Staring into Anish Kapoor’s Void is like having your eyes sucked out of your head and into deep space for a few pulsating minutes. It’s a half-globe, like a giant tennis ball sliced in two, coated in a magisterial blue pigment. Despite its simplicity, it manages to do something vaguely transcendental, becoming both a plastic and optical illusion that destabilises everything around it. It’s also typical of Kapoor’s work, which for the past 30 years has married an intense investigation of sculpture’s limits with a kind of erotic joy. This approach has brought the British artist an enormous global following, and for the first time a major Australasian institution – the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney – is staging a survey of his work, which will doubtless increase his fan base even more.
Void is one of the quiet centrepieces of Kapoor’s Australian show. However, these days he is best known for major public commissions: epic works like Marsyas in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern (2002), Cloud Gate in Chicago (2004-2006), Leviathan in Paris (2011) and most recently the ArcelorMittal Orbit – that giant hulk of twisted steel in the centre of London’s 2012 Olympic Park. He is also responsible for one of New Zealand’s largest pieces of outdoor sculpture: Dismemberment, Site 1 (2009) on Alan Gibbs’s Kaipara farm. However, Kapoor is quick to point out that behind those showstoppers there is still a considered, more modest practice. “Every one of those pieces demands a certain size,” he explains. “But most of what I make is still ‘human’ and studio-based in scale. And that’s important to me.”
Consequently, several of his less bombastic works appear in the Sydney show, but there is also plenty of evidence of Kapoor in monumental mode. My Red Homeland, for example, consists of 25 tonnes of red wax slowly churned by a giant blade, while Memory is an enormous egg-like form constructed from rusted Cor-ten steel. As a “sampler” exhibition, it shows the immense breadth of his practice. But for Kapoor strong commonalities run through the various forms on display.
“My early pigment works give rise to questions about the status of the object,” he says. “Pigment is stuff; it’s both material and immaterial. And that idea carries through to a work like My Red Homeland. Both of those are about ‘stuff’ but also about the illusion of colour. So through the whole process I’m trying to address object/non-object questions.”
This sounds a lot like Kapoor deals primarily in abstraction: focusing on effect (or affect, even) rather than trying to represent things in the world. And to a certain extent that’s true. But while one might not be able to see anything “recognisable” in his sculptures, they are nonetheless deeply connected to the real, because they’re made to be experienced – by real people, who inhabit real bodies. In Kapoor’s own words, his work “has always addressed the viewer. It is never just an object sitting without address”. Big or small, his sculptures force us to make decisions: we have to fall in love with them, hate them, be inside them or negotiate with them. Whatever our reaction, passivity isn’t one of the options.
This push-and-pull with viewers was highlighted in Kapoor’s hugely successful 2009 exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, in which he made a giant sticky mess of the venerable institution. In Shooting into the Corner, a cannon fired huge cartridges of red wax through an archway, where it splattered on a far wall and slumped down into an ever-amassing pile of red gloop. Similarly, in Svayambh, Kapoor clogged up the Academy’s arteries with an enormous wax train. Both works forced an exchange between viewer and object based on confrontation, excitement, sensuality and fear, and for Kapoor this represented a new confidence.
“I suppose earlier I always felt I was dealing with an attempt or wish to bring a kind of wholeness to my practice,” he reflects. “But in recent years I’ve felt more able to deal with a fractured world, a more anxious world. There is no such thing as an innocent object, or an innocent eye for that matter. So one is always in a kind of anxious relationship when looking. And I think I feel more and more able to take that on.”
There is something timeless about Kapoor’s work: it is primal, bodily and strongly sexual. But this also means it can seem detached from the exigencies of contemporary life. “I’ve never felt the need to make agitprop,” he says, “because I feel that’s a very difficult place for an artist to be. If a work is tied too closely to particular issues, before you know it the issues are no longer, and the work loses its reason for being.”
Outside the studio, however, it’s a different story. Kapoor is one of the art world’s most overtly political figures: a vocal supporter of Amnesty International and an outspoken critic of China’s human-rights abuses. He is also not above making fun of himself for the cause; he recently called on his extensive art world contacts to help him make a Gangnam Style video in support of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
“The British Government is too afraid to criticise China,” says Kapoor, “because in this day and age it will lose business. It’s therefore up to people like me to stand up and say, ‘You can’t do this.’ Sadly, too many artists, too many of my colleagues, still take part in China. I don’t think I have a choice. I can’t both criticise them and take part.”
It’s a refreshingly ethical stance that points to the important dual role artists like Kapoor can play: making sculptures that tap into universal human experience, but also filling the vital role of public intellectual in a repressive and difficult world. He is, however, careful not to let global success come at the expense of his work. “I do try to have a real practice in the studio,” he says. “I can’t do it sitting on an aeroplane. I try to take museum shows like this one in my stride and have them be part of the process of enlarging the work, and try not to see them as badges of honour.”
Kapoor’s importance as an artist lies precisely in this humility. Because, as his sculptures consistently show, when all the other noise is out of the way, there is only intimacy: between the work and the viewer who must find a way to be with it. And in that moment Kapoor is a modern master.
ANISH KAPOOR, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until April 1.