Sculpture, I thought, is the opposite of void. Sculpture, I thought, projects itself into space. Sculpture, I thought, is presence. That’s what I thought, at least, until I met Anish Kapoor’s voids.
I expected to see sculpture at the Kapoor show at Sakip Sabanci Muzesi in Istanbul, and I wasn’t disappointed. Kapoor has garnered international fame for his massive public works like “Cloud Gate” at Millenium Park in Chicago or “Leviathan” at the Grand Palais in Paris (2011), but the pieces I saw were more human in scale, more intimate. There were voluptuous marbles, elegantly curved steel objects, and mysterious rock forms floating like indigo glaciers on the gallery floor. These works all occupy space, just as I generally expect sculpture to do.
But some of Kapoor’s work doesn’t project; it tunnels. The sculpture isn’t an object; it’s a void. These pieces literally recede into the gallery wall. I found myself drawn to these pieces, drawn into them, because they evoke the mystery of interior spaces—conceptual space, spiritual space.
Taking in the show as a whole, there was a dynamic relationship between interior space and exterior surface. Form, saturated color and scale are all at play in Kapoor’s work, but it was the conversation between exterior and interior that interested me most. I couldn’t help but circle back to see two works again, to give them “a long look.” One had a blood red interior; the other was black as night.
A lush scarlet perfectly round red disk (“Untitled”) tunneled into the gallery wall, the end of the receding canal lost in darkness. The curved surface, which I had to restrain myself from touching, looked soft, almost like velvet.
There’s an undeniable “sensual deliciousness” (to lift a phrase from Matthew Collings) about this lush, red interior. It would be easy, almost too easy, to read this work on a physical level where the impulse to enter would be connected to sexual desire. The motion of these pieces is inwards for sure; but they’re more conceptual than physical, too abstract to seem sexual. Eleanor Wachtel’s observation resonates with me that these works are “introspective, speaking to the most private questions of the self, the unconscious, and the mystery of existence.”
To me these pieces are an invitation to reflect on my interior space—particularly on the quality and health of my spiritual space. The scarlet red felt healthy, alive, nourished, especially when contrasted with a similar work with an entirely different interior surface that was black and reflective. Is my soul lush scarlet—soft and receptive—or am I polished black—hard and inscrutable?
Looking into these interiors seems slightly invasive, almost voyeuristic, but I keep gazing.
“Art requires the long look,” prompts art critic Robert Hughes,
“The work of art is layered and webbed with references to the inner and outer worlds that are not merely iconic. It can acquire (although it does not automatically have) a spiritual aspect, which rises from its power to evoke contemplation.”
A piece of art refers to both inner and outer worlds. And then I realize what is so mesmerizing and unsettling about the red receding void: it’s all interior space with no exterior surface.
No one is only interior space. Our exteriors form a healthy boundary between the outer world and our inner life—the inner life of the body, of mind, of the soul. Thinking holistically about personhood, there’s nothing healthy about stripping away all exterior surface. Maintaining appropriate boundaries between interior and exterior is one indicator of healthy self-awareness, of contentment, of maturity.
Sometimes when interacting with others the boundary between exterior and interior can seem impenetrable. Some people are opaque. I think I may often be perceived as one of those people. I process internally. I don’t feel the need to say everything I’m thinking. That reserve can create distance, or even give people the impression that I’m withholding from them. But reserve, from my perspective, is really more about trying to be discerning about what others want or need to know about my inner life. It’s about not assuming that what interests me, interests others; about not imposing my inner journey on another mind. But I know that there are times when it’s important to expose some of my interior thoughts. Sometimes, I need to be willing to be more vulnerable. Writing, in a way, is an attempt.
Recognizing the need for both a vital interior life and a robust exterior isn’t enough. I want to strive for alignment between the two. My exterior appearance—not my looks per se, but my words, my actions, my presence in other people’s space—should reflect the quality of my inner life.
Jesus had a lot to say about interior and exterior space and the relationship between the two. One of his sharpest critiques is reserved for those who intentionally mislead others by posturing as righteous, when in reality, their hearts are black:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Pious hardness, Jesus suggests, is black as night; so dark, in fact, it’s akin to blindness. Greed, self-indulgence and hypocrisy are sins that may be obscured by a self-righteous exterior; but Jesus sees right past the whitewash. He strips away the exterior surface, exposing the bones. I can imagine nothing worse than appearing alive, when, in fact, I am dead inside.
Looking at Kapoor’s work “Elephant,” a pair of black disks that recede into the white wall of the gallery indefinitely, I thought of the heart of a Pharisee. The interior surface was curved, hard, reflective, midnight, inscrutable. Stepping up close and leaning in, I could see my own reflection, twisted and distorted. There’s no surface more unyielding than a reflective surface. Kapoor actually has exclusive rights to Vantablack, the blackest black pigment in the world, (much to the consternation of other artists who would like to work with it), but this black reflective surface is more unsettling to me than a black hole that absorbs the light, because I can see myself in it. If one were to sculpt the psyche of a serial killer, I thought, or a Pharisee, it would probably look a lot like this. Pharisees may not act out violently, but in their insistence on maintaining appearances and in their literal, unforgiving application of the law, they lead people away from God, rather than towards Him. They are a source of spiritual death.
In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Kapoor, who has a longstanding interest in psychoanalysis, observes, “the deepest darkness we know is the darkness we know within.”
It can be tempting to obscure the darkness with a bit of surface decoration. But the darkness can’t be whitewashed, it needs to be forgiven. Jesus’s cautionary words not to beautify the exterior without cultivating a vibrant interior may sting, but they are like antiseptic—revealing, healing, cleansing. His words, like Kapoor’s sculpture, call me to examine my interior space. They prompt me to look for signs of bitterness, decay, gandrene on the interior of my heart, evidences of whitewashing the truth about my motivations, my inner urges, my judgments or jealousy.
May my soul never become a tomb, I pray; may it be like a garden or like a womb—life giving.
I know all this may seem a long way from a fiberglass disc on the wall of an art gallery. But Kapoor has invited just this sort of engagement with his work, saying, “The work itself has a complete circle of meaning and counterpoint. And without your involvement as a viewer, there is no story.”