At this point in time next year the sporting world will be packing its lycra, helmets, goggles and whips (it seems we always forget about equestrian) and travelling to London for the Olympic Games; which will open on the 27thof July 2012. As an international bazaar of athletes and tourists swamp the new Olympic Village and Olympic park in East London, they will be belittled by the soaring edifice which will be Anish Kapoor’s The ArcelorMittal Orbit. This colossal structure will loom over the games at 115 metres and will certainly consume all of the 19.1 million pounds commission provided for this sculpture.[i].
Anish Kapoor needs no introduction to anyone who has had even the slightest graze with the visual arts sector; he is as close to a super star as a visual artist can get in current times. The darling of the London art scene despite being born in India, he was the first living British artist to have a solo show which utilised the entire of the London Royal Academy. In the winter of 2010 this exhibition alone attracted over 260,000 visitors in three months[ii] . In May of this year he will be the talk of France as he participates in the coveted Monumenta , subverting the cavernous and commanding nave of the ‘Grand Palais’ in Paris and joining the fine company of previous Monumenta artists such as Richard Serra.[iii] Kapoor is now one of the most collectible artists in contemporary art with a market price increase of over 91% since 1998, most of his sculptures now easily reach over 500,000 US dollars at auction.[iv] This is an undoubtedly impressive career however, with the burdensome privilege of financial solvency and un-questioned credibility, can Kapoor’s body of work still contain the same quality which had him recognised in his humble beginnings?
The ArcelorMittal Orbit which will be created for the London Olympic Games is not just a baffling title. ‘Arcelor Mittal’ is a massive corporation which deals in steel imports and exports; it has a gross profit which reaches easily into the tens of billions and has bankrolled 16 of the 19.1 million pounds needed for the Anish Kapoor commission. When an artist becomes the bedfellow of a major steel conglomerate ( which also is a major sponsor of the games itself ) and is the delivery man for both local and national government interests, Kapoor’s creative integrity maybe be compromised on many levels. The London Government official press release for the commission announcement in March 2010, illustrates the varying interests of all parties involved. “London Mayor Boris Johnson said: ''Long after the (Olympic) Games are over our aim is to have a stunning spectacle in East London that will be recognised around the world...When visitors from every corner of the globe plan trips to our must see attractions they will now eagerly include The ArcelorMittal Orbit!’”. Following this comment from Johnson, CEO of ‘Arcelor Mittal’, Lakshmi Mittal added his own statement: “London will have a bold, beautiful and magnificent sculpture that also showcases the great versatility of steel.” Finally the Minister for the Olympics and London Tessa Jowell, ended with the particularly interesting quote that the sculpture will attract tourists like “honey to bees”.[v]
The eager statements from the main stakeholders for this commission do not seem to reference artistic legacy and integrity. Rather the press release could be talking about a new theme park or the Big Banana in Coffs Harbor. When considering art, the words spectacle, tourist attraction and the fantastically sinister analogy to bees do not exactly put the art world at ease. Scandalous comments regarding the aesthetics of this structure are abundant and all use some magnificently severe metaphors; underneath these enjoyable barbs from critics remains a very valid unease about Kapoor’s new sculpture as it questions the integrity of this artist and his apparent intentions. Perhaps all that Kapoor is doing with his most famous commission is placating a few, new found and powerful friends and a lot of fluffy press whilst creating nothing more than a garish eye sore for tourists to be photographed under? Kapoor claims that his initial motivation for creating the sculpture is “the opportunity to involve members of the public in a particularly close and personal way.”[vi] Perhaps this intention is genuine and perhaps it is not, but how a 115 metre sculpture is going to realise this vision is anyone’s guess. Dan Fox, senior editor at Frieze Magazine articulates particularly well his own misgivings for The ArcelorMittal Orbit: “Are the people of Stratford (local residents) supposed to tug their forelocks in gratitude to the munificent elites for their largesse? (‘Thank you kind sirs for giving us this bloody great big tower we didn’t know we needed!’)...T he bottom line is that The ArcelorMittal Orbit is a monument to politics and big business...File under ‘art and power’.”[vii]
Anish Kapoor’s 2010 exhibition at the Royal Academy was one of the most highly anticipated events of the London art calendar. Over whelming numbers passed through the rooms of the Academy with many patrons exclaiming they could hardly move at more than a shuffle, such was the congestion. The exhibition was a semi survey of Kapoor’s career with the inclusion of his early, vividly coloured pigment pieces through to freshly completed sculptures. This exhibition was the place to find a sense of Kapoor’s evolution as an artist, from his beginning roots through to his current position as a top player in the contemporary art world. Kapoor’s work is always entertaining and engaging on an easily obtainable level and probably accounts for his widespread success. In this exhibition it was plain to see the appeal of his sculptures and the signature references to masculine and feminine, executed in the seductive reds commonly associated with his practice were seen here. [viii]
This exhibition served to highlight stark changes in Kapoor’s work and the effects of commercial interests worming its way into his practice. Tom Lubbock for The Independent noted that “lately Kapoor's art has been drawn, not only to illusion and symbolism, but to big spectacle. The result is generally vanity. In the RA's (Royal Academy’s) forecourt, a 15-metre column stands, made of 75 mirror-spheres, reflecting themselves and their surroundings – an executive toy, vastly enlarged.”[ix] The ‘executive toy’ sculpture mentioned is singled out for all the wrong reasons, especially when compared to the really joyful, early works of Kapoor. These smaller pigment covered objects in eye numbing reds, the brightest of yellows and a fantastic deep blue still pack a punch today over twenty years after their creation. This only serves to expose as Lubbock drily states the “vanity” of Kapoor’s recent sculptures.
None the less The Royal Academy exhibition for Kapoor was a success and further bolstered his name in the public arena. [x]I cannot imagine a more crudely masculine spectacle than this (machines) brutal splashing of wads of sperm across the pristine gallery surfaces. The crowds will love it. It’s a phenomenal piece. We are in the presence of a very effective gallery operator... (Kapoor) has become master of sexy audience manipulation of the kind that art has increasingly begun to demand since it joined the entertainment industry.”
It is seen in the practice of many of the big artists of our time (Ai Wei Wei and Antony Gormley) that to be at the top of the contemporary arts ladder one must defer to a certain amount of PR savvy to appeal to the general public, a public which is accustomed to the hype and vulgarity of a Hollywood celebrity culture. Considered to be Kapoor’s rival for the top spot of ‘art king’, Antony Gormley is no less subtle in courting controversy and popular appeal. Gormley’s installations such as ‘One & Other’ in Trafalgar Square in London, 2009 saw selected members of the public standing on plinths in the famous square with free rein to do as they please. This was often engaging, embarrassing if not always controversial. This work sparked a lively debate about public art and roused similar questions that are associated with Kapoor’s work. “One &Other is a perfect model of such (art) practice, being populist, inclusive and above all participatory... The real question is... whether such projects are in fact art.”[xi] Considering the turn to the spectacular that Kapoor’s work has taken, perhaps it is valid that Kapoor has adjusted his practice to suit a wider audience with the chance for greater recognition and thus more possibilities, he is merely keeping up with the ‘big boy’s’. After all it wasn’t his earlier works which were enthralling an audience at the Royal Academy it was as
From this recent snapshot of Kapoor’s career it does seem that Kapoor has chosen the more glamorous route of giant sculptures which create easy news stories and a never ending supply of press hype. Kapoor is an example of where visual artists can be easily directed when fame and money come gushing forward, away from a closed circle clique and into mass culture. It will be interesting to observe how time will re frame Kapoor’s work when this wave of success subsides and all that remains standing is his artworks alone. I am sure his body of work will be debated heatedly in the coming months and for many years to come.
[i] Anish Kapoor to design iconic visitor attraction for Olympic Park 31/04/2010, press release http://www.london.gov.uk/media/press_releases_mayoral/anish-kapoor-design-iconic-visitor-attraction-olympic-park last accessed 16/04/2011
[ii] Art Radar Journal website January 11, 2010 http://artradarjournal.com/2010/01/11/indian-artist-anish-kapoor%E2%80%99s-solo-at-royal-academy-what-did-the-critics-call-it-performance-art-and-turkish-toilet/ last accessed 16/04/2011
[iii] Monumenta 2011 website http://www.monumenta.com/en/2011/un-concept-unique last accessed 16/04/2011
[iv] contemporary Indian artists Art Market Insight website http://www.artmarketinsight.com/wallet/amidetails/showweb/1402 last accessed 16/04/2011
[v] Anish Kapoor to design iconic visitor attraction for Olympic Park 31/04/2010, press release http://www.london.gov.uk/media/press_releases_mayoral/anish-kapoor-design-iconic-visitor-attraction-olympic-park last accessed 16/04/2011
[vi] Anish Kapoor to design iconic visitor attraction for Olympic Park 31/04/2010, press release http://www.london.gov.uk/media/press_releases_mayoral/anish-kapoor-design-iconic-visitor-attraction-olympic-park last accessed 16/04/2011
[viii] Anish Kapoor at The Royal Academy, London- based on writers attendance.
[ix] Lubbock, Tom, September 2009 Anish Kapoor, Royal Academy, London The Independent website http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/anish-kapoor-royal-academy-london-1792126.html last accessed 16/04/2011
[x] September 27, 2009 Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy The Times Online http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article6846326.ece last accessed 16/04/2011
[xi] Editorial, September, 2009 Art Monthly issue 329, United Kingdom
[xii] Monumenta 2011 website http://www.monumenta.com/en/2011/un-concept-unique last accessed 16/04/2011