Kochi: The second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale started on Friday with many artists, including Francesco Clemente, Neha Choksi, Manish Nai, Mithu Sen, displaying their works at Aspinwall House, the main location of the art fair curated this time round by Jitish Kallat. The most anticipated work also displayed here was Anish Kapoor’s. The artist returns to India after a retrospective held between Mehboob Studio in Mumbai and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi in 2010, but this is his first site-specific work in the country. When I found Kapoor on site at Aspinwall House, the 60 year-old Indian-born British artist was posing for pictures for the press with the expanse of the sea in the background. Dressed casually, the artist was postured and smiling pleasantly—Kapoor has an easy air of refinement—but on this occasion, I could gauge that he was rather distracted about something. The two entryways to the room containing his work (and him) were barred, but I had managed to slip past the guard and walked straight up to the artist, extending my hand in greeting. In the weeks leading up to the event, I had already interviewed him—after a lengthy and laborious process of studio exchanges for an appointment—for a lifestyle magazine. The artist is famously reticent about his own work and his studio had kept the new creation for the Biennale under wraps, until now. As I looked around, I tried to tease out evidence of where the new work might be. There were no signature shiny metallic surfaces. Just a raw, unfinished room overlooking the sea with a fenced well of still water in the centre. Next to it, a pipe ran out of a deep hole bored into the ground and several workmen fussed to and fro.

Curious, I asked Kapoor to tell me about the new work to be displayed at the Biennale. He walked over to the well, gesticulating in its direction—“It’s going to start working any minute now!" He peered over the metal railing, about six feet diameter surrounding the well, as if looking past its surface at something else that lay beyond it. I fell back silently, immediately understanding the cause of his apprehension. The famous artist whose works sell for many crores in the international market is known to be a perfectionist, using difficult and challenging materials that require the support of engineers and technicians to realize complex sculptures that are immaculately rendered. I was even more impressed with Kapoor. As a fellow artist, I admire his commitment to aesthetics, his rendering of beautiful experiences that are profound at the same time. Kapoor—who has the presence of a wizard morphing material to his will—had clearly stepped out of his comfort zone to create a site-specific work for Kochi. In a sense, this is what I had been secretly hoping for. The artist’s superbly successful homecoming retrospective in 2010 (inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi) had been a watershed moment encapsulating Kapoor’s greatest hits, but I had quietly lamented that he had not made a new work for India.

Site-specific works are special for that reason. They require an artist to respond to the spirit of a place, to open up to the emotional challenges of working with the unknown. Often, site-specific engagement can produce works of great intensity. As I pondered on this, the water in the well started to move as if motioned by an invisible hand. It was a swirling current of water being pumped directly from the sea, a whirlpool with a central vortex and energy radiating in a downward spiral at great force. Slowly at first, and then it picked up speed until it was a full churn. I stared into the heart of a whirlpool that appeared to be turning a deep shade of blue and close to my eardrum, the heavy sound of churning water seemed to come from a hidden speaker. Were my eyes and ears playing tricks on me? Kapoor has always been interested in the opposites of being and nothingness. He appropriates material for its unique qualities but then controls it in a way that it moulds itself to this play of opposites of light and dark, material and the void. Despite the rawness of the environs, despite the unfinished, exploratory nature of this new creation, Descension is a mesmerizing work that embodies all the elements of Kapoor’s genius: a subliminal synchronicity of elements—of material, sound, colour and the palpable void—that requires us to look deep into ourselves to find hidden meaning.

Sharmistha Ray is an artist, curator and art writer. She attended the opening of the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale on 12 December. She will write a series of posts on the exciting artworks on display at the historic port town of Kerala.

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