BY Daniel Miller in Reviews | 10 DEC 08

Anish Kapoor, 'Asian Art' and the War of Ideas

Memory (2008), installated at the Guggenheim, reignites debates between multiculturalism and universalism

BY Daniel Miller in Reviews | 10 DEC 08

Memory (2008) appears before you like an unexploded bomb, rust-coloured and swollen and oddly submissive. Forged from 24 tonnes of Cor-Ten steel, Anish Kapoor's new site-specific installation at the Deutsche Guggenheim (a site-specific installation strangely set to travel) presents three discrete and non-synchronous faces to museum visitors: the first snub-nosed and sheer; the second conical and rocket-shaped; the third a yawning mouth leading into the structure's interior. Memory the creator, memory the preserver, memory the destroyer.

According to Kapoor, one of Memory's principle aims is to demonstrate – TARDIS-like – a negative internal space larger than a positive exterior space. This goal is pursued through a tactical programme borrowed from Marsyas, Kapoor's 2002 commission in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. Like Marsysas, Memory as a whole is not visible from any one single point; each side presents obstructed views so the work is difficult to imagine holistically. A possible source of inspiration here is the well-known Hindu parable about a procession of blind men feeling different parts of a peculiarly quiescent elephant, and so arriving at radically different conclusions about the nature of the beast – it's a spear, says one, feeling the tusk, a wall, says another, feeling the flank, a snake says another, grasping the trunk.

Kapoor himself would likely reject this interpolation. At one of the conferences organized to mark Memory's opening, he fiercely rounded on the popular concept of 'Asian art'. Turning to face his curators at the Guggenheim's Asian Art Initiative, who struggled to come up with a plausible multiculturalist defence, Kapoor fiercely challenged their institutional role, claiming that their work 'effects to put Asian artists into a drawer', insisting that: 'if there is an avant-garde, there is not a Chinese avant-garde, and an Indian avant-garde, and a Russian avant-garde: there is only one avant-garde.' 

The quarrel between multiculturalism and universalism is a venerable topic in the field of contemporary art discourse as elsewhere. But interesting in this case was the clear revelation of the structures supporting the war of ideas. In the red corner, the Mumbai-born, London-based, half-Jewish and practising Buddhist, Kapoor finds himself sincerely moved to champion universality against all and every diminishing regionalism. In the blue corner, requiring an institutional password for securing bureaucratic bequests, strategic curators alight on a regional category and move to commission artists like Kapoor on that basis. Hence we arrive at the paradoxical position of an international artist laying critical siege to the regional platform provided for them.

The torturous ironies of this state of affairs notwithstanding, Kapoor himself seems to have largely escaped from the Asian drawer. In an intriguing example of symbolic literalism, the sculptor's objects have ballooned along with his reputation, the fragile powder works of his early career giving way to monumental extravagances like London's PVC Marsyas and Chicago's stainless steel Cloud Gate (2004).

This remarkable transition from an odd, intellectual sculptor possessed of narrow aesthetician's interests to an international icon has not occurred without some criticism. Perhaps chief amongst the dangers that lurk here are the twin perils of cliché and mannerism. When an artist develops a signature style, as Kapoor has now plainly done, the problem becomes that they begin to regressively counterfeit it. There is some hint of this with the Guggenheim installation, which Kapoor himself freely admits recycles already employed ideas. At the same time, however, further issues of discursive caricature also develop.

Running alongside this danger of mannerism, there is also the perhaps greater peril of discursive pop-cliché. The experiential intent of his current practice makes Kapoor particularly vulnerable to this charge, which is levied by hostile critics and sympathetic supporters alike. With the intellectual content here to be found only in a portentous and clingy rhetorical register – 'memory' as a thing larger on the inside than on the outside, impossible ever to envision entirely etc – a commission is tendered for superficial tendentiousness. Under the lights of this logic, an unfortunate aromatherapeutic discourse of 'spiritual' and 'transcendent' seems to continue to dog Kapoor the exotic. At another point in the press conference his vulvic use of Cor-Ten steel was contrasted to the monolithic erections of Richard Serra along the lines of a feminism contrasted to machismo.

To his credit, Kapoor himself seems in some ways uncomfortable with the discourse around him. Speaking at one point in reference to Cloud Gate, he confessed his ambivalence in the face of that work's wildly popular public reception, alighting on what he called 'the danger called Disney'. His suggested idea for a bulwark against this was 'dignity'. It's an idea worth considering.