Hovering over time and tactility
Anish Kapoor, The architect of postconceptual experiences
From the spectacular to the experiential
Any spectacle, form or space that rips open a punctum into the fabric of the real also defies historical-social time and matrix by giving rise to an experiential sphere positing new meaning to life which, in turn, lodges one outside the existing epistemic circuit. It even awaits examination in relation to the more immediate issue of seeking a social status as an idea or sight/site deserving cognitive consideration. Perhaps, at this undecided moment of eroticized existence, the distance between subject and object is confused, or the two are made into one, courtesy of the profusion of pure sensation. Hence, the object of interest remains in the vicinity of a pre-thing, or a thing in a state of becoming – present as an unfolding act, slowly inching towards an undecided destination but apparently not achieving a full-blown character or being.
At this juncture, the agency conferred to the agent (the viewer) also remains indeterminate – propelled as it is into limbo, waiting to be placed in the vicinity of the social imagining. It is this transient moment that Anish Kapoor, a British artist of Indian birth, attempts to freeze in his spherical, nebular, and sometimes concave or emptied-out sculptural contraptions. His ideation seems to be all about trapping the agent in this yet to be defined moment, by throwing him/her into an intersection before establishing the network that may provide the work of art with its social, philosophical, or even psychological context. Kapoor's devices connect the one who enters his domain to a parallel reality where one is to experience a lull, an absence brought on through the intentional withdrawal of narrative imagination in favour of the mute, non-verbal imagining, or a complete absence of it all.
Looking at such works occasions an experience of pure joy, agapey wonder, or pleasant horror as it resides in a space-time equation far removed from the sphere of knowledge as well as experientiality through which it has come into being. The plunge through the layers of reality aside, the time stilled, or distilled to be in the state which effectuates thoughtlessness or egolessness, these works of art also make use of other techniques, one of which is relinquishing/abandoning of one's fear/drive/involvement with the perceived social and historical line of ascent as it actually is a time forgotten, a state oblivioned, an obvious descent into nothingness.
If Kapoor's formative years as a sculptor in London had seen him re-orientated by the meritorious practices of yoga helping him access the meditative domain and to heal the self, we may assume that he had equally been led into a wider understanding of one's place in the world by the Jewish concept of Ayin (nothingness) that has seeped through the Kabalistic learning via his maternal lineage. This later divergence, or preoccupation, may have also provided him with a focal point which seems to have awakened in him an understanding that objects are not only about mere physical presence but are conceptual concoctions always evoking a sense of Otherness, an aura or dimension which usually remains latent in them. Establishing him as a creator of meditative form, or void spaces, throughout the years of his rise to prominence during the two penultimate decades of the last century, Kapoor is now a household name. If his works attempt to open an area of absence in our consciousness, most tellingly brought forth in the conceptual piece titled 'Descent into Limbo', his is a presence akin to a mythic hero.
That the creator of absent or erased spaces can easily wad through the grounds where there are resonances of other experiential remnants is a fact through which one can construct two poles of his sensibility. At one end there are works that inverts time and content, giving rise to introspection and ego-effacement, at the other end there are others that lay it out there for all to gorge on gluttonously, ones that see the continuous disembowelling of innards, or scatological detritus, and skinning of the fleshes, of non-existent animals, creating mythical moments of artistic dimension. If the former is the result of a holistic programme, the latter proliferates as fragmentary universes existing on their own rights within or alongside that whole.
Womb existence – a language of senseless spaces
'Tongueless and hollow' is how the speech of the Earth sounded to Prometheus, the Greek god of Titan descent. As it happens, 'the champion of mankind', with his superior rationality and intelligence, simply fails to connect with the earth, upon which he is born and is destined to live his protracted life-struggle until his final hour – death. It is a powerful testimony to how human knowledge irrevocably intervenes in the possible dialogic relationship between a sentient being and things that, for us, have a mute existence. If this muteness is what Kapoor tries to stretch over to his technologically savvy pieces, does it remain earth-bound any more – clinical as they are in their look and built, at least the ones that are space-agey in their constitution, overtly displaying their contemporary techné.
Let's enter this discursive zone from another direction with a new query: Is it possible to terminate the 'ego I' in order to enter the domain of the 'beyond I' – the silent, voiceless 'I' that carries the memory of pre-birth-era mute space or the sense of occupancy in that oceanic sphere? If so, can there be a vehicle good enough to throw us back into a similar experiential mode?
Kapoor is no tyro in sensing this neuter space where the ego is inverted. He accomplishes this by what Homi K Bhabha calls 'emptying of all contents'. The beginning, auspicious as it certainly was, saw Kapoor effecting magic with the powdered pigments. They served as the elements that trigger slippage, or sliding away of the formal strictures of the modernist (phallic) idiom. And pigments for him always provides the opportunity to recreate the plane of experientiality as they are never employed as substitute garbs or covering but elements that institute an uncovering, giving rise to the notion of fugitiveness – endowing the form with the 'sense of being there' as well as 'not being there' – both, at once.
If one is to find a transcendental process through which the physical properties are aligned with the metaphysical intent or, put another way, if the drama of the pigment or fugitive surface is to be turned into a meditative experience, does it call for the invocation of the womb reality? If the memory of the womb as a sanitizer of all worldly chaos and confusion is the concept what Kapoor attempts to base a greater part of his artistic productions on, how, then, does he mange to skirt round the signs of trauma? The comfort zones that he creates await such sharp critical probe, if we are to make sense of his senseless spaces.
Tomb-tantra – the annulment of the end
Is Kapoor's oeuvre premised on cognitive closure? Does his world remain in a shadowy corner of our consciousness, safely tucked away from the vicissitudes of life, ready to resist any rational tools with which the mystery can be unlocked? If the antiseptic purity of the language is to be perceived as the means to transport oneself into an esoteric realm, it is a way of remembering the primordial order which conjoins us with the pre-life existence about which modern psychology has so far offered us little insight. Apparently, this reminiscence through the residue of memory invokes the orgasmic state of being in a physical tranquillity which is only possible before birth and after death.
David Boadella speaks of a similar condition which many might have felt occurring in the moment before death. In the book 'Lifestream' he refers to death as a kind of arrival, sighting the experience of spiritual orgasm during the moment that is socially dubbed as the end. The fact that both departure and birthing reside in a spatial reality which is nothing but two different moments in a single continuum, one that pushes the body towards timelessness, is what so emphatically put forward by Boadella. Most of Kapoor's constructions can be perceived as an implicit arousal of that memory. They have to do with our desire for such spatial occupancy that triggers awe and ecstasy. This invocation of the opposites – being and the oblivious state of being – easily infiltrates the virtual plane of existence, fills it up with a sense of strangeness and anxiety, making the indeterminate journey of life meaningful.
If anxiousness exists in the process of how this artist restores the sense of awe vis-à-vis life, death, and the idea of eternity, he does so by way of trashing the concept of visuality as well as certainty of the gaze as a tool to understand the world. This very ethos bears down on his succinctly constructed world, where senses are clustered under one single paradigm – the paradigm of the void, to call forth the pre-body or post-body excitements.
Interestingly, his craft, smacks of the post-industrial glamour that we have been a witness to in the last two decades.
The sense of vulnerability and strength is packed together in most of his works, though his early pieces used to source more of the former, with a great many of them giving the impression that they would wither if someone sneezed. At present, the improbable heaps of dung-like, pellet-like soft-looking constructions, unravel as they do a world defined by surfeit, still articulate the cosmic continuity of matter, although matter conceived as just plain matter; but with their sheer presence they simply excite us, make us curious about the nature of the world.
Kapoor's works, in both the holistic idiom and the fragmentary language, make visible the opacity or the absent pockets in our chronological construction of history and challenge the notion that the development of knowledge is the only tool of knowing and relating to the world. And all this is dovetailed with a space-age configuration, when he literally ventures out into the open. His public sculptures – ones that take the scale quite seriously shooting his ambition skyward, occupying urban landscape with their sheer size – they are offshoots of that neutral spatial concept reaching out for the Otherness in a grand fashion, always presiding over our big-capital, post-industrial, post-religious hyperactive age.
If modern living, through an entirely misplaced notion of science as applied technologies, almost effected an emptying out of our cranium of the vestigial elements of the originary scene – through which the dichotomy of 'self' and 'other' collapses and birth and death are perceived as plain entry points into newer domains – some artists have never given up their hope of returning to that state by exploring it in one form or another. At least the thirst for such oceanic concept of life, with the 'I as presence' replaced by the 'I as absence', has been the preserve of some of the artists, and one of Anish Kapoor's creative strands certainly puts him in the rank of its recent inheritors.
Kapoor's oeuvre, one which veers towards such sensibilities, forms only one tier of his artistic production. The rest, though they serve as deviations from the canons of historicizing, conceptualizing mode of praxis with equal candour and artistic capacity, either celebrate the Brave New world or provide a retreat from it. With the experientiality that his works mediate by enacting a silent, ambivalent drama Kapoor draws the human spectator into a field of energy that has more to do with Bergsonian élan vital than 'anxiousness', about the latter Homi K Bhabha talks at length, threading thoughtful loops into the concept, in a designated session of conversation, at the India Art Summit. Thus, essence is brought into alignment with the very force of matter itself and the emergence of the undecidable is also made possible helping one to recognize that Kapoor's works work well in this ravine-like terrain.