ARTYFACTS: November 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

'The Places In Between' by Rory Stewart

You may have seen Rory Stewart on Newsnight and other programmes whenever Iraq or Afghanistan is discussed, and it was one such appearance that made me buy this book. This guy has walked unaided across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. This book is about the Afghanistan walk, where he followed in the footsteps of Moghul Emperor Babur.

As he walks, he unwraps the geography and history of Afghanistan, as well as Islam. Tribal, poor, fundamentalist and repeated invaded or controlled by foreign powers, we get to meet this nation at war with outsiders as well as itself. We have the Northern Alliance on one hand and the Pashtun (Taliban from this group) on the others but within these, the four main ethnic groups, there’s lots of other groups who swap allegiances. It’s complex and difficult to see how any form of government can work in a nation that really isn’t a nation.

Stewart takes us into villages, houses and mosques and he focuses on the people he meets, many illiterate, some curious, some not, some violent, others hospitable. But it’s his exposure of fervent Islam that is of most interest. Afghanis constantly quiz him about the cost of a wife in Britain, whether you can marry your first cousin (very common) and so on. This is not anthropological, it’s religious. Islam is the political and social frame for all discussion. He explains why the Koran is not seen as being capable of translation and describes Bush using his unclean hand to pull a Koran (gift) across a table, upsetting the entire Islamic world.

Culture is another theme. He discovers a rare archaeological site being looted, a rare miniaret and describes the various cultures that existed in this region. Many were more liberal and very different from the rule ridden, forbidding rule of Islam. There’s a fine section when he walks past the dynamited Bamiyan Buddas.

He has little contact with westerners, troops, UN personnel etc, and avoids this topic as the book is about the country and its indigenous people, not the temporary invaders.

A lovely sub-story is his relationship with a mastiff who accompanies him for the most of the journey. Afghans regard dogs as unclean and won’t touch them. It’s truly touching.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Afterthoughts on Anish

The Year of Anish was, as they say ‘interesting’, a word that can mean lots of things. First the noise. Anish, Yentob and the gallery owners, administrators have those annoyingly posh accents that make you want to turn the programme to mute. Anish himself, is incredibly inarticulate about his work. He’d say that was deliberate, I’m not so sure.

But then there's the positives. Kapoor understands that art is a ‘process or experience’. He’s Humean in his aesthetic. An aesthetic experience takes place in time with expectations, the experience and its aftermath. The Sky Mirror, at the Brighton Festival, was an ever-changing reflection of the real world, the sky, the Pavilion Gardens, the people who drift by, stop and look. and the landscape, even sheep of the Downs. Its limitation was its small size and limited access. These restrictions were removed at the C-Curve, and what a difference in the aesthetic experience. It was open, unrestricted, panoramic.

One major dimension of his work is light, as reflection and colour. His ‘mirrored’ pieces take you beyond the normal perception of light to its scientific beauty. To understand the effects you need to understand that light travels in straight lines, that it is observer-dependent and that colour is a complex absence. Yellow means that the other colours are missing from white light. He works in simple, often single or contrasted pairs of colours. Their purity is a paring down.

His fondness for ‘red’ gives us a bloody, corporeal experience. It’s too simplistic to say it’s dangerous. Red unbalances the viewer, puts them on edge. When do you normally SEE red – blood, meat, lips, vaginas, roses. It’s a phobic colour, like seeing a snake or spider. It induces intense interest and attention. However, his ‘yellow’ piece in the Royal Academy, had a similar, but different effect. Yellow is the colour of the sun, cheese and daisy hearts, an optimistic colour and being flooded by an expanse of yellow, is like drinking Red Bull, it’s invigorating.

Then there’s the ‘flips’. The sudden contrast in your experience, between the inside/outside, front, back, right/left, upside down, right way up. It takes away your normal perceptual reference points and depth cues.

Remember, he’s a sculptor , and the exploration of light and colour, is best dealt with in 3D. Colour has luminosity and intensity, and varies as the light source and observer moves. This can only be explored half-hearted in 2D painting. He’s a philosophical artist in that he understands that perceptually we recreate the world from our sensory input. Note that WE create the world. The artist creates the stimulus for this experience, but ultimately it‘s the viewers brain that constructs the experience in consciousness. I love the ‘Bean’ in Chicago, but dislike the fact that you can’t touch anything in England.

What I really like about Kapoor is that he doesn’t settle for art as it is. For him it’s a process, for us it’s a process. Shooting into a Corner is extraordinary, painting by gun, what an idea!

But let’s not be too hagiographic. Kapoor has the capacity to literally churn out rubbish. His concrete squirts in the Royal Academy, are second rate.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Anish Kapoor - Royal Academy

We commissioned Kapoor for this year's Brighton Festival, and it was a huge success, indeed the focal and talking point of the entire month. So I was looking forward to this retrospective.

Balls of steel
The RA courtyard has a huge tower of atomic, steel balls, but randomly piled to produce lots of unique reflections, not only of each other but of the buildings and viewers. As they're spheres, nothing remains of the expected perspective. All straight lines become curves. The top few blazed away in the winter sun. The only piece I've seen surpass this in the courtyard was Rodin's Gates to Hell.

Pigment piles
I like the colour rather than the forms. They seem far more intense than paint. Red, black and yellow. But this is like a predictable starter. You already know, with Kapoor, that piles of pigment are on the menu.

Mellow yellow
This huge square is painted in a uniform yellow colour but as it has a deep hollow the light gets progressively weaker and the centre darkens. What really works is getting up and close, so that your peripheral vision is flooded. It's like being in a yellow universe. In this position, as the eye has no depth cues, it's seen as a flat expanse of gradated yellows. It's like walking into colour.

Cannon of colour
A simple steel cannon is primed with pressured air, by a rather serious looking RA bod, then fired every twenty minutes. First time round, we simply saw a sorry slug drop like a slow dogshit from the end of the cannon - a misfire apparently. He reloaded and it was fine. You can see the cylindrical slug of wax move through the air then hit the back wall of the joining room. Our third shot hit the back wall high and hard. You can hear the roar of approved laughter throughout the gallery. Definitely cathartic. This was fun and the mess in the room was true chaos, an absolute cannon up the backside of the stuffy RA.

Mirror magic
Kapoor excels at mirror works and this room allows you to see yourself distorted in a thousand ways. It's fun, and surprising, to work out why you appear upside down, fatter, or in a repeated pattern across a huge concave surface. You forget that light travels only in straight lines.

Vaginal openings
The huge rust-coloured form, that filled the next room, has a vaginal opening at one end, through which one peers into the iron darkness. One then steps through some rather disappointing piles of hardened clay forms to another room with a similar red, crystalline opening and an intestinal tube coiled around behind.

Wax train
This is the centrepiece, a huge block of red wax on rails moving through three doorways across five rooms, being shaped by the doors. The building becomes the sculptor and the form is dictated by the door template and scrapings.

One great frustration is not being able to feel the stuff. You long to stick your fingers into the wax and rub the pigment. For £12, I'd have given everyone a small tub of the stuff to take home and do their own sculpture.