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

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game