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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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