Anish Kapoor with his sculpture Yellow at The Royal Academy in London. The exhibition of Kapoor's work explores texture, scale and the way observers interact with art.
Anish Kapoor with his sculpture Yellow at The Royal Academy in London. The exhibition of Kapoor's work explores texture, scale and the way observers interact with art.

Full of big ideas

This month sees the opening of the Anish Kapoor retrospective at London's Royal Academy. Surveying Kapoor's career to date, the exhibition will also showcase new and previously unseen works. It also makes Kapoor the first living artist to take over the galleries. Exhibiting at the academy puts Kapoor among an elite of artists who have been invited to showcase their works since the institution was founded in 1768.

He was already at the top of every city's sculptural shopping list. The acclaimed artist represented Britain in the Paris Biennale in 1982, and again in 1990 at the Venice Biennale, for which he was awarded the Premio Duemila. The following year he won the prestigious Turner Prize. His is a name that has become synonymous with scale and scope. His vast sculptures defy logic; magically poised giants that are at once of this earth and ethereal. The giant silver bubbles that stand proudly in the academy's Annenberg Courtyard look as if they might fall at any minute, tumbling perilously through the archaic quad and rolling down the hill to London's Green Park. And yet, there they stand. "There is nothing heavy or imposing about it," Kapoor says of the new sculpture, "but there is something quite improbable. You cannot tell how it has been put up and that is part of its mystery and dignity."

Kapoor's brand of magic has attracted an international cult following and has made him one of the world's most sought after and influential artists. Chicago's Cloud Gate, a 10-metre by 20-metre ellipse of polished steel, cost $23 million (Dh84.5m) to make. The sculpture remains the most expensive public-art commission in the world. He is currently making the world's largest commission, a £15m (Dh88m) five-part suite known as the Tees Valley Giants, destined for five towns in the North East of England.

"If one is going to make public art," says Kapoor, "it needs to engage public space in a particular way. There seems to be the belief out there that sculpture can change how an area is perceived. We'll see whether that's true or not." His art, though varied in form and style, exudes an aura that draws the spectator in. Observers are compelled to look, confront, explore. He acknowledges that when his art becomes public, "a part of it stops becoming mine".

Sky Mirror, installed at the Rockefeller Centre, New York in 2006, is a breathtaking, 10.6-metre-diameter concave mirror made of polished stainless steel. Combining light and architecture, the mirror presents viewers with a vivid inversion of the skyline featuring the historic landmark building. "I want a certain physical involvement from the viewer," says Kapoor, "and that seems to be something to do with the field of vision. When an object occupies a field of vision it allows a particular kind of engagement, and that is what is important."

Kapoor is unparalleled in his ability to deal with space. When the Royal Academy invited him into its galleries, it offered him a new range of sculptural possibilities. In return, he has brought surface and depth, light and shade, hollow and solid to the hallowed halls. "It's a really great honour to be shown in this venerable institution and to be part of what may be a new phase in its growing evolution. To my astonishment, everyone at the Royal Academy embraced the clear difficulties I put before them with these works, which are very challenging," he said.

One such "difficulty" is posed by the monumental work Svayambh, a Sanskrit word meaning "self-generated". The work has the appearance of a vast mass of wax that moves almost imperceptibly on sunken rails, leaving a residue behind it as it traverses the breadth of Burlington House. Comparable to a giant red train, the huge self-made blob travels across five rooms over the course of 90 minutes, leaving an unidentifiable sticky trail in its wake.

This emblematic structure reflects Kapoor's exploration of sculptural works that actively participate in their own formation and enables the artist to distance himself from his creation-relinquishing responsibility and giving the work the status of a living, breathing organism. In the white walls of the academy, the audience is captivated by the train's progress, its stately movement and its mess. Spectators view it en masse, releasing collective gasps like steam from an engine. "How on earth will they get that off?" they seem to ask of the soiled walls.

The work negotiates a space between ponderous pretension and childlike naivety, its spongy edges becoming clumsy paintbrushes, smearing the walls with abstract strokes. "In a way, playfulness is something that is part of any creative process," says Kapoor. "There's a moment where play can be terribly serious. I think that's what one's after, that jump from 'maybe we can do that' to 'gosh, that's a moment of profundity'. The work is a bridge between the two."

Its impact in the academy is so startling and immediate that it is hard to imagine the structure anywhere else. Svayambh, however, isn't site-specific and has been travelling since 2007. Launching at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes and showing in Munich's Haus der Kunst, later. Another highlight of the exhibition is Shooting Into the Corner, displayed in the Large and Small Weston Rooms. A cannon shoots projectiles of red wax into a corner at regular intervals. An expressionless man meticulously enacts his gun-loading routine. There is a sharp hiss of trapped air and then a very loud bang. A dial of crimson paint shoots across the room, splattering itself mercilessly onto the far wall. There is yet more cooing and gasping. This is sculpture-cum-performance art. It is also legitimate vandalism, marking an incongruous partnership between the maverick Kapoor and the time-honoured establishment of the Royal Academy.

Relentlessly repeating this shooting action, the work will evolve over the duration of the exhibition as the build-up of wax takes on its own form against the walls and the floor of the galleries. Also included in the exhibition is a group of early pigment pieces, dazzling with their untainted hues of yellows and reds and a series of reflective objects that, like a hall of mirrors in a travelling circus, distort and disguise. Elsewhere, we encounter a room filled with concrete sculptures that possess form and yet seem formless. Drawn and produced with the aid of a computer-assisted piping machine, like an extravagant patisserie nozzle, this is the beginning of sculpture itself.

The retrospective demonstrates Kapoor's continuing ability to push boundaries and open up new fields of vision. "That's all there is to do," he says. "One has to engage. The studio is not really a place where things get fabricated. Lots of things get made there, but it's really a place to experiment, to try things out. We have an open agenda. It's only that way that one is truly alive as an artist."

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