Many of the early abstractionists were influenced by spiritual movements of the early 20th century. If you read Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art you can see that a goal of abstraction was to find a way to reach deeper into the individual viewer, bypassing the mediation of the human intellect, and getting right to the pithy stuff where real inner change and human development could occur. However, abstract artists presumed a capacity for discernment and change in us which we just do not, perhaps, possess. An abstract piece still has to be analyzed for the work to have any effect. There is no getting rid of the mediation of the intellect in art. Nobody has yet to point out that Kapoor speaks to this tradition of the use of color as a potentially direct transformative force in the viewer. Everything about his use of color and form seems to be an experiment to retain and not abandon the idealism of the early abstractionists.
The pieces that one initially sees in the Shenzhen show are based on ritual objects covered in bright red and yellow pigments. One can easily recognize, for example, the shape of a Buddhist stupa. Has the powder been sprinkled over the objects in an attempt to super-enrich them? It is as if the meaning of the form has lost its value and color must step in to reach and transform the viewer. Or has the powder emanated from the objects themselves? Physical structures purported to have spiritual functions are being transformed through the addition of color. Color becomes the element possessing a transformative capacity on its own, independent of form. Colors do, in fact, act upon us without mediation – red, for instance, excites our heart rate while blue calms it. The implication seems to be that the more intense and pure the primary color, the more intense the interaction – perhaps those who believe that art can change folks for the better are still looking for color which does not merely excite or inhibit us, but which also can change us. There is a definite element of humanism in Kapoor’s work, and he seems to hope against hope that color can finally do the trick.
We then transition to blue experiments with negative space – what looked to me like a beggar’s cup on the wall and a void or vulva opening up within a panel. The vulva, in spiritual art, represents the fulfilment of a “male” endeavor or quest. In esoteric art, penis or phallus-shaped objects represent a desire for a type of spiritual fulfilment. Here the vulva is painted in a deep, soothing, healing blue. Kapoor wants his work to be mythic and so he creates a mythic vulva – the vulva to end all vulvas. This is THE fulfilment of the spiritual quest, the perfect combination of symbol, form and color. The penis is desire, the vulva is fulfilment. There is nothing more mythic than the two sexual organs of humanity representing the culmination of a spiritual quest in hot and cool colors.
Some of the more famous artists in the world these days, e.g. Kapoor, Kusama, Pistoletto, use mirrors in their art as the mirror serves as a type of symbol for processes within our inner reality that present and enable us to examine and potentially work on our motives, emotions, desires and cognition. In a review I wrote on the work of Pistoletto, I pointed out that a mirror reflects light to present a reality divorced from reality. Real stuff divorced from reality is the stuff of symbols and images that we often work with to understand what is going on inside of ourselves and to potentially change problematic aspects of our inner lives. So the mirror can represent this capacity we have to create and use a reality divorced from reality and the problems this may result in as we might move farther and farther away from ourselves in the reflection of ourselves. Kapoor’s experiments with mirrors seem to imply that the capacity we have to capture and work with inner truth may be flawed, but that the flaws can also be discerned, so there is still hope of individual transformation. Working with our inner reality to ensure our human development does not involve a straight-forward process. It involves the collecting of information from a flawed collection device which may be divorced from the real substance of experience.
Kusama uses mirrors to create a sense of infinity, freedom and eternity. Pistoletto uses mirrors to draw the viewer into the art itself and show the possibilities for each viewer to create and interpret his own narrative. Kapoor’s mirrors often present what engineers call “negative reinforcement” – you turn a light switch off and expect the light to go off, but you get something unpredictable. You go to Kapoor’s mirrors expecting a straightforward process and things become skewed, engendering a feeling of amazement and unease. We experience a divorce between the expectations of what we should perceive and what is being presented to us. Is there a deeper process to be tapped in to, beyond direct perception and the mediation of the intellect and our capacity to create symbols, which would allow for a graceful transition to a more humane life?
Kapoor’s mirrors are not the only pieces in the show which indicate he may be referencing problems inherent in our inner reality concerning our understanding of ourselves and attempts to change. The monumental piece My Red Homeland presents what can only be called a procrustean industrial process which does not correspond to any real industrial process. It is the process of flattening for the sake of flattening and not for profit or material processing. It is an imaginary industrial process meant to approximate an inner process perhaps beyond our control, perhaps within our control to stop. A large metallic arm protrudes into an area of thick glutinous red stuff and flattens the red stuff into a large circular form as it rotates. Someone at the show told me the red stuff looked like a type of sugar he had seen in India, others stated it looked like raw meat. Regardless, we see a pre-established process, not of our creation, to crush the organic and present a pleasing pattern in its place.
In the portion of the show dealing with Kapoor’s designs for grandiose structures, we see some common themes. Indeed, one piece is called Dante and one has to wonder to what extent Kapoor was influenced by the Divine Comedy. Much of these monumental structures involves ascending and descending. You have active, positive, phallic space and passive, negative, vulva-like space. It is as if Kapoor feels we should be surrounded by these monumental images of rising and falling, of bringing one closer to or pushing one farther away from paradise. The monuments we should be building should be monuments representing the highest ideals pursued by artists – based on the belief that we can all be so much more compassionate and kind.