Saturday, December 05, 2009

Anish Kapoor and Watching the Watchers

I was lucky enough, courtesy of my lovely husband, to have a week in London recently - and I was not even working. He had a meeting, some points in his Frequent Flyer account, and a lovely hotel on the edge of Sloane Square.

I used the time blissfully wandering London, and saw some wonderful exhibitions - the British museum, the V&A and its Maharajah exhibition, The National Gallery, and I went to see Anish Kapoor's huge solo exhibition in the Royal Academy.

I am not going to try to write a review for Anish Kapoor as these things are done by people far more proficient than I am.

I want to talk about just one element - ‘Svayambh’ (meaning ‘auto-generated’). The language is Sanskrit - which is like using a Latin title as the language is a dead language even in India.


A huge block - 20 tons - of red wax moves slowly through three galleries on a straight track. It moves very slowly, but the movement is easily visible and it takes about two hours to move from one end of its track to the other. It is shaped like a large loaf of bread with a curved top, as this is the shape of the arched entrances that it pushes through.

I watched it come through the final room at one end, over about twenty minutes as it reached the end, packing lumps of previously dropped wax against the end of the track and the wall, then reversing to start the slow slide back. Clumps stuck as it moved away, and seemed to creep after it, dropping off slowly to leave big lumps on the track. Small pools formed in the dips, wet and oily. A guard told me that the wax was mixed with Vaseline to make it softer and sticky.

It was inexorable - the original irresistible object. As it dragged through the beautiful arches between different rooms it left thick traces dragged against the marble arches, and lumps sheered off on the fronts and backs of the arches. The object was shaped by the arches - and it moved like a huge and very slow paintbrush, dragging softly, wetly, against the entrances and leaving its colour and sludge behind.

I went to the far room and just sat for about one and a half hours. It was still a long way away. People would walk in straight to the red track, with the detritus of previous visits piled against the wall and its small sludgy pools gleaming in the pure whiteness of that beautiful gallery. The ceiling's beautiful plasterwork is gilded and the floor is parquetry - the feeling of the space is pristine and the globs of oily sticky wax feel like a violation.

People would step straight over the very insignificant white narrow wooden strip which paralleled the track and peer down the track to see how far away the monumental block of wax was, to estimate how long it might take to arrive.

When I first walked in I had done the same.

I sat to watch people, more that the work.

Some stood for a while and talked. Older women often looked appalled at what they saw as a terrible mess.

There was a woman leaning against the wall. Her arms were folded tightly against her body, and her mouth was turned down and sullen. She had long brown hair. She did not seem to be in uniform and it wasn't until she started growling at people for stepping over the white line that I realised she was a guard.

I cannot believe that Anish Kapoor ever meant his audience to be harassed - but I watched in amazement as what might have been interesting and pleasant became very much otherwise for many of the audience that morning.

British audiences are polite and usually moved instantly and apologised when growled at. Some did not actually realise at first that she was speaking to them and looked guilty as they jumped back. She almost verbally attacked a woman who took a call on her mobile - despite the fact that at that stage I was the only other person in the room. One woman asked a question about the art work and she snapped "I do not know because I am not an artist".

Right on the hour the guard changed. The new guard was younger, polite, and tended to keep reiterating "Please keep behind the white line, Sir, please keep behind the white line." She was in uniform, her security tag was clear and visible (no folded arms and resentful body language here). It was a gentler harassment - like being on the platform as the train approaches on the Tube. It almost turned into insistent background noise and as more and more people came in she was often ignored.

On the next hour the guard was a young man. The wax was now in the next room so it was clearly closer to arriving, and more and more people were walking in to check on it. He was young, and positioned himself in the space between the white line and the track, leaning against the end wall so he could sight straight down the forbidden space. He seemed not to be worried by people stepping in to look. I talked to him and he told me about the Vaseline in the wax to make it malleable, about the latex they had used to protect the white paint and arches and which would peel away later, and that he had no real problem with people looking as long as he felt there was no immediate danger. If people looked as if they would touch the wax he would stop them - usually on grounds that it was sticky and hard to remove.

People asked about the work and he answered and asked them questions to elicit what they thought about it. He pulled people in, made them interested and involved, and he used the paintbrush analogy.

I realised that I had seen three very different experiences, just because of the guard. I wondered briefly if that was actually an intention of the work - but I am sure it was not. I think it was just different interpretation of a gallery's need to keep its clientele safe from twenty tons of moving wax.

Other exhibits forced us to weave through a crowding of work, taking quite careful movements to prevent physical contact.

I am sure Anish Kapoor would have preferred the third guard.

6 Comments:

Blogger Rosemary@semo.net said...

How interesting, Jenny. You know, I might have done the same thing, sit and watch, observe the reactions, the guards, the moving wax, under similar circumstances. It was fascinating to read your descriptions.

1:21 am  
Blogger Margeeth said...

Hi Jenny,
If you sent me your email adress, I will try and sent you an explanation on how to make links.

2:40 am  
Blogger June said...

Thank you, Jenny, for this very moving account of the interaction of the human and the art. I was fascinated. Of course, we have all observed such occurances, but not under such controlled circumastances and not, particularly not, in the area of our intense interest, art. It's almost worthy of an artwork or at least a Youtube in itself. How our environment, particularly our human interactions, make art.

12:57 pm  
Blogger veghead said...

What an interesting post (and blog)! I think I miss a lot in museums by not slowing down and observing others, or even the art, in detail. As for museum guards, I have found that in the US they have become diligent to the point of intrusion, often following right behind me through sometimes empty galleries, presumably to prevent vandalism. This can make a visit rather unpleasant, much like a couple of your observed guards.

On another note, it is interesting to see how "good" conceptual art can affect us. There was an exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute (by chance near a beautiful Kapoor sculpture) where an artist painted the American flag on the floor in in an area that a viewer had to walk on. I wasn't able to see it in person, but was fascinated by the reactions of those who did--many were horrified at the idea of walking on this symbol but not able to marvel at the ability of a piece of art to provoke such strong emotions. (Kind of like what seeing red wax smeared thru the pristine galleries must feel like to some viewers.)

I look forward to reading more of your observations--thanks for sharing.

5:11 am  
Blogger margaret said...

It was definitely an exhibition about interaction - including having to squeeze past the huge work in the first (central) gallery, and of course people enjoying the mirrored objects. And your observations about the guards make me wonder a bit about what their job entails...

9:31 pm  
Anonymous vishav bhraman said...

Nice article..

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10:24 pm  

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