Review: Richard Serra/Anish Kapoor 17.10.08

Open Ended, Richard Serra, 2007-8  Joshua M White

words William Wiles

You wait ages for a decent show of world-class monumental sculpture, and then two come along at once. Three new pieces by American artist Richard Serra went on display at the Gagosian at the beginning of October, and earlier this week an exhibition of Anish Kapoor’s architectural models opened at the RIBA on Portland Place. Viewed one after the other, they make for a pleasing study of artists in a continuing, and strongly architectural dialogue with space.

TTI London, Richard Serra, 2007  Joshua M White
TTI London, Richard Serra, 2007  Joshua M White

Richard Serra’s three new works, which contrive to fill the enormous spaces of the Gagosian, are the 69-year-old’s first exhibition in London since 1992, and include a piece specifically created for the city. This, TTI London, is a duo of torqued toruses, sloping like the funnels on a cruise liner, with an inviting aperture on the “leeward” side. The sandblasted corten steel has oxidised to a rich, deep orange, with a profound purity of colour. The eyes sink into it to the point that its materiality dissolves, and you could be looking at coloured felt, suede, or the pelt of an exotic vegetable. Burn lines from the sandblasting are still visible at points, giant’s fingertips drawn the wrong way across velvet or chamois leather.

Fernando Pessoa, Richard Serra, 2007-8  Joshua M White
Fernando Pessoa, Richard Serra, 2007-8  Joshua M White

It’s easy to see why Serra has stuck with steel as a material, and fascinating that he can coax it into such subtle shapes, simultaneously natural and controlled, like a corseted waist. It’s magnificent, certainly, but it lacks the solidity one expects from steel shapes on this scale. Their raked forms point towards frozen motion. And the mind repeatedly returns to the sea; Serra says that he almost had these pieces fabricated in the shipyard that builds the Trident nuclear submarines. Walking around TTI London, the slow folding and play of their curves can provoke an unsteadiness not unlike a loss of sea legs. Inside, the flared shape raises the eyes, flower-like and triumphal.

Open Ended, Richard Serra, 2007-8  Joshua M White
Open Ended, Richard Serra, 2007-8  Joshua M White

The second piece is Fernando Pessoa, named for a Portuguese poet. This is an uncompromising 20cm thick steel slab which was, despite being physically the smallest work, the most difficult to install. This was thanks to its colossal weight, which seems to exert itself as a physical presence in the room, a gravitational force. Unlike TTI London, Fernando Pessoa still has “mill scale”, a brittle skin left on the steel after milling. This has a truly fantastical patina: pocked, gouged, streaked and stained in many colours. Ploughed striations mark the cut edges. Despite this rewarding surface, it’s a kind of mental affront. For this reviewer it immediately evoked the Berlin wall in scale and look, but also to a degree in message. It’s meant as an obstacle, a blockage, and as such it’s intensively provocative.

Open Ended, Richard Serra, 2007-8  Joshua M White
Open Ended, Richard Serra, 2007-8  Joshua M White

The scale of Serra’s work means that the viewer is compelled to walk around them to get the full effect, and this is precisely what the artist intends. You are meant to be in motion as you see these pieces, moving not only through space but also through time. Serra’s art is far from passive. This is particularly true of the third and most powerful piece at the Gagosian, Open Ended, which is highly prescriptive. The viewer approaches from the side, from where it resembled a vast black streaked egg, bulging in a fecund manner like an Anish Kapoor left out after the nuclear apocalypse. Open Ended is, in fact, two eye-shaped spirals, interlocked to create what amounts to a small labyrinth. You walk in one end and, after a couple of doglegs, emerge into a central “clearing”; the way out is the same, in mirror image. This might sound almost fun, and it certainly draws one in, but inside it provokes visceral unease. Footsteps echo eerily. Trapped between concave and convex sheets, the viewer is thrown at an angle; one feels drawn towards the outward bulge of the bulkhead on one side. It’s as if one is being drawn into the gravity well of a dark celestial mass, pulled into a decaying orbit around a black dwarf. Finding the void at the heart is a relief tempered by the knowledge that one is only half-way through the experience.

Sea Mirror, Anish Kapoor, 2006  Dave Morgan
Sea Mirror, Anish Kapoor, 2006  Dave Morgan

“Every time you take a stride in that piece you have to deal with your memory and directionality,” Serra said of Open Ended at the press conference that accompanied the opening of the exhibition. With each step you have to know where you’ve come from and where you’re going. It’s a powerful piece, and lingers in the mind as an ambiguous memory, part unnerving, part exhilarating. At first it seems that this is precisely what Serra is aiming for. “Works are only interesting if they don’t reach closure,” he says. “If they reach closure, there’s no reason to go back to them.” But he also adds that he does not shoot for a particular effect; or if he does, he doesn’t make it explicitly, preferring to leave the conclusions open for the viewer: “Any feeling that intersects with your experience of the piece is OK with me.”

Towards Marsyas, Anish Kapoor, 2001-2   Dave Morgan
Towards Marsyas, Anish Kapoor, 2001-2  Dave Morgan

After these enormous forms and the huge spaces of the Gagosian, Anish Kapoor’s show in the relatively intimate RIBA gallery is a pleasing chaser. Place/No Place is a collection of models of a variety of Kapoor’s large-scale “architectural” pieces, such as 2002’s Marsyas in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall and Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Often, exhibitions of architectural models are big disappointments. They age badly, becoming dust-infested collections of tat. Fortunately, this is not the case here, and Place/No Place is a delightful and fascinating show.

Tail Pavilion, Anish Kapoor, 2005  Dave Morgan
Tail Pavilion, Anish Kapoor, 2005  Dave Morgan

Architectural models tend to fall into two categories, small-scale experiments produced while testing out and refining ideas, and maquettes produced for the purpose of communicating the finished ideas to clients and the general public. Both types are represented here, and Kapoor clearly regards both as important to his work. The demonstration models of proposals are beautifully detailed, with what looks like the care of a hobbyist. See, for instance, the painted, foam-crested breakers approaching the beach in his model of the Sea Mirror proposal, 2006, and in other pieces the beautiful grass textures and tiny, realistic trees. These are unimportant details, perhaps, but when many architecture firms are content to use a cube clipped from a sponge and glued to a toothpick to represent a tree, Kapoor is giving the process of communicating his ideas a degree of attention that indicates respect for the audience.

But that’s essentially a side issue. What matters are the ideas, and this show gives us a clear picture of an artist developing two or three clear strands of thought over time. It will perhaps surprise few people that the early studies for Marsyas, the gorgeous, joyful red shape that Kapoor filled the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with in 2002, use a nylon stocking to create taut, gaping forms. A stocking is perhaps the ideal material for Kapoor, conveying as it does surface without volume. In his works, Kapoor seems to take surfaces and make them twist and sing. In places, his contortions of surface seem to strive towards outright impossibility and abstraction, such as the 2005 Tail Pavilion, which looks like an attempt to build a Klein Bottle, a theoretical four-dimensional shape that has no clear inside or outside.

In other places the battle seems to be to make shapes disappear altogether, through mirroring, or the manipulation of absences. Kapoor’s architectural work, arranged like this, looks like a search for a more perfect absence. For the spectator, watching a man trying to build a void is a fascinating experience. Even in model form, some of these experiments are capable of evoking a twinge of vertigo, particularly No Place (1989), a catwalk over a black nothingness. In other, less well-known works, Kapoor displays a continuing interest in fissures, wounds and cracks. The 1991 proposal Crack prefigures Doris Salcedo’s 2007 Turbine Hall installation Shibboleth.

Considering this interest in absences over presences, it’s telling that Kapoor’s most successful forays into functional architecture are his subway entrances for Milan. We should be grateful, perhaps, that these are more in the manner of Cloud Gate or Marsyas, and not the bloodied gash that is Flesh (2002), the most figurative and disturbing work here, Kapoor tipping his hat in the direction of Patrick Bateman. Even with this excursion into the autopsy lab, Place/No Place is an excellent small show, and worth catching before its short run comes to an end.

Richard Serra: Sculpture is at the Gagosian Gallery, London WC1, until December 20

Place/No Place: Anish Kapoor in Architecture is at the RIBA, London W1, until 8 November

www.gagosian.com
www.architecture.com

top image Open Ended, Richard Serra, 2007-8  Joshua M White

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