viewing the sculpture, including one interior view of a cavernous, seamless void in Cor-Ten steel.

Anish Kapoor, S-Curve, 2006, Polished steel
Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
Photo: John Kennard

Cheryl Kaplan: The effect of your mirrored objects is amazing. The spectators are converted into surrogates and doubles of themselves as their images are flipped upside-down, blown up to enormous proportions, reduced to a blip, or simply mimicked. For a moment, the viewer sees himself as though on a monitor that captures him and his surroundings as a fleeting optical sensation. In what way do the mirrored pieces become unrecorded films?

Anish Kapoor: I'm quite interested in this idea, and in how the cinematic relates to the objects. This work places demands on the viewer. Whatever is happening in the work only happens if the viewer stands in a particular place and looks in a particular way. I'm really interested in that performative sense. The work demands a formal approach in which the viewer and the viewed object perform a dance together.

The mirror pieces "Vertigo" (2008) at Barbara Gladstone Gallery and "S-curve" (2006) at the ICA offer a new level of optical complexity. Close-up, mid-distance, and long-distance images appear simultaneously as though a film had been collapsed into a single frame. This effect is similar to what happens in a progressive eyeglass lens containing three views at once.

Sculpture, while dealing with weight and mass, principally deals with space. It's the unrealities I'm after.

Anish Kapoor, S-Curve, 2006
Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
Photo: Joshua White, Los Angeles

There's never a final, fixed image in your work. The minute someone moves, the work is reconfigured. Is this happening because of varying degrees of surface polish?

It's almost impossible to get a proper polish to a very high standard. And so the resulting images come from the polish and shape of the work. Over the years we've developed complicated mixtures using miniature diamonds and powders. Getting the right quality of polish is a subtle affair. Then something happens to the object, whether it's in the pigment or polish, that's beyond our control - and all of a sudden it's there, miraculously, as an unreality. I love that.

Anish Kapoor, installation of the exhibition at ICA Boston, May 2008
© Cheryl Kaplan 2008. All rights reserved.

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