Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Anish Kapoor’s “Memory”: A Tale of Two Cities

October 21, 2009—March 28, 2010
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street)
New York City 212-423-3500

Anish Kapoor, Memory 2008. Cor-Ten steel, 47 x 29 x 15 feet (approximate). Installation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Anish Kapoor, Memory 2008. Cor-Ten steel, 47 x 29 x 15 feet (approximate). Installation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Anish Kapoor’s Memory, a 24-ton metallic blimp measuring approximately 47 x 29 x 15 feet overall, is imposing at a number of levels.  It requires the viewer to use his/her own memory to create an image of the piece.  It also manages, as Kapoor recently conceded in a talk at the Guggenheim in New York, to accumulate meanings that are context dependent.  “Memory”, while powerful in its own right in a museum setting, is also a magnet for associative responses that intrude from the broader setting.  It is more than an autonomous aesthetic object.  Therefore, it is not surprising that our reactions to seeing it in New York are quite different from our reactions to seeing it at the Guggenheim Museum in Berlin this past January.  In Berlin, in the context of Peter Eisenman’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” and Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, Berlin, we could not help but experience Kapoor’s sculpture as sharing with these works an attempt to capture the void, the gap in history created by the Holocaust.

In New York, the fragmentation of “Memory” is more directly carried by the properties of the installation.  To see the complete work in New York you have to enter three successive vantage points in the Annex Level 2 Gallery.  The first requires you to mount a few steps to a cordoned-off space to see a taller than life-size rust-colored metal structure of indeterminate shape pressed tightly against the left and right walls of the room.  It isn’t until you walk around to the second viewing area that you can see the shape of this object.  It resembles a large dirigible that feels like it has crash-landed into the museum and is protruding at an angle from its landing site.   It appears to be bursting the boundaries of the room, thereby dramatically increasing its scale.  You can stand back at least 10 feet but you can’t walk around the edges because of their proximity to the wall.  You’re temped to squeeze by, but it’s impossible.  At the Berlin Guggenheim one also had to experience the piece from three different viewing areas, but they were visually more generous with lots of room to enter the spaces and walk right up the piece.  As a result, “Memory” in Berlin seemed like it had been installed whereas in New York it seemed to have landed.  It looked more contained, more static and smaller in scale in Berlin than in New York.

A third space within the sculpture, as experienced in both cities, seems to open to “A Heart of Darkness”, a setting where one is confronted with a void, a black aperture, where the massive work is suddenly revealed to be open and cave-like.  The void greatly complicates one’s experience of “Memory”.  First, it slows one down.  Active exploration suddenly shifts to quiet meditation.  Physically, the strong impressions of massive materiality are undercut by what now seems to be the hollowness of the work.  The void functions as a kind of reversible figure, shifting from a radiant black monochrome painting to a pitch-black terrifying abyss.  A long sonorous echo gives further evidence of its deep space, one that draws you in (see Homi K. Bhabha’s 1998 essay, “Anish Kapoor: Making Emptiness”).  Such voids can be interpreted as an embodiment of the unconscious or a womb-like portal for creation.  Overall, the void shifts one’s impression from the materiality of “Memory” to its immateriality, what Kapoor has referred to as a proto-object, built out of fragmented experiences that the viewer needs to integrate over time.

Freed of the weight of the Holocaust in its New York venue, the work becomes less of a dialogue between long and short-term memory and more a demonstration of psychologist J. J. Gibson’s proposition that memory can become collapsed into perceiving-acting cycles.  What one sees is informed by what one does; what one does is informed by what one sees— in a continuous loop.  In this context, memory is an extension of perceiving, of the processional aspects of the sculpture, not unlike the effects of Richard Serra’s massive sculptures of Cor-Ten steel (such as those currently on view at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea).  Both Kapoor and Serra create complex viewing experiences.  Apart from the more obvious similarities of massive pieces of rounded Cor-Ten steel, both are physically and psychologically disorienting.  Both require you to explore the entire piece in order to create a mental image of the whole.  And both have either a dark void or a closed in void-like area in the center.   However, while the center of Serra’s “Blind Spot” (2002-2003) creates confusion and feelings of being trapped, Kapoor’s void offers the possibility, or better the aura (given the limitations of a museum setting), of a meditative experience.  As one is drawn into Kapoor’s seemingly endless black hole, it is possible to begin a mental  journey of self-exploration.  Kapoor’s “Memory” is not as disorienting perceptually as Serra’s “Blind Spot” within which one loses track of how to depart.  Yet, “Memory” is disorienting at another level—one has difficulty categorizing what one has seen and one’s relationship to that experience.  For example, is what I am experiencing fear, surprise, or exhilaration—or perhaps all three, as in a Hitchcock film like Vertigo?

Anish Kapoor, Memory 2008. Cor-Ten steel, 47 x 29 x 15 feet (approximate). Installation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Anish Kapoor, Memory 2008. Cor-Ten steel, 47 x 29 x 15 feet (approximate). Installation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Robert Smithson’s perceptive interpretation of the minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd is useful here.  His term “uncanny materiality” seems even more apt for Kapoor’s “Memory” sculpture than it was for Judd’s.  Kapoor’s sculpture creates various dilemmas of inbetweenness.  “Memory” is both material and nonmaterial.  It resembles both agents of destruction, a bomb or grenade, and those most generative of forms, an egg or womb.   We don’t think, however, that Kapoor meant for us to choose.  In “Memory” opposite states can co-exist.  Most generally, Kapoor’s work is about complementarity—it is this and that, rather that this or that.

So, what is it that makes “Memory” memorable?  In both cities, it defamiliarizes the act of seeing and leaves us feeling uncomfortable.  We are not accustomed to being offered only partial views of an object and having to use our eyes, our bodies, and our minds to construct an image of the whole.  Furthermore, the parts we do see are alien—like a space ship with a seemingly endless dark hole.  In Berlin, “Memory” is also engulfed in the force-field of the Holocaust and takes on added meaning.  Therefore, whatever Kapoor’s specific intentions, in Berlin, the piece reflects the intertwining of collective as well as individual memory.