Anish Kapoor: Flashback is a rather disconcerting exhibition. Part of a series of Arts Council expositions, Flashback brings together past and present creations to (hopefully) provide insight into the evolution of artist’s careers. Yet rather than assert the reputation of the internationally-acclaimed Anish Kapoor, or provide a meaningful encounter with some of his works, the Edinburgh Art Festival incarnation of the 2011-12 Flashback project may leave the viewer somewhat deflated.
Arguably the most intriguing facet of the Flashback series is its potential to form a legible dialogue between the past and present works of an artist, offering a chronology to the viewer and providing some opportunity to study that most elusive of concepts: the ‘artistic process’. And yet while White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers (1982) and Untitled (2011) have enough temporal distance between them to illustrate Kapoor’s development as an artist, unfortunately these works are more brusquely linked through their aesthetic qualities, rather than by deeper resonances.
Proximity to the entrance of the Edinburgh College of Art Sculpture Court dictates our engagement with White Sand first, immediately forcing a chronological reading of the exhibition. And yet as one circles these raw-pigment configurations, one is acutely aware of the monumental, bell-shaped Untitled looming in the background. This curation, rather than establishing a sense of fluid evolution, instead appears artificial, as the two fundamentally spherical works occupy the space with an uneven symmetry; White Sand’s small unobtrusive forms struggle to compete with the overbearing Untitled. And while undoubtedly the rich hues of White Sand – red, yellow and black - are supposed to linger in the mind when contemplating the crimson-hued bell, this blunt aesthetic connection rather reduces the first work to a ‘mixing-palette’ precursor of the second.
Considering White Sand on its own merit then is made difficult, as the rough, organic forms covered in raw pigment appear to have been placed here solely for their simplistic relation to the monumental show-stopper beyond. But even if one does escape this strained dialogue, there proves to be little here beyond an aesthetic exploration of colour and form. While their vibrant tones are indeed eye-catching, the most compelling question raised by these sculptures is how these apparently delicate piles of pigment retain their formal integrity. And even if one may choose to imagine these works as organic forms ‘emerging’ from their surroundings, this too is undermined by the sleek white podium whose circular formation appears, once again, to be a cursory nod to the omnipresent Untitled.
Yet when one decides to investigate this curious showpiece, once more we discover that Untitled primarily focuses on aestheticism to create an artistic spectacle for the viewer, with any deeper meanings obscured by its grandiose staging. An imposing structure, initially one is impressed by the optical illusion formed by the slow revolutions of the steel frame, as the waxy bell appears to swell out dangerously before us. This rotating mechanical element also leaves the surface of the bell pitted in irregular patterns, and results in simultaneously alluring yet disgusting accumulations of wax on the surface of the steel. Yes, it is true that this immersive aesthetic experience is backed up to some degree by connotations of church bell-ringing, and connections to the processes of institutional religion and worship. Yet as the arm completes another slow revolution, one cannot help but feel that this work is something of a monument to futile actions, repeatedly pushing wax around a pre-configured form. Overall, the attraction of the strange or unusual, rather than a deeper reflection or meaning, appears to have been the major concern of the artist.
As a result of these aesthetic and curatorial diversions, Anish Kapoor: Flashback is an uneven exhibition, dominated by the blunt and unequal relationship between the two primary works. While research materials are available to contextualise the works and contribute to our understanding of their potential meanings, the works themselves struggle to elucidate anything beyond an aesthetic spectacle. Through the awkward selection of two sculptures linked by the most banal of elements – colour and shape – this exhibition proffers Kapoor as an artist almost entirely preoccupied with shallow visual effects. Whether one believes this to be the case or not, these are indeed rather troubling conclusions to be drawing from an exhibition designed to illuminate the career of one of Britain’s most renowned artists.
This landmark festival commission provides Edinburgh with the opportunity to witness the key points of development within the work of one of Britain’s most distinguished artists. The organic forms, White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers (1982), adorned with raw pigment, are a key example of Kapoor’s early practice. A visible tension is created between the work’s intensely hued molehills and mountains, seeming vulnerable, crushable; and the rigid structure of the forms they stand so perfectly in. Their vulnerable side is put into stark contrast by Untitled (2010) - the latest piece in Kapoor’s Flashback series. A five-meter high wax bell is covered in the artist’s trademark blood-red wax, replacing the delicate pigment of thirty years in favour of heavy steel and more visceral material. These two major works stand side by side, inviting the viewer to take an unconventional journey that hurls us from the present day back thirty years. Communicating through colour, shape and form of frailty and strength, they induce awe in the viewer via completely different means, only affirming our opinion of the genius that is Anish Kapoor; uniquely gifted, it seems, in making us aware of our place in the world, whether in harmony or in tension with everything around us.