The reflective voids of S-Curve II and C-Curve have their counterpart in Yellow, a monumental fiberglass and paint sculpture of 1999 mounted on a temporary wall almost as high as the ceiling. Seen from across the room, Yellow hovers at the threshold of a marble doorway. Viewed from close range, it bursts forth, enveloping me in a colored void whose depth is impossible to discern. In this void I am in the presence of the absence of perspective. Yellow is formed of fully saturated pigment, matte in appearance, like congealed powder. Kapoor’s way with paint conceals the structure and weight of the artwork at the same time as it brings it forth.14 Yellow is simple and complex, tangible and intangible, self-born.
The surface tension of Kapoor’s voids is contingent in two senses: surface tension depends on the presence of a viewer to set it in motion, and surface tension is open ended, relative to what the beholder brings to the work and to the illusion of formless void the work invokes. I applaud Kapoor’s reliance on the beholder to make the artwork, and his decision to withhold specific content. In this sense, his works of art are quietly monumental. They are grand rather than grandiose in an artworld saturated with works of “message” that repudiate the viewer—works that appear to exist for their sake alone, or for ours, if only for the sake of imparting their statement.
If Kapoor’s works of art have a message, it is our role in the making, content and meaning of any such message, a message contingent and open-ended. When installed in the Haus der Kunst, this message takes on a particular poignancy, even an urgency, that the artist’s works of art do not otherwise appear to have when installed in more seemingly neutral venues. Here, any solipsism on the beholder’s part, any flights into the void in search of one’s self or an expanding experience or answers to the riddles of the universe, is crosshatched by history’s vanities. This is especially the case in the two works commissioned for the installation, Svayambh and Archaeology and Biology (2007), the latter an approximately 1.5 meter slit—at once vulval and savage—carved directly into the wall.
Svayambh, a red paint, wax, and Vaseline block weighing some ten tons, is the centerpiece of the installation. As it slowly makes a straight line through the exhibition space on submerged rails, it soundlessly breaks through door frames, leaving a blood-red mass in its wake. Initially conjuring up Nazi trains of deportation, Svayambh quickly departs from expected meaning. As I pace the length of the exhibition beside the block, I experience its slow trajectory and its clues of forceful entry without any clear idea of its origin or what lends it force. Svayambh’s imposing presence and slowness draw me in. Again, this work—so straightforwardly referential at first view—depends on the presence of a beholder to set it in motion. As a physical object, Svayambh brings to expression the Haus der Kunst’s history of violence. As a perceptual object, as a work of art I not only see but strive to apprehend, it initiates more intimate and associative connotations: trains of thought; the Chinese notion of the red thread; life’s journey. Such connotations are fictional objects, notions on which we hang meaning, meaning generated from ourselves. Without the aid of such fictional objects, life and its meaning flap in the breeze.
In the nineteenth century, the German Romantic poet Novalis remarked that all philosophy is homesickness.15 In the early twentieth century, Weil explained why “to philosophize is to learn to die.”16 Where Novalis linked the desire to know with the impulse for a certain oneness, Weil showed why the desire to know must be coupled with an endurance of the void. Human beings only escape “from the laws of this world in lightning flashes,” she held. “Instants when everything stands still, instants of pure contemplation, of mental void, of acceptance of the moral void.”17 Kapoor’s artworks support our contemplation by shattering our perspective. In the Haus der Kunst, Svayambh implies that history’s vanities and our own include the cost of categorical certainties.
Karen Lang teaches art history at the University of Southern California.
- Kapoor thinks of himself as a painter who happens to be a sculptor. (The artist comments on this point in an interview with Douglas Maxwell, Art Monthly, no. 136 [May 1990], 9.) Yellow bears out such a claim insofar as it is a physical thing that creates an illusory space.↵
- “Philosophy is essentially homesickness—the universal impulse to be home.” Novalis, Pollen and Fragments: Selected Poetry and Prose of Novalis, trans. A. Verslius (Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1989), 56.↵
- Weil, 20.↵
- Ibid., 11.↵