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Royal Academy of Arts retrospective celebrates 35 years of Anish Kapoor sculptures

Pippa Jane Wielgos

Anish Kapoor once said that artists make mythologies rather than objects. The sculptor cares about his audience, but confesses that "in the end, I make art for myself". "But I am, of course, very concerned with a work's content and the way in which meaning arises out of the encounter between body and object or non-object," he adds.

This retrospective emphasises Kapoor's ability to engage a mass audience or individual viewer on numerous levels, from the spiritual to the visceral.

Celebrating more than 35 years of the 55-year-old Royal Academician's work, it provides a dramatic visual and psychological diorama of a living British artist. It's also the first occasion in 250 years that the RAA has devoted five major galleries to one artist.

Kapoor's monumental sculptural forms permeate physical and psychological space through colourful pigment sculptures, site-specific interventions and gigantic installations, making him an excellent box office attraction.

His latest UK public art project, Temenos, measures 50 by 110 metres, and will be positioned at Middlesbrough Dock as part of the £15 million Tees Valley Giants Regeneration scheme.

Unlike his contemporaries from the world of British sculpture, such as Bill Woodrow, Andrew Gormley, Alison Wilding and Shirazen Houshiary, Kapoor's work explores the polarities of post-colonialism, juxtaposing East and West, ancient and modern and sacred and secular through paradoxes, aestheticism and Hindu symbiology.

He remains proud of his Indian roots and spirituality, and many of his key works emanate otherworldly qualities.

Svayambahm, a gargantuan, moving block of blood red wax, moves slowly along the breadth of Burlington House via mechanical sunken rails and leaves in its trail a tide of red residue, bearing witness to continual, gradual change.

Shooting Into the Corner is a cannon which systematically shoots projectiles of red wax at 20-minute intervals, morphing throughout the three-month exhibition to form a critical mass.

Colour-saturated pigment pieces from the 1980s feature alongside new works and reflective stainless steel sculptures, referencing his Sky Mirrors in Chicago, New York, Nottingham and other cities.

Marsyas was shown as part of the Unilever series which occupied the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in 2002. The abstract qualities of Kunsthaus Bregenz's My Red Homeland are highlighted by their individual form and use of optics and physical interaction.

The triumphant final highlight is in the Annenberg Courtyard. Tall Tree and the Eye is a commissioned new sculpture made from 76 highly-polished, 15 metre-high steel spheres reflecting their surroundings.


1/16 reviews produced in six weeks ex gratis for Culture24, 2009, featured for 3 months on the front page of Culture24.

Talk: Wild Thing: Sculptors in Revolt, the Reynolds Room, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Wild Thing, the Autumn show at the Royal Academy, chronicles the radical impact three sculptors had in transforming a stagnant period of British art between 1904 and 1915, exploring the influence of Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Eric Gill.

The disparate confluence of the trio is certainly academically perplexing – Epstein was the son of a Polish Jewish refugee from New York's Lower East side, while Gaudier-Brzeska, the son of an Orléans joiner, moved to London from Paris in 1911.

For his part, Gill converted to Catholicism in 1913 and claimed it was "high time to create works of art to destroy the morality which is corrupting us all" after being brought up as the son of a Brighton clergyman who belonged to a sect of Calvinist Ministers.

Between them, according to Exhibition Curator Dr Richard Cork, the triumvirate embarked on a mission to "rescue sculpture from the grave" and create the moment in time when sculpture in Britain became modern.

The 90-work collection is the first time all three have been critiqued in an exhibition, under a title taken from American poet Ezra Pound's description of his first meeting with Brzeska in 1913.

Cork sees the retrospective as the first step in a timeline leading straight to the current strong domestic sculptural scene. "British sculpture has never been more vital and varied and more powerful than it is right now," he says.

"We have the most extraordinary range of sculptors working in Britain, right from Sir Anthony Caro, at one end of the spectrum in his 80s, to the middle generation – Anish Kapoor, Anthony Gormley and Richard Long.

"It's good to put what's happening right now into perspective by finding out where it all began."

The artists themselves are quick to acknowledge this. "It makes everybody more aware of the roots contemporary sculpture has," explains Cork.

"For example, I was talking to Antony Gormley recently and he said that as far as he was concerned, the Angel of the North can be directly traced back to Epstein's Rock Drill. "That makes us look at the Angel of the North in a different kind of way, which is very stimulating."

Cork proposed the exhibition to the RAA with co-curator Adrian Locke in 2006, but the pair were "astonished" when organisations offered them some of the most iconic sculptures in history. Yale University and Art Gallery offered Epstein's eight-foot Venus sculpture, which hadn't travelled to England since 1917.

Artistically united by their interest in "direct carving" and "life inherent in stone", the artists' singular oeuvre was greeted with disparaging irreverence by art establishments. The press of the time portrayed their efforts as abominations produced by bohemian enfant terribles, perhaps making them the Damien Hirsts of their time.

Works by Gill and Epstein were frequently imbued with sexual and erotic connotations, offending public morality, religious beliefs and more.

Despite vehement social and institutional rejection, their committed raison d'être was to reinvigorate sculpture with reckonable force, as prior to this, the form was perceived as being subservient to painting.

In June 1908, the year after Epstein was accused of making "pornography", his external sculpture facade attracted national headlines in the Evening Standard because of his use of semi-naked bodies, which were seen as depraved, lacking lustre and obstructive to the correct mores of society.

Rock Drill was derided by critics. Its semi-mechanistic, distorted torso is spectacularly mounted on tripod legs, with a rib structure rarely seen anywhere in the world before, let alone by a British audience.

Following public criticism, and possibly due to financial need, Epstein removed its arms and legs, sold the tripod and cast the remaining torso in bronze to create a scaled-down version.

Other discursive works on display include Gill's Roland for an Oliver and Joie de Vivre, (1910).

The latter has a symbolic style similar to Indian temple art, and had to be stored because its overtly erotic subject nature was considered unsuitable for the British Christian public.

The advancement of a new abstraction of language by Brzeska is portrayed in Redstone Dancer, which pushed sculptural language to a new, energetically expressive form.

Epstein's Birds Erect, lent by New York's Museum of Modern Art, synthesises abstract images. Other works of controversy include the Tomb of Oscar Wilde, which was initially covered up when it appeared in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The nakedness of the sculpture prompted a gilt fig leaf to be designed, and enraged members of the public later vandalised the figure.


1/16 reviews produced in six weeks ex gratis for Culture24, 2009.

Exhibition: Earth - Art of a Changing World at the Royal Academy 2009

Coinciding with the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the Royal Academy's latest exhibition is a timely exploration of the way contemporary artists are responding to global warming. 

The Academy promises work which interconnects 'issue' and 'art' and in the work of Ackroyd & Harvey, this interconnectivity is perhaps most evident.

Their Beuys' Acorns was inspired by Joseph Beuys' 1982 project to plant 7,000 acorns whilst Polar Diamond (2009) is a diamond created from carbon extracted from the compressed ash of a bone of a polar bear, which they say questions the loss of the natural world and the price paid for carbon.

Photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose large-scale colour landscapes explore the post-industrial legacy of nature devoured by human industry, takes a less esoteric approach.

His Brave New World shows a contingent of workers processing cheap chicken in a factory. "To me, what's interesting as art is to begin to define that theatre of industry that is almost beyond our imagination", he says.

But it's not just about theatres of imagination or indeed distant artistic gestures. Since 2003 artists, including Ackroyd and Harvey, have been making a series of expeditions to the High Arctic with the Cape Farewell project to produce work that makes explicit connections with the shrinking polar ice caps and our urban political ecologies.

A Cape Farewell artist explorer is Sophie Calle whose photographic and plaque works include a series that documents the enactment of her mother's last wishes - the burial of her pearl necklace and diamond ring in a glacier.

Shiro Takatani also had glaciers in mind when he joined Cape Farewell for the 2007 expedition. His film 'Ice Core' explores the 2,503-metre core of a glacier and illustrates the geological process at work when compacted snow turns into ice. More importantly it also shows how the release of entrapped carbon dioxide governs the temperature of the planet.

Similarly Anglo-Ethiopian playwright, author and poet Lemn Sissay made the journey to the Pole and a filmed rendition of his poem, What If, offers an alternative sketch of Darwin's 'Evolution of Species' - first announced at the RA 150 years' ago.

Elsewhere the show packs in artists as diverse as Antony Gormley, whose 'Amazonian Field' is a room of approximately 35,000 individual terracotta figures and film/sound artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhard of Semi Conductor.

Their chillingly beautiful Black Rain is a result of raw empiric visual data recorded by NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STERO). It's a beautiful and atmospheric film that apparently shows the interplanetary solar winds and coronial mass ejections that are tracked heading towards Earth by a pair of satellites.

Where Earth: Art of a Changing World really succeeds is in the pairing of modern experimental artworks like this with the work of people like conceptual sculptor David Nash. His Ash Dome has an immediacy that teems with the natural elements of earth and fire.

There are similar earthy qualities to the work of Cornelia Parker whose Heart of Darkness, a suspended sculpture made from individual charred burnt tree debris and pine cones from a forest fire, takes inspiration from the eponymous Joseph Conrad novella that inspired the film Apocalypse Now.

You could argue that some of the art fails in its attempts to encompass and explain climate change. Regardless of that there is much to experience and ponder here.


1/16 reviews produced in six weeks ex gratis for Culture24, 2009.

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