Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
14th July 2013

On Anish Kapoor

Anish Kapoor

An Essay by John David Ebert

Ruptured Worlds

In the post-metaphysical age, civilization is no longer protected by spheres or membranes of any kind. All the boundaries, limes, walls, mandalas and macrospheres which, in the mythical and metaphysical eras, once contained and organized civilizations, have been shattered and now lie in pieces all about us. Of course, when something ceases to function or breaks down, that is precisely the moment when it surfaces into visibility by crossing the threshold of our subconscious awareness into conscious perception. Environmental backgrounds, as McLuhan always liked to point out, are entirely unconscious because of their all-immersive ubiquity. One never notices them precisely because of their banality. But a wall becomes suddenly conspicuous by its absence the moment it disappears or is taken down. Heidegger’s proverbial hammer, likewise, is invisible to circumspective concern so long as it is working and embedded in the mode of being which he terms Zuhandenheit. It is only once the hammer ceases to function, however, that it becomes visible and shifts from its Zuhanden mode to the mode of Vorhandenheit, where it now stands out as a theoretical problem to be solved.

In the history of civilizations, once cosmologies break down or cease functioning, they do not just disappear without a trace, but are retrieved from the ancient midden heap by the artist who catches them, miniaturizes them, and transforms them into works of art in the new environments constructed by new technologies and other modes of Being. Thus, the Renaissance artist retrieves the Laocoon from the midden heap of antiquity and it becomes the inspiration for a David or a Moses, which becomes the constitutive work of art of the new Renaissance world city under Pope Julius II or Leo X.

Thus, in the art of Anish Kapoor, all the ancient containers – mandalas, macrospheres and various uteromorphic cosmologies – which once served during the mythical age as world bounding horizons have reappeared on the inside of the global capitalist anti-world as art objects scaled down and miniaturized for mass consumption. The global ecumene of late capitalism is absolutely hostile to all such world-spheric containers, for it has engulfed all of them, thus neutralizing their ontological efficacy and melting them down into the metaphysical slag heap of ancient cosmologies and lost civilizations that now fill the exhibits of our natural history museums.

All metaphysical walls, membranes and boundaries have nowadays ceased to function – hence, the present anxieties that fuel the building of walls and fences along nation state borders worldwide – and the signifying contents which they once held in place, furthermore, have been disgorged across the planet via contemporary art. The transcendental signifieds, together with their signifiers, which these great global containers once used to hold in place, have escaped capture from their various worlds and come loose, and now they are presently tracing lines of flight through the capitalist ecumene as uncoded flows anarchically rupturing meaning systems everywhere.

The art of Anish Kapoor is a massive reterritorialization of these ancient signifiers onto the global body, or socius, of the late capitalist hypersphere.

1000 Names

Kapoor’s first great work, 1000 Names (above), is a good example of this phenomenon. First exhibited in the Paris studio of Patrice Alexandre in 1980, 1000 Names (which refers in Indian religion to all the names of the god Vishnu) is a display of signifiers torn from the Hindu tradition and littered across the floor of the studio in glowing red, yellow, white and black pigments. The forms are all geometric: circles, squares, domes, obelisks, crescent shapes, etc. and they have been represented in such a way as to suggest their self-emergence from below out of the very floor of the studio itself. The forms are evocative of Hindu signifiers: the obelisks as transformed Shiva lingams; the white domes as miniaturized stupas; the squares and crescents as ancient symbols for the elements of earth and water. One of the forms is a red cone up which a serpentine shape spirals (shown below), exactly like the kundalini serpent in the Tantrika tradition that is traditionally depicted as being wrapped around a lingam. The colors, furthermore, are those associated with Indian thought systems: red, white and black are the colors of the three gunas, or qualities, that matter possesses: rajas, sattva and tamas in the Sankhya philosophical tradition.

According to Sankyha cosmology, the world of matter created itself, for it is a system of cosmic autopoiesis that does not feature the gods as the creators of the world. Rather, the world is thought to have emerged as the result of the interaction of the twin forces of matter or prakriti, and mind or purusa. The three gunas which characterize matter – rajas for fiery passionate activity, tamas for heavy, slow torpor, and sattva for luminous clarity —  were set into agitated activity by the presence of thousands of these purusas which acted upon it in a manner similar to the way magnets cause iron filings to line up. Consciousness, or buddhi, is created first, and then, along a stream of parallel evolution the subtle elements – which are self-luminous, or sukshma forms – known as the tanmatras are created. The first atoms, also subtle, and known as paramanus, are created, and eventually give rise to subtle forms of the first elements. The entire cosmos up to this point is self-luminous and autopoietic: that is to say, it creates itself from out of its own substance.

The subtle elements soon give way to what are known as the concrete or gross elements, the sthula bhutani. Akasha, or ether, which is the first of these elements to emerge, is actually space itself as a humming morphogenetic field that creates forms simply by making a sound. It is associated with the geometrical figure of the sphere. Air comes next, which is associated with the circle, while fire is associated with the triangle, water with the crescent moon and earth with the shape of a square. Thus, the creation of matter according to Sankhya cosmology.

Kapoor’s glowing forms, likewise, might be regarded as self-luminous sukshma forms arising from a kind of akashic field. However: they are deterritorialized forms which have been torn from their original apparatuses of semiotic capture. Such apparatuses are the various mandalas and yantras which the Hindu tradition imagines as the structuring fields within which these signifiers take on their meanings. Such forms would traditionally find their place within a geometric apparatus of semiotic capture such as a Tibetan mandala, where cosmic mountains are, for instance, placed into the center, with gates opening up into the four directions, while the five elements are each nailed down to their proper place within the apparatus, just as is the case, likewise, for an Aztec sun calendar.

But Kapoor’s self-luminous and autopoietic forms have escaped capture by these ancient cosmic apparatuses, for they have been torn loose from the world-bounding horizons of their tradition and set free into the global capitalist ecumene, where they can trace new lines of flight into meaning systems that are totally “other” than what they were originally designed for. Kapoor’s exhibition space is the very opposite of a Tibetan mandala, for in it, the forms have all broken loose from their original world-structuring contexts. It no longer matters much – semiotically speaking – that this or that crescent shape used to symbolize water, or this or that red square once symbolized earth, for in Kapoor’s art all that matters now is that they are self-luminous apparitions that appear to be emerging from some other dimension below the studio floor. They are “thus come” as the Buddhists would say: self revelations of their own mysterious luminosity. They are therefore, to a large degree, semiotically undetermined.

Once the forms have been deterritorialized from the contexts of their original world-bounding horizons and set free into the capitalist anti-world of contemporary art, they are now free of all traditional meanings and can be recoded to perform new functions. The forms can now mutate, change and transform in surprising ways.


In the late 80s, Kapoor’s medium undergoes a shift from forms made out of colored pigment to a fascination with megaliths and megalithic cosmologies. Indeed, just as the cosmology of Sankhya envisions the world shifting from self-luminous and subtle forms into a cosmology of sthula bhutani, or the solid forms of concrete matter inside which the earlier cosmology of light has fallen and become entrapped, so too, it is as though Kapoor’s earlier self-luminous works disappear into the heavy, concrete forms of his megaliths. We can actually see the process happening in the work which he created in 1988 that is entitled Wound, (shown above) which shows a bloody vertical rift in the wall with three long stones set on the ground in front of it in such a way as to suggest that the blood is running out of the wall and pooling into little basins in the stones. In a manner of speaking, the blood running from the wall stands as part for the whole of Kapoor’s earlier cosmology of self-luminous forms now leaking out and draining off into the stone, where it is now captured and imprisoned, as it were, just like the subtle forms of Sankhya cosmology trapped inside of heavy matter.

In the 1989 work known as Void Field, (shown above) the floor of the museum space is filled with large square-shaped blocks as though the ruins of a collapsed temple had been gathered together and arranged neatly for inspection. Each of the stone blocks, however, features a hole in the center, like the bindu at the center of the Shri Yantra in the Hindu tradition, which is regarded as the cosmic origin point from out of which matter, both subtle and heavy, emerges, only in this case, Kapoor has reterritorialized the bindu as a sort of cosmic drain, down into which his entire earlier cosmology has disappeared.

In a number of works dating from the early 1990s, Kapoor is fascinated by drilling holes into huge stones, and with representing monoliths, such as in the 1990 work It is Man, with large black rectangles in their centers. This is a period of Kapoor’s work in which he is concerned with Depths, rather than Surfaces: his monoliths, such as the Adam of 1989 (shown above), represent upright stone blocks as though they were fragments taken from some larger whole, and featuring a black rectangle like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey on the surface. This is, perhaps, a way of giving depth to the image: the stone block, he would appear to be saying, is not just a stone block – anymore than the human being is just made out of physical matter – but has a depth interior to it, a realm of hidden consciousness that is on the inside of the block.

In the ancient megalith cults of the mythical age which Kapoor’s work seems to be referring to, it was commonly thought that the worshipped stones and lithic forms had fallen from the heavens to the earth, and were therefore worshipped, like the Ka’ba of Islam, as revelations of the descent of heavenly powers to the earth. In the work entitled Angel, of 1990 (shown above), Kapoor represents one of these monoliths with a black rectangle in the center as presiding over a museum floor littered with chunks of blue-painted sandstone. Blue, of course, is the traditional symbol of the sky (especially in the Western tradition), and in Kapoor’s work it is as though pieces of the heavens had broken off from the sky and fallen to earth. Kapoor’s installation, then, shows us the collapse of the blue sky that once formed the ontological canvas of the Western tradition, discovered in the paintings of Giotto in the fourteenth century, who was the first artist to substitute a blue sky for the gold background of Byzantine icons. Thus blue became one of the central and most important colors of the metaphysics of Northern Europe down to Goethe’s day and beyond (he regards blue, in his Theory of Colors, as the signifier of the infinite) symbolizing space itself until, during the falling bombs and V2 rockets of the Second World War the Western understanding of Being collapsed and the sky fell to earth along with it in a rain of bombs, fragments and missiles. The West has suffered ontologically from the lack of a protective and immunizing macrosphere ever since, and has substituted a pulsating grid of electronic signals in its place.

And so Kapoor’s work during this period is characterized by a fascination with the depths of things, which is perfectly exemplified by his architectural work of 1992 entitled Building for a Void, (shown above) in which he has designed a round tower with a spiral walkway like the mosque at Samarra such that, when one walks inside of it, there is black hole in the center of the floor leading to a three-meter wide chasm below, while an oculus at the top of the ceiling is open to admit the light of the heavens into the dim interior. The work thus captures and reterritorializes the ancient three tier cosmologies of the mythical age, in which the earth was imagined as enclosed by a cosmic dome situated above an abyssal underworld and open to the spiritual energies of the heavens located in the realm beyond the dome above.

All through the 1990s Kapoor is concerned with burrowing holes into rocks, monoliths and floor surfaces, as though he were excavating stone in search of his lost cosmology of light. But beginning with Turning the World Upside Down in 1995, and Turning the World Inside Out (shown below) from the same year, Kapoor gives birth to a new cosmology of self-luminous surfaces, for the former work is a convex, gold-colored mirror on a wall, while the latter work is a large silvery sphere with an indentation on the top. These works now begin to radiate light, rather than to absorb it, and they reflect an ever-increasing preoccupation of Kapoor throughout the rest of his career with mirrors and reflective surfaces.


So, Kapoor’s work is structured largely with a central bipolarity of Depths vs. Surfaces. His holes in the floors of museums and in monolithic rocks continue, but with the work of 1999 known as Taratantara, (shown above) they begin to be detached from floors and walls and to expand to monumental size: this is a work composed of 50 meters of red PVC forming a tunnel between two voids at either end of an old Baltic flour mill in Gateshead, England. Thus, Kapoor’s basins of attraction have here been scaled up to an all-encompassing environment that tyrannizes over, and swallows up the human being. This is even more true of his 2002 work Marsyas, also composed out of red PVC, and filling the museum space of the Tate Modern with 155 meters of it stretched across a frame with two funnels at either end. Another monumental work called Dismemberment, Site I in New Zealand, from 2003 (shown below), also constructed out of PVC held together, in this case, with steel cables, and resembling nothing so much as a huge vaginal orifice, simply rests incongruously in the middle of the New Zealand countryside.

The 2008 work known as Memory, (shown below) furthermore, is a sort of giant egg made out of rust-colored Corten steel and set into a hallway of the Guggenheim where an entrance from another corridor gives access to the structure’s single, square-shaped opening. But the culmination of all of these Depth-works comes with the gigantic 2011 piece called Leviathan, which Kapoor had constructed in the shape of a three-chambered, spherical cross in the middle of the Grand Palais in Paris: when the viewer steps inside this work, he is confronted with a mysterious red-colored wombsphere that surrounds, encloses and contains him. It is the “nobjective space” of the embryo in its mother’s womb, as described by Peter Sloterdijk, in which the pre-subjective embryo but dimly perceives various “non-objects” such as the placental blood, the placenta itself, or the soft walls of the uterus.

Thus, the thread of Kapoor’s work that develops into these ever-gigantifying uteromorphic structures points to ancient signifiers of the mythical understanding of being-in-the-world as a being-in-the-Great-Mother: they are attempts to capture, scale down and miniaturize the ancient cosmos of the mythical age, in which the earth was depicted as a central island surrounded by an amniotic sea with an enclosed ceiling of cosmic spheres surrounding it like a womb.

Kapoor’s structures are evocations of the body of the Great Mother – which became the central religious figure of Hinduism – cut into pieces as a series of partial objects that have been deontologized and set into circulation in the capitalist world space of the global anti-world. These uteromorphic cosmologies once held together entire civilizations and formed their bounding world horizons that protected and immunized the human being, locking him in place inside of a reassuringly closed, womb-like cosmos. Now that these cosmologies have disappeared as valid forms for structuring civilizations, they become visible in the capitalist ecumene as works of art, scaled down for mass consumption. The body of the Great Mother, in Kapoor’s art,  has been cut into pieces, deworlded, and scattered across the earth’s landscapes as a series of vaginal and womb-shaped structures that evoke the old experience of the world-as-cavern which formed civilization’s basic cosmology until Giotto pierced it by discovering the blue of the sky of infinite space that lay beyond it.


But Kapoor’s ontology of mirrors is also scaled up in his work at this time, not only to the monumental proportions of a work like Cloud Gate (2004) (shown above), which he had built for a public monument in Chicago, but as an obsessively recurring theme all throughout his work of the 2000s. His various Sky Mirrors (one is shown below), scattered across the earth’s countrysides and civic spaces, are circular disks which capture and reflect bits of the sky, as though to suggest that it has fallen to earth.

Indeed, all the old bivalent ontologies supporting a heaven / earth dichotomy have, in the post-metaphysical age, been dismantled and deconstructed: the horizon line which once separated them has now gone, for this horizon line wasn’t just a line, but functioned as an actual membrane that separated the realm of the heavens and the gods up above from the realm of mortal humans and animals here on the ground below. Kapoor’s various sky mirrors, including Cloud Gate, are indeed pieces of the sky that have fallen to earth, precisely because the horizon-as-bounding-membrane that once separated sky from earth has been ruptured and has ceased to function (along with all the other world-bounding membranes). The laws of the heavens now form a seamless continuum with those of the earth, for it is all one giant, spherical continuum ruled by the four fundamental forces of physics. There are no gods up above, and humans have already demonstrated their prodigious technical-problem solving abilities in sending men into outer space as though to prove that they could exist there just as well as down on the planet below.

The sky, furthermore, was, in point of fact, the first mirror: all ancient cosmologies were reflected onto the heavens as cosmograms. The heavens were giant mirrors that reflected back at us humans our projections in the form of gods, deities, souls and constellations. The sky, then, was once the great mirror whose contents reflected the interior of the human psyche and its deep, unconscious contents.

But Kapoor’s mirrors are part of his ontology of pure Becomings, for he uses them to strip the skin from the surface of the world, as it were, and set it into a parallel dimension of pure events, to borrow from the language of Deleuze in his book The Logic of Sense. In that book, Deleuze points out how the Stoics separated the realm of effects from causes by Platonizing them: events for them were pure Becomings without causes that existed in a kind of flat, surface world that they separated from the concrete world of causes and states of affairs between bodies. The Stoics, in other words, decorporealized effects-as-events from their material substrate, and put them into a realm of pure Becomings.

Kapoor, with his mirrors, it seems to me, is doing something similar: in stripping the skin of the surfaces of things from the world and setting it into a parallel reality inside of his various mirrors, he is decorporealizing events as effects from things as states of affairs, for his mirrors always transform and distort what they represent into a realm of two-dimensional reflected surfaces without causes, for the causes of the distorted images do not lie within the mirrors themselves, but outside them. His mirrors create a realm of pure effects without causes, a realm of pure surfaces without depths. Just as Deleuze points out that Lewis Carroll, in his Alice novels moves from concern with depths (Alice, for instance, falling down the rabbit hole) into a realm of pure surfaces (i.e. mirrors, playing cards, chessboards), so too, Kapoor’s art moves from an excavation of the world’s ontological depths into the construction of an ontology of mirrors as pure surface effects. In doing so, he is paralleling the way in which our electronic video screens and monitors act as mirrors which reflect back at us a two-dimensional surface world of effects without causes, a world of phantoms, ghosts and avatars that is no more substantial than a fleeting dream made out of subtle matter. We, too, like Kapoor with his mirrors, are engaged in the creation of an ontology of pure surface effects without causes.

Red Wax

Now, with Kapoor’s red wax works of the 2000s, he is attempting to create a three-dimensional parallel to his mirror-world of surface effects. Beginning in 2003, with My Homeland is Red, (shown above) in which Kapoor creates a sculpture out of 25 tons of red wax swept in a circular motion by a pestle revolving once per hour, he creates a self-making work that illustrates the pure process of Becoming. Like one of D&G’s plateaus, it is a work without a goal or a telos that never develops into something, but simply illustrates autopoiesis as a pure process of self-making that is indifferent to the nature of the actual thing made.

His work Svayambh of 2007 (shown above) is perhaps the most exemplary illustration of this, for it is a slab of dark red wax set on rails which is moved slowly through the doorways of the gallery such that the wax takes on the shapes of the doorways as it is pushed through them. The thing that is made here, which is simply a huge indeterminate hunk of red wax, is not the point so much as the process of self-making, since Svayambh, according to Kapoor, is a Sanskrit word that means “self-making.” But of course, as we have seen, the narrative of cosmogenesis in the Sankhya system was a narrative precisely of the self-making of the cosmos by the twin principles of matter and consciousness, and so Kapoor’s work bears the vestigial ghost of the Sankyha cosmology along with it. However, the thing that is actually made by this process – in contrast to the Indian philosophical system — is not a specific, determinate thing, for Kapoor has deliberately left it semiotically undetermined. The work is a pure Deleuzian event of the making of a thing that makes itself as the three-dimensional illustration of the process of autopoiesis: what is made is not the point as much as the actual process of self-making that is being illustrated.

The object as it travels along its track through the galleries and doorways does evoke associations, though: birth, for instance. The object, in passing through the museum, transforms its various entrances and doorways into vaginas that are imagined as giving birth to something parthenogenically, which means without insemination by a male. This was precisely the nature of the old self-making models of cosmogenesis of Indian and some early Greek traditions (in Hesiod’s Theogony, for instance, in which Gaia gives birth to the cosmos spontaneously, from out of her own substance). The entire Hindu cosmology is an autopoietic one, and it is also one in which the myth of the goddess is the strongest and most prominent of all the world’s existing religious traditions today. Kapoor’s work signals a shift in contemporary art from an ontology of poiesis (or making, as in the case of Yahweh on the first page of the Book of Genesis) to autopoiesis (in which the cosmos – together with the entities inside of it — grows like a plant from out of its own soils).

Svayambh, then, is a three-dimensional work that illustrates Kapoor’s event ontology, for it is an event that has been decorporealized by being removed from the conditions of the physical world’s specificity, or states of affairs of concrete things. It is semiotically indeterminate, and therefore invites the viewer to complete it by territorializing it with his own signifieds, for it is a work which has no signifieds other than what the viewer ascribes to it.

Indeed, all of Kapoor’s red wax works of the 2000s, such as Up Down Shadow of 2005 (shown above) or Push-Pull II of 2008 (shown below), are depicted as objects making themselves by emerging from another world into this one. The objects of these works are like spinning wheels that emerge spontaneously through the floor or else slice through the museum walls as though they were irruptions of self-luminous forms from another world like those of his early great work 1000 Names.

In carrying all this out, Kapoor is creating a kind of rhizome between the ancient Indian thought systems and the modern hypersphere of capitalism, for just like the viruses that create rhizomes between humans and animals by shuttling genes back and forth between them, so Kapoor, as a transnational artist, is creating cultural hybrids by shuttling the cultural genes of two worlds back and forth to create interesting and novel forms. Rhizomes, as Deleuze and Guattari point out in A Thousand Plateaus, are lateral connections between multiplicities that create new and surprising assemblages between them. Thus, the value of such a deontologizing age as the one we’re living in today is that connections are now open as never before between the various world civilizations for creating unprecedented cultural formations. Homi K. Bhaba is therefore dead wrong when he says, in his essay on Kapoor’s work, that such cultural backgrounds are disposable in considering the work of a transnational artist like Kapoor. Indeed, they are precisely the whole point and essence of what he is up to as an artist in a cosmopolitan age. Other transnational artists – such as Cai Guo-Qiang or Zaha Hadid – are doing something similar: that is to say that their work in contemporary art cannot be fully understood without knowing something about the cultural backgrounds that they carry with them from their own respective traditions.

Worldless Objects

Kapoor’s artworks, then, are deterritorialized signifiers that have been cut free from the bounding horizons of world specificity and let loose into the capitalist anti-world, which has melted down all the traditional bivalent ontologies of heaven / earth, up / down, nature / spirit, light / dark etc. in the very process of creating itself as a scientific superstructure. With the impacts of science on the one hand, and Deconstruction on the other, such ontologies no longer have the world-shaping functions which they once conferred on their local horizons.

Set free from those horizons, Kapoor’s works are like mysterious objects that have thrust through into this world from some other dimension where they might have had specified meanings in their original contexts but which now have come unmoored from their traditions and are encountered as worldless objects unto themselves. It is as though Kapoor transforms us into astronauts in outer space floating in a world without horizons who encounter these strange objects as artifacts from an alien world. They confront us as enigmas to be solved, purely worldless objects in the problematic mode of Vorhandenheit that require completion by the viewer. They have lost all touch with Being (which is always world specific), and so, contrary to Gadamer’s aesthetics in Truth and Method, in which he says that the work of art is an emanation or avatar of Being that takes the viewer up into it and increases the Being of the object in the process, these works have lost all connection to their originary Being-worlds, and so they have to be considered as miniature worlds unto themselves. They are not avatars of Being, but create and generate their own Being-thereness from out of their own presence.

Each of Kapoor’s objects is a self-making entity from another dimension that requires the viewer to actively reterritorialize it. They are deliberately semiotically indeterminate, for in the capitalist anti-world which they inhabit, meaning is provincial and specific to place and therefore, unwelcome. The capitalist world space is full of meaningless objects a la Baudrillard, signs that proliferate like viruses without aim or purpose. Specific meaning – as opposed to the diffuse quantum wave-like meaning function of Kapoor’s works — is world-specific, however, and so it does not fit well within the world order of late capitalism, which deontologizes everything it encounters. Meanings must be left open and semiotically indeterminate in order for the various worlds encountering each other in such an age to translate the various works of contemporary art across cultural boundaries. When meanings are as specific and pre-determined as they were in the mythical and metaphysical ages, they leave no room for dialogue and become authoritarian, generating only friction, tension and, in worst case, scenarios, war. (“My metaphysics are greater than yours, which I will now proceed to demonstrate by decimating your population,” etc. etc.)

So, for a global anti-world, an art full of worldless – although not necessarily meaningless — objects becomes the only art that counts.

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