Against site-specific politics/For abandoning intention
Every day, Anish Kapoor wakes up at 6:30 in the morning. He drinks a cup of tea while he catches up on email and reads the newspapers. Depending on swell of emails in his inbox and to the world’s general behavior, he prepares breakfast between 7:45 and 8:00. Kapoor eats a piece of toast, an orange or an apple, and drinks a second cup of tea. By 9:30 he is already headed towards his studio after having taken a shower, dressed in his usual garments, and fed the cat. Only in a routine can something other occur. Actually, none of this happens. Not for sure. The only fact here is that Kapoor feels strongly about routine, processes, and doing.
This I learnt at Kapoor’s talk organized by The Public Art Fund and The Vera List Center, two institutions deeply rooted in the social dimensions of art. Kapoor’s presentation was simple, clear and, according to Allan — my new acquaintance from the seat to my right — and me, it was also really good. A provocative peek into his art and thoughts. Anish Kapoor has been “painting sculptures” or “sculpting paintings” since the late 1970s. He has created two-dimensional and three-dimensional art in both geometrical shapes and organic forms. “Magic” and “mysterious” are adjectives that critics have used to describe Kapoor and his work because he is keen to play around with the viewer’s perception. In the words of critic Roberta Smith, “He greatly prefers gentle seduction to shock tactics.” However, when zooming in on his processes, his approach to form is also quite scientific. His proclivity for certain materials reveal exactly what things physically are. Thus, the words of minimalist Frank Stella — “What you see is what you see” — apply to Kapoor’s work in a rather paradoxical manner: from a nano-scale, which we can’t see, to the macro scale, which depending on where we stand, we can partially see, his work bespeaks deeply subjective perception and deeply objective materiality.
Kapoor begins his talk by recognizing “here,” The New School, and proceeds to quote Marx and Engels as if the connection were obvious instead of necessary. He then proceeds to speak about stuff, stuff we do and stuff we are… Earth and blood: blood is paint and earth is sculpture. Blood as female stuff. Red is a common color in his work. Blue, which is a better black than black. And the interior, because our bodies don’t define us, “we’re much other than physical object.” He lists the stuff that, unbeknownst to him, keeps occurring in his work. He is interested in ritual, as controlled with the hand, and alludes to “beyond ritual,” as the uncontrolled. Repetition. Process as repetition achieves its intrinsic geometrical dynamics with its own logics.
From his early projects, in which he used pigment for creating sculptures, to today’s liquid funnels that produce low frequency sounds, photographs of his art are projected onto the wall behind him. At the top, framing it all, Stella’s Deauville is still fresh. I lean back on my also-red seat and find myself repeating and building on some of Kapoor’s ideas, entertaining some thoughts longer than others, according to the echo I find in his words. Scale is inherently linked to the idea of something else, scale is achieved by comparison to another person, space, thing. And form. Concave and convex. He claims to no longer explore the relationship among forms in his art. He rejects composition. Now, he is rather interested in form itself, as if autonomous. In his work, the hierarchy of form is gone, but a “huge amount of form” remains. He is particularly interested in form that creates itself. Autonomous and autogenerated. Ga Gu Ma and Svayambh are a couple of examples. These swift approaches to scale and form seem to suggest a removal of the artist himself.
Little by little, one huge image after the other, he reveals details about his own processes. Repetition, rituals, and rigor. And the result? Generally large forms and their interior. You can walk into Tarantantara and Leviathan [slide] and once you’re inside [next slide] the outside has completely changed. It’s challenging to think about Kapoor’s works and not superimpose the image of its location. I try but Tarantantara is the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle and Leviathan is the Grand Palais in Paris. ‘Place’ in this thought experiment is both part of and particular to the piece. [Next slide] In my head, I say Cloud Gate and by the time I finish “pronouncing” the T, Chicago has trickled into the piece’s name. Scale, form, exterior, interior, place.
Kapoor speaks about the moment when the meaning is achieved. It occurs. Sometimes it takes days, months, or years after the art piece is finished, when meaning “finally” occurs. To practice and to transcend the act of just making. “Don’t worry about what it looks like, just make it.” Intentionality is something we continuously look for when trying to grasp meaning, yet Kapoor suggests that we abandon intention and meaning in the act of making. If the meaning of art may be attained, may spontaneously arise, at any moment after its completion, then there is no premeditation nor model for success. Nor, more appropriately, of a particular success. Without intention, without meaning, there can be no failure. The work makes itself. As an artist, or the kind of artist that Kapoor takes himself to be, what one does is set up processes and follow where they go.
We break our attentive silence with clapping that confirms a full house. The Q&A soon reveals the audience’s craving for politics. Kapoor had managed to avoid addressing some of art’s “social discourses,” of which he claims to be deeply suspicious. However, after the third or fourth question, concerns around the identity, the environment, the social, and the monetary, succeed in turning the discussion that way, towards that kind of politics.
After his hosts’ politically-charged introductions and in more or less one hour of speaking, Kapoor has only used the term ‘political’ to deny any identity as a political artist. Yet the people raising their hands and the people speaking to the microphones continue to look in the direction he seems to be intentionally avoiding.
Kapoor references the Buddhist phrase that “all intention misses the mark,” casually adding “that is why politics doesn’t work” before swiftly reverting back to speaking about abandoning intention. But wait — can a political subject drop intention? If we hold to Kapoor’s idea that practice abandons intention, what we now call politics is not properly a practice. “Politics” have become the elephant in my head. Descension is the backdrop now.
Before succumbing to these interventions, Kapoor’s focus had been first and foremost on routine, repetition, processes, rituals, doing. I start pulling from my shortest-term memory and the mad scribbles I’ve made all over the program and, as if mediating between Kapoor’s refusal to address politics directly and the audience’s blunt insistence that he do so, I try to guess the answers to the questions arising from the dialogue.
No, Kapoor doesn’t work in teams or collectivities, he works in solitude. The social component of art is not the center of his work. His is a form that creates itself. Regardless of the artist. Regardless of the Indian artist. Blood and earth don’t mean anything. He holds a strong reluctance to any definition, as if defining and imposing were synonyms. “I have nothing to say as an artist, I don’t believe in the idea of delivering a meaning.” It doesn’t really matter when the process begins or when the process ends. The meaning will occur. And, therefore, it doesn’t really matter where the piece is either. Place has no place. “A good work is a good work irrespective of context… and that’s probably not what one should say but I do believe it.” After that answer, I ruminate that perhaps the issue is not with “context” but with the term employed by his interlocutor, “site specific.” “Specific” is, in fact, determining a site and excluding others. As is delivering a particular meaning. As is having one intention.
“You can’t set out to do something beautiful or something spiritual.” With meaning, with intention. “Beauty is right here right now, just as political power. There’s is no good in telling me that we will be liberated tomorrow.” I stop the frantic note-taking. Now I have my own questions. Is Kapoor suggesting that there can be no intention in politics? Do we do site-specific politics: enclosed, directed, with specific and premeditated intention, people, and meaning? Should we not? If so, how to do processual politics?
Kapoor’s almost religious approach to practice and his disengagement from immediate or premeditated meaning together evoke a sense of suspension. There is something very soothing about his abandonment of meaning, intention, and of himself, as an artist. In refusing definition, he opens up space for what might be. It seems as if neither purpose nor reason is any longer the motor behind creating. And yet the motor doesn’t stop.