If you find yourself with a spare hour in Piccadilly, go and see Anish Kapoor at the RA: it’s disturbing, even violent, but it has a lot to say about how art fits into buildings
I urge you to go and see the Anish Kapoor show at the Royal Academy in London. It is quite simply a tour de force.
The first gallery opens with what Anish calls “his beginnings” – intensely coloured pigment pieces in sharp, complex forms in which the pigment appears to have blown off and settled on the shiny white, low rise plinths they are mounted on. The pieces are small, petite almost compared with what lies ahead but they have an aura and power that belies their size.
A soft, pure white, primal protrusion bulges gently from one of the side walls, suggestive of some alien form wanting to break loose – a form that is held by the tension of the wall – a perfect foil to the scattered pigment pieces. At the end of the gallery is a yellow sun. The intensity of its colour deepens as you approach until you realise it is a deep concave depression in the wall that has a hypnotic lure, sucking you in to the point you feel you might fall into the unknown abyss.
When you have a genuine collaboration between artist and architect, you can express the eternal tension between between form and function – not comfortable but exciting
Then a sound so violent and perplexing it makes your next experience predestined. “Shooting into the Corner” with all its sexual and military evocations is a cannon firing crimson red wax pellets that explode on impact onto the pristine white of the Royal Academy walls, its detritus marking even the meticulously carved cornicing. You are unlikely to dwell here long as the firing is at 20-minute intervals.
Moving to the next gallery you are literally stopped in your tracks by a bloodied, windowless, peopleless train carriage made of red wax that slowly traverses the length of five galleries along bloodied red tracks, leaving in its wake a mess of molten wax. This carriage is so tall that when it pushes through the arches it can barely pass, spraying more red wax, desecrating the gallery’s English baroque interior.
You are forced to make a detour to see the train emerge in the next gallery into a space completely dominated by a highly engineered piece in Cor-ten – bulbous, industrial and organic all at once. So huge is the form, you are forced to squeeze your way around it, skimming the walls to avoid a confrontation. When you see it face on, it is a vast, gaping orifice that is as enticing as it is forbidding, the patina of the Cor-ten naturally exaggerating the depths beyond.
So huge is the form, you are forced to squeeze your way around it, skimming the walls to avoid a confrontation. When you see it face on, it is a vast, gaping orifice as enticing as it is forbidding
There is more, much more, but you need to see it for yourself. With work that is designed to engage you at such a visceral level, it evokes deeply personal emotions. I could not maintain the intensity of reaction to all the pieces but Anish is an artist who revels in risk taking in order to discover more, and for me that is what art is ultimately about.
Much of the power of the show comes from its site specificity and it was certainly brave of the Royal Academy to allow the work to leave such a physical mark. The architecture is subservient to the work, the pieces taking up so much space you feel almost starved of air. Work that is created for a specific space has the greatest chance of success because it contextualises and responds to its surroundings, making its impact resonate beyond the piece itself. Not many artists can work at this scale, which is why the Percent for Art scheme is often a lame attempt on the part of those involved to invest meaning where there is none.
Contextualisation is of course the nature of what we do as architects. And yet the sensibility of an architect is very different from that of an artist. Both can be deeply creative but architecture is by default more collaborative and more consensual. There are myriad individuals, regulators and agencies to be bought on board, stringent budgets and programmes to be adhered to, functions and systems to be made workable. And along the way stuff happens – you have to be able to make an opportunity out of a disaster while preserving the integrity of the concept.
An artist works in a different way. It is a more singular way of working and looking at the world, more about the relentless pursuit of an idea to its ultimate end. So when you have a genuine collaboration between an artist and an architect there is great potential to express that eternal tension between art and architecture, between form and function – not comfortable but exciting. I hope that in some small way the Monte St Angelo subway station in Naples – a project we have worked on with Anish for almost six years, and which is finally on site, will express these tensions.
Amanda Levete is principal of Amanda Levete Architects