Anish Kapoor at Brooklyn Bridge Park
Born in Bombay in 1954, Anish Kapoor now lives and works in London. He is particularly well known for his public projects, which are sculpturally innovative and often suggest a spiritual outlook—perhaps a consequence of his Indian background and the time he spent there before moving to Britain. Kapoor has always been taken with a cosmic vision of art and its accompanying esthetic. In Descension, the public work now on view at Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the primary component of the outdoor installation is water, the most basic and ethereal of materials. It is central to and necessary for life. Set on a meadow facing a water park, Descension is a circular work of art 26 feet in diameter. Surrounded by a simple steel barrier, the circular space is filled with a boiling, funnel-like body of water. As the notes accompanying the website indicate, one of Kapoor’s goals is to create a vibrant, energetic negative space. In Descension, the funnel of water has been treated with a black dye, emphasizing the void central to the experience of the piece. Kapoor is a an artist of primal energies, and this work, surrounded by grass and water, emphasizes the idea that art can exist in a large scale without losing metaphysical specificity.
Public art now has an established history. Interestingly, contemporary public art tends not to function as a memorial, although there are outstanding exceptions—think of British sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Monument in Vienna. But often, public art in contemporary life tends toward abstraction—a way of working not highly effective in paying homage to historical events. It seems to me that public art today has two choices—to entertain, as we see in the work of Claes Oldenberg; or memorialize, as found in the work of Siah Armajani. Memorialization is the traditionally based function of public art. So it is interesting to contemplate both the motivation and the effect of Descension. Clearly, Kapoor is first working with conceptual notions of energy and broad perceptions of spirit; the environment embodies a mystical perception of the elements. At the same time, Descension is a very good work of art, given as it is to a visual beauty—a beauty supported by Kapoor’s metaphysical intentions. But Kapoor’s motives don’t have to be actively understood to enjoy the work of art, whose visuals are compelling and seductive. Kapoor’s achievement is to combine metaphysical interests with an excellent sculptural sensibility.
If one were to criticize in a small way Kapoor’s project, it would be the tenuous relationship of the work to the audience in the park. There is a large question that needs to be faced, namely, can a work as sophisticated as Descension communicate its subtleties to common people? The work takes place in a park, rather than a museum or gallery, and so the community of viewers would tend not to be knowledgeable about contemporary art. Does this matter, though? Just how much do we need to know about a work of art, especially a contemporary abstract one? The ideas in Descension are spiritually tinged, emphasizing hidden, suddenly unleashed forces that are intellectually substantive and quite complex. At the same time, an untutored urban teenager could enjoy the work simply for what it is, rather than as an exquisite study in metaphysics. It seems likely that today’s art, of which Kapoor’s work is a particularly good example, often functions on two levels—as an undemanding statement of accessibility, made available across class, education, and wealth; or as a stern, isolated outpost of high culture, in which the message being transmitted may well be deliberately obscure, intended to reach only the intelligentsia.
One would hope for an art that isn’t split in this manner, but it is true that the gap between educated and non-educated people has increased immensely, to the point where it is nearly impossible to bridge the two audiences. Spectacle has replaced formal rigor, to the point where those experienced in looking at art expect a frisson to accompany their experience of what they see. Sometimes, the frisson can be genuine, connected to a serious point of view. But usually they are not—think of the static poses of naked women tightly arranged by Vanessa Beecroft, whose art depends on an erotic thrill as much as it is a reading of increasingly military influence on the habits of people. Public art leads us in the direction of celebration, yes, but it also functions as a marker for what can acceptably be presented to all levels of society. Kapoor’s work almost always concerns the sublime, usually made available to the general public by a simplicity of means. Now that so many artbureaucrats want to erase all difference in culture, it makes sense that the impulse toward complexity of any sort would be curbed by the artist, in an act of self-censorship, even before starting on a project.
But sometimes the complexity can be hidden. Again, Kapoor is extremely good at this. Part of the problem is inherent to the function of this kind of art. How can public art maintain its complexity when every expectation exists that the project will make contact with all peoples of all backgrounds and states of affluence? As a writer, I dislike any attempt to dumb down writing in favor or reaching a larger readership, but, in a way, writing is on my side—as an art, it requires an active intelligence and focus and cannot be instantly internalized as we do so often with visual work. Reading takes time, whereas looking at art does not. Descension is a noble attempt to render some very sophisticated ideas about the properties of water transformed into a negative space. It suggests the void before the world began. The philosophical implications of this seemingly simple installation are unusually subtle and complex. But it doesn’t matter if it is lost on less insightful people, who can visit to see the beauty of the water roiling in an enclosed space.
The double goal of public art — its need to please and its desire to theorize — looks contradictory. And there is little grace in the current effort to wedge all art into a package for the people, whoever the “people” may be. Kapoor’s position as one of the leading sculptors of his generation demands that he be accountable both as a populist and an aristocrat, preferably at the same moment in his art. In poetry, the work of Robert Frost successfully achieves this merger; an art, a similar reading might be given to Calder. Today, though, the problem is really quite difficult, in part because the cries of total, instantaneous understanding are being intensified by an academia that profoundly misjudges the human need for high culture. We have reached a point where it is impossible to blame a particular position, although some strange naïveté seems to have crept into academic thinking about the necessity for reaching absolutely everyone. The truth is that ever since modernism, some art is deliberately difficult to understand. This means that its audience most often is highly educated. But that does not suggest the superiority of elitism in any way. It simply means that some art, even public art, will not reach everyone. Descension works on both sides of the coin, giving it a successful contemporaneity. Likely Kapoor was not thinking consciously of the problems I have described, but his work bridges the gap between populism and high culture extremely well.