Many words come to mind when you try to describe the new Anish Kapoor exhibition that opened at Martin-Gropius-Bau last Friday: spectacular, impressive, sensational, amazing, are only a few examples. All of these expressions have a special connotation and a second meaning when you dig a little deeper into their origins. All of these expressions also perfectly describe the experience of being inside this reinvented museum space, but leave you asking whether all of this is might be a little bit too much and a little too, well, spectacular.
The word spectacular comes from spectacle, which is a fitting analogy for Kapoor in Berlin. Let’s start at the beginning. In the light-flooded court from which you enter a series of rooms on the ground floor, four industrial ramps pierce through the ground, seem to break it (ground-breaking!), and transport massive briquettes of blood-red wax to the end of the ramp. There, these blocks predictably fall to the floor and thereupon slowly loose their original shape. The hollow bang of the wax piling up is a steady acoustic companion to the visitor. The longer the exhibition lasts, the bigger the piles will be and the more altered the court will look. The spectacle of Symphony for a Beloved Son (2013) was produced especially for the Berlin exhibition and gives you an impressive introduction to the work of Indian-born sculptor Anish Kapoor and his bold re-interpretation of sculpture.
Impressive comes from impression and, like the word spectacle, Kapoor takes his mission to create permanent impressions for his audience seriously. Specifically, you get the impression that Kapoor, together with curator Norman Rosenthal, tried to address as many senses as possible – since it’s a small step from sensual to sensational. Let’s stick with the sounds and the wax for a second: Shooting into a Corner (2008-9) was originally shown at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna in 2009 and later at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Experiencing this installation is so overwhelming to the senses that its performance can only be witnessed by wearing special earphones. A frightening canon, operated by a specialist, shoots blocks of red wax into a corner and sends loud explosions throughout the exhibition. The entire procedure takes only a second, and leaves the museum room messier than before. When bits of wax are flying through the air and the corner turns more and more into an artful site of massacre, you understand what curator Rosenthal means when he says that Kapoor in Berlin is a deconstruction of the Martin-Gropius-Bau.
The senses are further addressed when it comes to smell. Two newly made sculptures, First Body and Apocalypse and the Millenium both have a strong smell of the resin they were made of. The latter reminds you of the smell of almonds, maybe marzipan, or, as a friends of mine noted, amaretto. First Body, a massive three-part sculpture that was cut into pieces, evokes images of flowstone caves or a piece of petrified wood. You instinctively want to stick your head into one of the openings and take a deep breath of the unusual wax smell, just like you can’t help registering the plastic smell of all the chocolate-coloured PVC when it comes to The Death of Leviathan (2011-13). This truly monstrous plastic sculpture is so gigantic that it fills three rooms and makes it impossible to take in completely. After Shooting into the Corner, The Death of Leviathan feels like another, quite ironic and once again impressive, attack on the architecture that this exhibition is supposed to hold together. Size does matter and Kapoor demonstrates quite graphically that even a spacious house like the Gropius-Bau is bursting at the seams when it tries to host his artwork. Leviathan was originally the title of a 35-meter walk-in sculpture shown at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2011. The rooms of the Gropius-Bau -that’s what the title might suggest- have killed the monster now by not giving it the space it needed.
But let’s return to our play on words and think about amazing for a moment. Kapoor in Berlin amazes you and is at the same time often not unlike a maze. Maze can be another word for labyrinth, which are often found at fairs where I remember getting lost as a child. I remember how the aisles of a house of mirrors deceived my perception at every corner. Kapoor’s mirror sculptures –kaleidoscopic concaves that are hanging on the wall – and his Non-Object sculptures (2008-13) give you a very similar impression. They work as performative sculptures in the sense that the visitor’s broken, enhanced, contorted, flipped, or multiplied image is produced through and with the physical presence of the spectator. There’s only reflection through interaction. “The kids will freak out,” a journalist exclaims at the preview on Friday morning. I remember that the kids, big and small, already freaked out three years ago when Olafur Eliasson turned the Martin-Gropius-Bau into a mirror maze, that – hard to believe in the face of such grandeur – makes Kapoor’s mirrors look old. But this is not a fair, but rather a fairly spectacular – and interactive – art exhibition and such comparisons might be, well, unfair.
The stress on the sensational also ignores Anish Kapoor’s great ability to construct the nothing. His genius in creating voids and black holes with his anti-sculptures brings you back to the idea of sensation, very similar to the twisted mirrors images in which you easily get lost. A 2013 re-enactment of his Descent into Limbo (1992) is nothing but a nothing, a negative, a mysterious hole in the ground, locked from the visitors by a glass balustrade. The description says that this hole consists of fibreglass and pigment, when it slowly dawns on you that this is not a hole but a sculpture – of sorts.
The idea of the sensational, the sensual, and the sensory also affects you with an immediate wish to touch everything you see – the stone, the cement, the pigment, the earth, the wax, and the PVC. On the busy opening night, the museum guards had no easy job trying to prevent visitors from grabbing the materials and thereby following the subconscious appeal of every sculpture that seemed to say, “Touch me, become a part of me!”
To say that an art exhibition is too spectacular suggests that art comes from that which is arduous and that fun physical adventures have no place in a museum. You might say about Kapoor in Berlin that the makers’ wish to impress is a more than obvious, but that would ignore the fact that Anish Kapoor’s sculptures have always been monumental and overwhelming. What remains is the impression that all of this is very impressive and sensational – and really pretty spectacular.
Kapoor in Berlin, May 18th – November 24th 2013
at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin
Opening hours: Wednesdays to Mondays 10am -7pm, closed on Tuesdays