Anish Kapoor at the Kensington Gardens’ Serpentine Gallery

May 3, 2011

Anish Kapoor is a London-based sculptor with an Indian Jewish background, being born in Mumbai in 1954, but living in the U.K. since the early 1970’s, when he arrived to study Arts. He first started to exhibit as part of the New British Sculpture art scene, then he went on to win the prestigious Turner Prize, and at the moment he is one of the most prominent figures of contemporary sculpture.
His works are characterized by often massive, but always simple and elegant, also usually monochromatic shapes. Almost all materials that can be associated with sculpting have passed through his skilled hands, as he created works out of: chalk, raw pigment, polystyrene, fiberglass, stone, aluminum, stainless steel, bronze, felt, acrylic, wax… etc. More often than not the artist’s intention is to enable expression via his works, rather than to express a specific message of his own, this can be seen most clearly in his installations and in his reflective sculptures where the participation of the viewers is quintessential to the work. Even though large scale is not always in the artworks’ best interest, often shifting the accent from the idea to the pure craftsmanship, Kapoor’s works take size and work it to their advantage. Pervaded by elements of minimalism, they fill the viewer with a sense of awe that can only be experienced in front of a well-presented, monumental piece of art.

The exhibition in focus here took place at the Serpentine Gallery of the Kensington Gardens, in London. The show that was on view between September 28th of 2010 and March 13th 2011 contains 4 pieces by the artist, all of them made of highly polished stainless steel, that have never been previously shown together. This show was curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, one of the world’s top curators at the moment, and who has been working at the Serpentine Gallery for over 10 years, and it is unique in the way that it is the first contemporary sculpture project to take place in the Kensington Gardens in the last 25 years.


Entitled Turning the World Upside Down, the show does just that, both symbolically and literally. Watching the surfaces of Kapoor’s pieces you experience the world around you (and even your own figure) in unexpected ways. They record the nature’s movements, the changes in the weather, the foliage – take note of the period in which the exhibition takes place, one of the most interesting and rewarding periods from this point of view. When faced with his works you are forced to see things from a different perspective, and thus notice details you would’ve passed over if it wasn’t for them. The idea behind this show is for the works of art to be directly experienced by the viewers. Reflecting and distorting, they may be destabilizing at first, showing a new yet familiar sight.
The pieces, placed around the park are not integrated in the scenery; instead, they stand out, like curious, alien objects, arresting the gaze. Still, this does not distract the attention from the park itself, but rather the opposite, since this is precisely what they reflect. So, after all, are you admiring the artwork itself, the grand scenery, or your own funny self?

Probably the most popular work displayed is the C-Curve, which, as the title pretty much says, is a long curved band of stainless steel that on it’s outer (convex) side shows the reflected reality of the park grounds, but it’s not just an oversized mirror you are looking at – the curvature of the band makes the experience slightly stranger, due to the sensation that you might just catch a glimpse of what lies hidden just around the corner…
On the concave side, the entire scenery is reflected upside-down; it is in regular scale in the very center and enlarged towards the edges. This view brings on a whole new perspective over the arrangement of the park, the often overlooked elaborated design of the Kensington Gardens (conceived in the 18th century by Henry Wise and Charles Bridgeman), the rows of trees, like something out of a Hobbema painting.
Certainly the best-placed sculpture in the exhibition is the Sky Mirror – Red, the smaller of the two present in the show, it has a diameter of aproximately 280cm, and it consists of a concave disc, (resembling a satellite dish) that stands close to the shore of the Round Pond, seeming to float above the water, amongst the swans. Its tint – pinkish red, with violet gleams like the hues of a Rothko piece makes it look like a setting sun, and the angle at which it is placed makes it reflect not the swans or the visitors, but only the skies above… a permanent sunset. Its positioning with Kensington Palace as a backdrop creates what I believe is an iconic image.


The second Sky Mirror, an enormous sculpture with a diameter of 10.6 meters that originally stood in the middle of the Rockefeller Center in New York, is in this case placed farther away from the public, more precisely across the Longwater. It brings the unseen into full view, it brings down the sky, making us acutely aware of it’s constant movement, constant change, especially in a city such as London, where the weather is well known for its moody swings. Pointing out the easily recognizable, but not quite familiar, the work draws you in and keeps you focused, never offering a dull moment.
The last of the works, and also the one I, myself found the least appealing is Non Object (The Spire), a 3 meter piece, shaped like a non-Euclidean cone, with its pointy top shooting up, a tad too alien for it’s ambient, but still a clever find, as it reflects itself onto it’s own surface, making for an interesting distortion of the shape itself and also of the surrounding environment.

One of the downsides of the exhibition is that this last work and also the C-Curve have been surrounded by rope in order to protect them, thus diminishing the actual experience of the viewers, who cannot properly interact with these works anymore. It can be argued here of course that a good public sculpture or installation should be able to sustain itself and to stand apart in its environment… But other than that, I believe the show is a success, given the excellent location, the always amazing works of Kapoor and especially the chemistry that was created between these two elements. The mix of all these provides a unique way of experiencing contemporary art. This highly modernist abstract art transforms the well kept oasis that is the Kensington Gardens, but without ever giving the sense that it attempts to invade it.

As a whole, Anish Kapoor turns a walk in the park into a whimsical trip, like something out of Alice in Wonderland or a Hall of Mirrors. He is an illusionist that engages and amuses the viewer, but on a deeper level he is also a revealer: his sleek, sophisticated sculptures teach us to look at the world anew.

Text and photos by Voica Puscasiu

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