The Royal Academy rarely puts a roof over modern art’s bloody head. More known for nailing lilies and ballerinas to its walls than, say, screening the experimental Japanese Pop Art videos of Mariko Mori, the RA is characterised as the polar opposite to Tate Modern. There are at least five major galleries in London where one would expect to see Anish Kapoor’s work, but not the RA! And yet here he is, a mid-career retrospective, simply titled Anish Kapoor, and probably one of the RA’s best exhibitions in the last five years.
Kapoor did win the Turner Prize in 1991, which sounds relatively recent but is practically twenty years ago, and so he’s no baggy jeans Banksy newbie. I suppose he belongs to the media-friendly group of power house big-time sculptors, like Jeff Koons and Anthony Gormley. He’s one of those big-scale anti-YBA "fuck you Tracy, you might have a bed, but I’ve got 50 builders and 5 cranes" type of artists. A boy, to paraphrase.
The work of these boys interrelates too. Kapoor’s pile of mirrored balls outside the RA just screams Koons, and Hive (2009) is very Gormley with its bolted panels of rusted-looking bent steel. Kapoor’s effectively made some deconstructed Koonsian balloon dogs and a foetal Angel of the North.
What is so enjoyable about Kapoor is his constant endeavouring to open up the possibilities of interaction with his viewers. In one room dads flock to watch the canon shoot into the corner, their kids next-door jump up and down grinning in front of the bent mirrors, while old biddies get told off by gallerists for prodding arthritic fingers into the materials. The RA is filled with chatter for once, the air holds anticipation and awe, and it’s great.
The work displays a noisy ongoing battle between the sexes. Is Slug (2009) a war trumpet or a vulva? Is Svayambh (2007), pictured, a masculine object with a slow penetrative progression through archways?
Wendy Anderson in the exhibitions program is keen to explore one of these arenas – “the political notions of weaponry and death”, “the fallibility of machines”, “the architectural relationship between..." et cetera, et cetera.
I feel Kapoor’s representation of female identity is actually the strongest narrative level within the story of his work. Naturally works such as When I Am Pregnant (1992) provoke gender-orientated discussion, but I believe Kapoor’s later work bangs the feminist drum a lot louder. Art critics have gone to town on how Shooting Into The Corner evokes the bloody realities of war, filling the Royal Academy with the sounds of combat, but to me the work is a graphic representation of the menstrual cycle. As deep red cylinders of wax are routinely fired and ostracised from the cannon within a repetitive time structure, Kapoor is giving the Royal Academy its period. And as for Svayambh – forget trains - it’s a forty-ton stick of lipstick!
Perhaps the secret to Kapoor’s success is this combination of male and female art tendencies, making sculptures as big as is humanly possible with a proper mine’s bigger than yours mentality, but at the same time telling a story that is somewhat womanly.
Kapoor presents the masculine and the feminine as radical opposites that can contradictorily be in unison. He is loud and quiet, he is red and white, and it is this successful accommodation of such uneasy bedfellows that makes his work so powerful.
Looking at this year’s Turner Prize nominees Lucy Skaer, Roger Hiorns, Enrico David and Richard Wright, I wonder whether any of them will ever enjoy a mid-career retrospective at The Royal Academy in 2027? In fact, I wonder whether any of them will enjoy an exhibition there posthumously? I doubt it.
Below: The Royal Academy, where good arts makes for good aprons.