‘It doesn’t matter that we didn’t win the bid for the 2020 Olympic Games,’ states Sibel Asna of A&B Communications in Istanbul, ‘we have plenty of excitement to be getting on with.” And she’s not wrong; in the same week that the 13th Istanbul Biennale opens, a selection of never-before-seen stone sculptures by Anish Kapoor RA go on show at the Sakip Sabanci Museum. Once a private villa, this modern museum on the banks of the Bosphorous is playing host to a number of spectacular pieces in a variety of media – marble, alabaster, sandstone, milky Iranian onyx and rich slate from Ireland. Even before arriving in Turkey these creations are evidently well-travelled. And installing them was no mean feat. “We even had to move a lamppost!” laughs the show’s curator Norman Rosenthal, former Exhibitions Secretary at the RA. But Kapoor is no stranger to a challenge. At his 2008 show at the Royal Academy, five of the main galleries were given over entirely to a single one of his works – Svyambh, the large, slow-moving block of blood-red wax-like substance.
Anish Kapoor RA, 'Mollis', 2003. Marble. 950 x 3000 x 1610 mm. ©Anish Kapoor.
Wax, and indeed Anish Kapoor’s signature colour, are noticeably absent from the Istanbul show. These are primarily works of stone, steadfast, with no kinesis as such. But the stones themselves have a history, particularly in this setting. Istanbul is a city steeped in history manifest in stone – through its walls and its mosques, stone forms the very fabric of this ancient and important city in the story of civilisation. But Istanbul continues to be a centre of conflicting religious, social and political ideals, in recent months the rioting and civil unrest threatening to shake its already less-than-steady foundations. So why choose here and, in particular, now to unveil this as-of-yet unseen body of work? Rosenthal fondly refers to Istanbul as a ‘city of hope’ in a region fraught with difficulty.
Istanbul is a cultural junction, a meeting point of East and West. In light of Kapoor’s own multicultural background and social history, it is easy to see why the city forms such a fitting backdrop to the show. Born in Bombay, and partially raised in Israel, he came to London in 1970s to study fine art at Hornsey College of Art and later the Chelsea School of Art and Design. This cultural blending is discernible in his early work with pigment, but he himself is keen to dispel such basic readings, particularly of his later work. This is not representational sculpture – it demands interaction. ‘I’m more concerned with the experience of the viewer,’ he says to me at the opening of the exhibition, 'to create a certain effortlessness… which allows you to slow down. This is not bling. It is a different kind of process, I am tuning the viewer's eye towards a much slower process.'
Anish Kapoor RA, 'Grace', 2004. Vigaria marble. 291 170 x 150 cm. ©Anish Kapoor.
This slow process is evident in the painstakingly shaped and often highly polished stone forms that stand before us. Stone is a particularly exciting medium for Kapoor and he takes pleasure in noting that very few contemporary sculptors actually work with stone ‘hands on’. ‘I’m not too concerned about being traditional. One doesn't need to be… But carving is a very curious act. In a way it’s a transformation. Stone has this elemental physicality, [doing] almost anything [to it] then is a kind of abuse.’ The physicality of these works is omnipresent. He says himself it takes months to create a piece, slowly sanding, rubbing, eroding, carving away layer by layer, exposing new tones, areas and geological surprises. The stones have inherent meaning and to some extent it is the job of the sculptor to expose this. He jokes that this is easier than painting – the act of removal is surely an easier practice than committing paint to canvas.
Ultimately, Kapoor is engaging with the great paradox of modern sculpture – to be creating something entirely new and forward with an incredibly old piece of organic matter. His absolute engagement with his material is discernible in the markings and his sketches on the surface of some pieces. He makes no secret of the human initiative that has created such results.
Anish Kapoor RA, 'With a Past', 2009. Marble and river stones. 203 x 224 x 123 cm. ©Anish Kapoor.
While it is true that much of his work on view dates back 25 years, this is by no means a retrospective. ‘I’d call it a semi-latent body of work. I’ve always believed in latent bodies of work – works that don't necessarily need the public view. They can feed the other work, with the public face.’ But this body can certainly hold its own. In spite of or perhaps because of the fact that these sculptures have been outside in his south London stoneyard for so many years, Kapoor was keen to show the works inside. ‘Stone sculpture often gets shown outside. But even if it’s big it loses its scale.’
Retaining this sense of scale forces a dialogue between viewer and object, and often with Kapoor’s work this is a language of awkwardness. He creates works that are, in his own words, ‘too forward, too sexual, too heavy… slightly extravagant.’ The sexuality of his sculptures is overt. Lucio Fontana-esque slits dominate the first room of the exhibition in pieces such as With a Past (2009), Tomb (1989) and Untitled (1986). These harsh lines are complemented however with the soft maternal curves of pieces like Imminence (2000) and Grace (2004). Voids, tunnels and pregnant spaces abound in this sensually diverse exhibition. One of his favourite materials to work with is the milky pink Iranian onyx in works including Eight Eight (2004). Bodily and full of veins, the stone’s inherent pallet generates an almost tangible energy. But it is not just the colour that brings these sculptures to life; Kapoor has created forms that demand to be touched. ‘Marble is historically decorative but I’m aiming to make the material do something, make it sit somewhere between an exotic mineral and a weighty substance.’
Anish Kapoor RA, 'Yellow', 1999. Fibreglass and pigment. 600 x 600 x 300 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery. ©Anish Kapoor.
So what’s next for Anish Kapoor? He’s designing and making a Mezuzah to celebrate the opening of JW3 – the Jewish Community Centre opening on London’s Finchley Road this autumn. Albeit much smaller in scale than the works on display here, the Mezuzah’s highly polished finish means it lacks none of the Kapoor allure. The high-shine of his concave stainless steel sculpture Sky Mirror (2010), which guards the entrance of the Sabanci Museum, reflects the Asian side of Istanbul – the blue sky and choppy waters of the Bosphorous. As the sun dips, the Venetian-style façades that line the eastern shore are bathed in a yellow light – not dissimilar to the glow of Kapoor’s monochromatic wall work Yellow (1999).
Sarah Bolwell is a London-based writer and contributor to RA Magazine