A Factory From Hell

"I have nothing to say as an artist," Anish Kapoor tells a room filled with reporters last Friday, "But [my] process has A LOT to say."       

For an internationally acclaimed artist who has had multiple solo exhibitions at several important institutions, including the Venice Biennale and the Guggenheim, this may come as a surprise. Aren't artists supposed to have something to say? Aren't they required to have a message? It seems that the usual follow-up question for anyone looking at art is: But what does it all mean? "Nothing," is Kapoor's simple answer—Well that's according to him!

Abandon All Words Ye Who Enter Here

Appropriately titled "Kapoor in Berlin", the Mumbai-born, London based artist takes over the historic Martin-Gropius-Bau in a breathtaking solo show. Organized with curator extraordinaire​ Norman Rosenthal, the exhibition is sure to become the must-see art show of the season. For Rosenthal, Kapoor's showcase is an impressive and important one:

"Beyond good and evil could always be the subtext to this exhibition," he explains among the flickering of press photographers, "He has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and I'd like to think beyond HIS wildest dreams." Well, we will just see about that!

Kapoor's gigantic red sun surrounded by the corpses of a thousand wax sculptures. Photo: Kostis Lieros

Entering the main exhibition space, I feel like I'm in a hellish factory invented by Dr. Seuss. A gigantic red dot entitled Symphony for a Beloved Sun oversees us in the atrium of the museum like a dying star or a broken satellite dish. Surrounding it are a few black conveyer belts reaching for the sky. These carry suitcase-sized pieces of blood-colored wax to their apex, before pushing them over an edge from where they then helplessly crash to the ground. The result is a satisfactory splatting noise happening on top of a pile of deceased red blobs. Kapoor is very aware of the historical connotations of this work. The pyramid of amorphous blobs is analogous to Joseph Beuys's sculptures constructed from fat, which were exhibited at Martin-Gropius-Bau when it reopened in 1982.

In The Belly Of The Beast

“The history of the building, the history that precedes the modern—Bauhaus, the War—the great works that have been made in this building,” he tells reporters, "One can hardly work here—or even this city—without dealing with all of its history."

It would be an understatement to describe Martin-Gropius-Bau's neighborhood as loaded. Built at the end of the 19th Century, its interior architecture is reminiscent of the opulence in Berlin that preceded the first World War. Half a century later, during Nazi rule, the SS-Headquarters were (in)conveniently located next door. Furthermore, the museum was right next to the Berlin Wall before unification. Since Martin-Gropius-Bau reopened again in 1982, the institution has dedicated itself to showing exciting and cutting-edge contemporary art.

A gallery visitor confronting her pixelated reflection in an old work by Kapoor. Photo: Kostis Lieros

In the building's adjacent rooms, Kapoor has cataloged both new and old work. According to a recent interview, he is not interested in calling this a retrospective. The artist contends: why dwell on what's been done before when you can still do something else? Among some new works is a giant deflating bubble entitled Death of Leviathan. This large antique-burgundy work that references Leviathan, the gigantic sea monster from the Old Testament, has a sublime aura as it takes up two whole rooms, preventing visitors from walking around its huge mass. Although the brute beast is deflated and vanquished, we are still burdened by its great uncomfortable presence. In another room, a giant pile of crimson wax is steadily molded into the shape of a bell by a titanic piece of steal that rotates at a leisurely pace. If Kapoor is a whale here, then we are Jonah in the belly of the beast.

"Death of Leviathan" by Anish Kapoor. Photo: Kostis Lieros

A few pieces make notable returns such as When I'm Pregnant—a large bump that swells from a wall. While a giant white tumor may not sound like a spectacular display, when I stare at the face of this bump I fall into a strange drunken vertigo that can hardly be described. I get a similar feeling when walking by a few other pieces where Kapoor has manipulated large, round mirrors that grotesquely distort the viewers’ reflection—It's like a funhouse from your worst nightmare and you can't help but to stare. Here's some advice I overheard from a wise observer: don't come to this exhibition drunk!

While I find Kapoor and Rosenthal's efforts commendable and impressive with this latest exhibition, I feel that perhaps they may have gone too far. I can watch a canon shoot out a bullet of wax into a corner of the wall and say wow, but Kapoor's earlier efforts— as a younger and poorer artist—that achieved this level of amazement are far more breathtaking. It appears that although budgets have gotten bigger and egos have undoubtedly been inflated, Kapoor is proof that "bigger is better" doesn’t  always ring true. 

Martin-Gropius-Bau – "​Kapoor in Berlin" by Anish Kapoor – May 18th to November 24th, 2013 – [Prices: Single €11, Reduced €8 – Groups of 5 €8, Reduced €6 – 16 or younger: free admission]

Article by James Shaeffer