This column might be called London Calling, but this time around it’s more a case of Paris m’appelle. Recently I jumped onto the Eurostar at St. Pancras International for a lunchtime press trip to view Anish Kapoor’s extraordinarily ambitious new work, Leviathan, which has just been installed at Le Grand Palais. Le Grand Palais is a symphony of light, glass and soaring fin-desiècle architecture built in 1900 following the success of the Universal Exhibition held in Paris every 11 years from 1867. The 19th century saw the rise of the Great Exhibition — a showcase for all things modern — the first of which was held in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851.
To work in such a space as Le Grand Palais, with its vast dimensions, translucent light and unique architecture, takes nerve. Kapoor has already proved that he can do big. In 2002 his Tate Turbine Hall installation Marsyas, which evoked the satyr flayed alive by the god Apollo in Greek mythology, was a feat of cutting-edge engineering. His installation at Le Grand Palais is the fourth in the series of MONUMENTA exhibitions that have introduced the French public to artworks by Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra and Christian Boltanksi. Leviathan certainly has the wow factor, as if, somehow, it has been generated as a result of its own energy, produced not by an artist but by some force of nature. The scale is such that the viewer feels dwarfed and inconsequential, rather like those tiny figures beloved by Caspar David Friedrich, who tremble in the face of awesome nature. Romanticism and the sublime are never far away in Kapoor’s work.
Leviathan is vast; it took seven days to erect. Both its bulk and name remind us of the great biblical sea monster and, of course, of Hobbes’ famous metaphor for the all-powerful kind of state that he thought “necessary to solve the problem of social order.” From the outside it is impossible to see the entire thing. The dark skin resembles that of a peeled black grape though, on closer inspection, the carefully joined strips of PVC strain with tension, for the thing is actually inflatable, rather like those kids’ bouncy castles. But enter its roseate maw and suddenly you understand what it must have felt like to be Jonah in the stomach of that infamous whale. The space opens into three apertures or naves drenched in a visceral pink glow, and from the inside the skin appears semi-transparent so that the girders of the building create rib-like shadows. It is like entering a cathedral; or, alternatively, returning to the womb, that prelapsarian space to which both philosophers and psychoanalysts would have us believe we all long to return.
This is art as theater, as total immersion. We are no longer “viewers” but participants in an osmotic relationship that shifts between the artist and the work, the site and us and which alters our psychological interpretation of reality to create a new emotional and philosophical drama. In many ways Leviathan is the physical embodiment of Merleau-Ponty’s argument about the “primacy of perception”. The body, he argued, had, within philosophical traditions, all too often been considered merely an object that a transcendent mind ordered to perform varying functions. Rather than rejecting scientific and analytic ways of knowing the world, he suggested that such knowledge is always derivative in relation to the more practical exigencies of the body’s exposure to the actual physical world. Kapoor’s work also deals with perception and the body, blurring boundaries between object and non-object as the piece merges with the environment and disappears, just as the viewer blends with and is absorbed by the work. Trapped inside, we establish a physical relationship with both its mass and its emptiness as we stand looking into the vast internal space that surrounds us.
There may be those who criticise the size and scope of work such as James Turrell’s or Anish Kapoor’s, bewailing the fact that it is impossible, now, for art to make a “statement” unless it is humungous. But Kapoor’s ambition is to create a spiritual work for a secular age, one in which the body is the intermediary between the sense of what exists inside and what outside. This universal body is the site where the transcendent mingles with the physical, where body and dreaming merge. Leviathan attempts the ultimate challenge open to contemporary art — to give form to that which is formless and impossible to articulate. The void functions as a call to another, non-material space. In a non-believing world this is as close as we are likely to get to the face of God.
Monumenta 2011: Anish Kapoor is at Le Grand Palais, Paris from 10 May to 23 June 2011
18 July/August 2011 artillery
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Anish Kapoor