Text by Colin Herd
Following on from its first incarnation at Manchester Art Gallery in the spring, Anish Kapoor’s touring Arts Council-funded mini-retrospective Flashback is currently on show at Edinburgh College of Art as one of the flagship exhibitions of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival. The exhibition takes place in the airy and impressive Sculpture Court, a space usually given over to displaying either the college’s collection of antique statuary, including casts of the Elgin Marbles, or occasionally, to the giddy, experimental work of mid-degree art students. It’s a liminal space itself, then, caught between two moods and aesthetics, and the perfect choice to showcase Kapoor’s trademark blend of profundity and play.
The work in Flashback changes depending on the venue. In Manchester, Kapoor presented ten works, surveying a relatively wide selection of his explorations in sculpture, spanning his whole career. In Edinburgh, perhaps as a reaction and certainly as a relief to the mayhem and frenzy that Edinburgh finds itself in each August, this is slimmed down to just two sculptures: an early piece, White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers (1982) and the recent Untitled (2010).
White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers is an early example of Kapoor’s interest in creating sculptures out of raw pigment. Four small geometric structures made of powdery pigment are arranged in dialogue with one another on the gallery floor. They look like the tightly-packed piles of dyes and spices you might see in Indian markets, or like bizarre abstract sand castles, which in a sense is what they are: a miniature red mountain, studded with prickly peaks; an angular black tree-like form, jutting out in audacious spikes; two identical yellow bergs or breast-like mounds and an enveloping black wavy trough, almost the shape of pouting lips. As they are constructed from raw-pigment, colour is more than a surface effect; it’s the physical material the sculptures are made of. The work’s strong illusory quality comes from the central paradox that we don’t normally think of colour in terms of its physicality. The sculptures convey a sense of being physical objects and somehow not being at the same time, each one leaving a powdery trace around its base into which it seems they could very quickly dissolve and disappear.
At last year’s wildly successful retrospective at the RA, the two works which most caught the public’s imagination were the self-generating crimson wax-works Shooting into the Corner (2009), a canon that shot pellets of wax onto a gallery wall, accumulating over the duration of the exhibition and Svayambh (2007), a huge train made of wax that tracked its slow, relentless way through five rooms at the RA leaving large wax smears and blobs on walls and door frames, constantly moulding itself as it pushed through. Although less outlandishly ambitious than these works, in its own way Untitled (2010), a huge self-generating bell-shaped wax form that dominates ECA’s high-ceilinged Sculpture Court, is no less affecting.
A large steal fin like a butter churn moves around a circular track, so slowly that it could be a day-dream, all the time moulding and maintaining the bell-shape in its centre. You watch the fin, you see it moving, and although you know it must be turning, its pace is such that it never seems to move. There’s an obvious solemnity to the work, the bell a strong symbol of how we experience the passing of time, and given its position almost directly under a 1914-1918 war memorial, it’s impossible not to see its imposing blood-red form as a kind of memorial in itself.
Under the relentless progress of the mechanized blade, the bell itself appears smooth from a distance, but is actually embossed all over with blemishes and ruptures. It’s the literal embodiment of not smoothing over cracks, the pressure of the steel form having the opposite effect of imprinting each imperfection all the more clearly, like imaginary maps, or like the all-too-real ‘turning the map red’ of British Colonialism.
And yet, as with Shooting into the Corner and Svayambh, this sculpture has a sense of ungainly melodrama and dark humour. The edges of the fin become smudged and blotched with ragged rashes of red gunk, which spread out onto the floor. The surface of the bell is literally sticky, a tacky texture that also infiltrates the mood of the piece. In a space which is usually given over to classical sculptures, Kapoor’s sculpture has something of the detached, exhilarating horror, the tackiness and gore of a slasher film.
It’s part of Kapoor’s magic as an artist that he’s able to achieve this balance of frivolity, abstraction and high-mindedness, without undermining anyone.
Anish Kapoor Flashback runs at the Sculpture Court of Edinburgh College of Art until 9 October.
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White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers (1982)
© the artist
Courtesy: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London