Exhibition review: Anish Kapoor, Turning the World Upside Down

Kensington Gardens, London.

The camera obscura (Latin for a darkened room) is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on to a screen and was one of the inventions that led to photography. Consisting of a box or room with a hole in one side, light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside where it is reproduced, upside-down, but with colour and perspective preserved.

To come across Anish Kapoor's startlingly beautiful C-Curve sculpture in the middle of Kensington Gardens is to experience the effects of the camera obscura but without the darkened room. Walk towards the highly polished concave surface of stainless steel and the surrounding lawns, autumn trees and people will appear upside down like a child's vision of Australia, where everything is topsy-turvy. Move around to the bulging convex facade and the world will be the right way up again.

Clouds, dog-walkers, babies and bikers all pass across the silver screen in a filmic version of real life. The players in this pageant stroll on and off stage passing, only for a moment, like the shadows in Plato's cave. "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more," Macbeth despaired. What is real? What is a chimera? asks Kapoor in these mirroring multiplications and inversions of our surroundings, which pose questions about our very existence.

From the first encounter with these four stainless steel structures placed within Kensington Gardens, we are reminded that the world is rarely what it seems. As Alice discovered in the looking glass, reality is a slippery concept. The symbolism of the mirror is ancient; from Narcissus to Snow White, it is an image that has caught the human imagination.

Legend has it that in 212 BC Archimedes repelled the Roman fleet, laying siege to the island of Syracuse by using a multitude of flat mirrors that acted like a huge concave mirror to direct the sun's rays to burn the attacking Roman fleet. In the 17th century, Newton realised that mirrors rather than lenses could solve a problem called chromatic aberration. By using curved mirrors in telescopes the integrity of light could be maintained rather than defracted. For 2,000 years geometry had been flat but by the 19th century mathematicians had overturned Euclid's thesis that the angles of triangles had to add up to 180 degree and that parallel lines did not meet. Kapoor's curved reflective surfaces reveal the universe as it really is, a place where light warps and bends and things are not what they seem.

Sitting in the Round Pond in front of Kensington Palace is a polished red dish like a vast setting sun, which reflects the movement of the clouds above. As with the human mind, images float across its surface, staying a while and then drifting away. Though Kapoor is, presumably, not responsible for the swans that swim around it, he must have been aware how their white forms sailing past are a perfect visual complement to his primary red.

The placing of Kapoor's sculptures in the park is critical. The long vista leading down to Kensington Palace accentuates the sense of infinity within the works' reflected surfaces. Elsewhere Non-Object (Spire), a reversed trumpet shape that echoes his Tate Marsyas, sits among the trees, its silver skin covered with rain drops: part religious icon and part futuristic form. As you walk towards it a second spire is reflected in the base of the larger. When you arrive up close it disappears like a mirage in an oasis. So much of Kapoor's work is dependent on the involvement of the viewer.

Walk across to The Longwater and there you will come across another Sky Mirror, a vast sphere standing like some huge satellite dish where a Henry Moore sculpture once stood. On a grey day it looks inert but when the light plays across its surface, boundaries between sky, reflection, reality and dream are blurred.

From his early pigment sculptures that constructed deep voids, Kapoor has asked questions about the nature of existence and belief. He investigates what we hardly know, turning the world upside down and inside out to extract meaning. It gives us a glimpse at the mysteries both of the human imagination and the universe we inhabit.

Until March 2011

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred