“I would like to say, I have actually seen this cannon in the august halls of the Royal Gallery,” announced Andrea Rose, director of visual arts for the British Council, pointing to a large object shooting red wax projectiles against the tall white walls of Mehboob Studios. “And I can assure you it is a million times better in Mumbai.”
The cannon she refers to is Shooting into the Corner, an iconic installation by Indian-born sculptor Anish Kapoor, which is part of a first-ever exhibition of his work in Mumbai, the city of his birth. The exhibition, which opened on Tuesday in Mumbai, runs parallel to his display at the new wing of Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Rose’s polite quip echoes in the rough-hewn space of the old film studio. “The scale of it is scary…it’s a mountain to climb.”
The size of Kapoor’s work certainly suggests it. Even framed against the cavernous vastness of one of Mumbai’s oldest film studios—used regularly for Hindi movie sets—the forms dominate the space, drawing the eye and encouraging viewers to linger.
“The exhibition really is in two parts,” Kapoor explained at a private opening of his show on Monday. “The two waxworks, the very earliest ones, stand there (pointing at the corners) and the cannon are two bits of, if you like, expression.”
The waxworks, which include Stack, a red chimney-like pillar that towers diagonally opposite the spatters of red from Shooting into the Corner, speak to one another across the distance. The stainless steel works with their implied qualities of cool, reflective distance, stand between the two. The effect of S-Curve, a large form that stands on the studio’s uneven concrete flooring, is moving. Like one of Kapoor’s most famous works, the installation in Jerusalem popularly called Turning the World Upside Down, the stainless steel surface inverts and distorts reflections to dizzying effect. The sense of an artist at play, repeatedly in evidence at Kapoor’s famous public installations around the world, is sharp and present.
Kapoor himself presented a relaxed, smiling figure on the night of the preview. Since he left Mumbai at 15, the sculptor has lived in Israel and the UK (which has been his home for more than 40 years), and emphatically resisted speculation about any national or regional allegiances that inform his work.
“To be defined just in terms of one’s country of origin, particularly in an art world which is perhaps necessarily obsessed with the individual, seems to put in question one’s ability as an artist to be inventive, creative and so on,” he explains. “It’s easier to say, ‘oh, it’s Indian’, rather than that it’s inventive. I’m trying to make a distinction between the two.”
An Anish Kapoor work invites a definition of the space around his sculptures as the sculpture itself. His public art, such as the Jerusalem sculpture and Chicago’s Cloud Gate, have become monuments that define the urban space around them. The Mumbai exhibition is one that invites questions about the significance of space and place, too.
“Film studios have a long history. Particularly this one, Mother India onwards,” he says, walking around the studio. “It’s always been a space where things are made but from which they emanate: nobody ever came here. We’ve been able to turn it the other way around and bring the public into this space.”
But how would such work define its audience? “I’m really interested in the idea that art can reach wider, go further, can reach beyond the art world. People are intelligent—visually intelligent. Why shouldn’t the work be able to engage that?”
The exhibition in Delhi also forms half of what is, to Kapoor’s mind, a two-city display. “The show in Delhi is also in two parts; there’s a series of architectural models from about 25 years ago, and then a group of works that’s more or less retrospective. In this space, I wanted to deal with a whole different possibility,” he says. “Just two opposite bodies of work.”
But among the many oppositions that challenges and delights viewers at the show, perhaps the most significant one is the notion of spectacle, long defined in Mehboob Studios by the demands of popular Hindi cinema. To many viewers on Monday, it seemed, the invisible histories of the place were held starkly at bay by the fierce purity of Kapoor’s sculptures. “This space, it’s been theatre, singing dancing, everything that Bollywood could throw at it,” as Rose muses. “But Anish does it as good, or better.”
Anish Kapoor: Dilli Mumbai is open to the public till 16 December at Mehboob Studios, Mumbai, and the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.