On now at the prestigious Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia and Palazzo Manfrin is Anish Kapoor‘s first public display of the controversial Vantablack technology alongside a particularly bloody ode to the boundaries between reality and surreality. Split between the two sites are equally-sized retrospective exhibitions of the
British Jewish-Indian artist’s work as curated by Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits. The breadth is far more than you might expect from the artist perhaps best known in the mainstream for Chicago’s “Chrome Bean” but that suits viewers in Venice just fine. We came for the Biennale, not to be coddled!
Of course there’s more to the Biennale than just Arsenale and Giardini, and perhaps nowhere moreso for the 2022 rendition than Kapoor’s exhibits.i Starting at the Gallerie, viewers were invited to reflect on their contexts with a giant sky-bound oculus, polished to a mirror finish both front and rear. Piercing past the endless sea of sea-facing three-row buildings, the mirror projects your gaze above and beyond. Past the real and towards the surreal, a tone from which the rest of the exhibition would flow.
Entering the main building through the other side of the courtyard, viewers were greeted for the first time in public with the much-hyped Vantablack. What’s Vantablack, you innocently ask? It’s an ultra-black paint technology developed by U.K.-based Surrey NanoSystems for military-grade stealth weaponry, claimed to be the “world’s darkest material” when it was announced in 2014 because it was capable of absorbing 99.965% of visible light. The artistic commercial rights to the material were purchased by Anish Kapoor in 2016. In-person, 99.965% sounds really extreme but it turns out that it’s still not 100%!ii From both the sides and head-on, at least in this “worm-hole” piece, there was the faintest hint of the artwork having a three-dimensional depth, or at least some kind of circular outline in the middle of it. Of course, the cameras picked-up the trompe-l’oeil instantly. There’s no fooling the robots! Of course humans are easy to fool. We want to believe. You might say we need to.
Not that all of the Vantablack pieces are so approachable or contextually isolated. One in particular was tucked up into a ceiling corner, reminiscent of Malevich’s suprematist black squares and their room-dominated presence where Russian Orthodox icons would normally be placed.iii Following in the footsteps of Marc Chagall, Kapoor continues in the tradition of Judeo-Christian artistic dialogue. Black on black on black… but where does our emptiness end, and the emptiness of the “art” begin? Then again, could we even be empty if we tried? The only emptiness is perhaps not to try, to risk, to live.
The adjoining room saw more “typical” Kapoor, most notably the site-specific Pregnant White Within Me (2022). One of the implicit themes throughout the Biennale and sensed by this very recent Kapoor work as well, is that of the greying, aging world. With below-replacement birthrates not just in China but in the entirety of the western world (excepting immigration), is it any wonder that a new right-wing government was just elected in Italy on campaign promises that included increasing the local birthrate (so that culturally challenging immigration could be slowed just a smidge?)iv That Venice is at once being buried beneath a tourist-fueled acqua alta while simultaneously depending on foreign-driven consumption of its cultural history for its very economic existence tells you all you need to know about the tensions of the moment. The economy is teetering on the brink but so is the whole sociopolitical infrastructure beneath it. So what will be the first to go? Maybe we should all just makes some more babies like Elon suggests/models so we can keep up the charade for another generation or two and we won’t have to find out!
Sauntering over to Palazzo Manfrin, which Kapoor actually bought for himself a couple of years ago and is now in the process of restoring…
We enter to find a bloody whirlpool – Turning Water into Mirror, Blood into Sky (2003) – that you can actually touch, like some kind of wet, red-stained Richard Serra, in the open courtyard.
Across from which is the site-specific Mount Moria at the Gate of the Ghetto (2022), an all-too-appropriate recognition of the very earliest European Jewish Ghetto that lives just across the way in Venice.v Mount Moria, per the Book of Genesis, is where Abraham bound Isaac in sacrifice, that we might not have to learn the same lesson today.vi Are we getting biblical enough for you yet? Y’see you can take the boy out of Israel but you can’t take the Israel out of the boy!vii
Upstairs at the Palazzo (as there were at the Gallerie even if we elided those at the time) there were quite a lot of bloody, gory, and messy depictions by the normally austere, geometrically-inspired artist. But what’s the throughline? What gives with the grotesque? Is this just “shock-art” by any other name? One impression would be that of surreality, of blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, an act that all art by its nature must perform. And to be sure we live in an historical time replete with surrealism, as all times of war must be, as all times must be. Indeed fiction is more true that mere fact! Another take is that death and
taxes sex are at the core of our human natures, grounding us against (and potentially running contrary to) our noblest aspirations of cognitively-driven rationalism.viii For all of humanity’s “perfect” blacks and “perfect” beans, we’re still just a bunch of trousered apes degenerately running around in helices. The biblical namesix ascribed to many of the bloodiest pieces only served to recall that our forward-looking cognition is always in tension with our allegorical histories and irreducible genetics. Another more curious still would be that Kapoor went to a Thanksgiving dinner and had A LOT of extra pre-made cranberry sauce that he didn’t know what to do with it. Waste not, want not!
Deeper into the Palazzo were more Vantablacks, including one with a seemingly accidentalx shadow that beautifully suggested a three-dimensional box form where your eyes had all but assured you only two dimensions existed, even if the possibility of the spiritual nth dimension was always embodied, as it must be everywhere that an artist’s paint leaves the proverbial tube. Psychic energy necessitates this magical transformation! But if only more of the lighting were so intentional.
The room for improvement in lighting continued with what were perhaps the most magical of the artworks on exhibition – Gate I, Gate II, Gate III (2021) – a trio that dared the viewer to run her fingers along the crisp alabaster edges and into the cavernous recesses in behind. How were the geometric squares, rectangles, and triangles floating so? Alas, the two ceiling-mounted fluorescent bulbs and relative distance from natural light did nothing to elevate the exquisite alabaster material, a material only too capable of glowing with unique radiance, as Edmund de Waal so powerfully demonstrated with his tacet series created during early pandemic lockdowns.
The Anish Kapoor exhibitions are on until, um, today (October 9, 2022)! But don’t worry, the artist is still very much present in Venezia and it appears that he will be for some time to come. Though his appearances can be deceiving…
- Yes there’s Bruce Nauman at the Pinault space at Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal but Tadao Ando’s signatures of concrete formwork perfection and directional lighting wonderment still overshadow Nauman’s relatively mundane performance art and installation work, keeping the American artist comfortably beneath the fold of any kind of civilised conversation. Not that Pinault’s collection at Bourse de Commerce in Paris fared so much better against the world-class architecture, also intervened by Ando! It’s stiff competition for any living artist, which is mostly what Pinault focuses on. Maybe there’s a lesson there for other aspiring collectors?
Though if you’re in the area, the next best thing to Kapoor in Venice is Ai Wei Wei in Venice! Showing his first glass sculptures ever, co-created with Berengo Studio and located on the San Giorgio Maggiore island. The show is entitled La Commedia Umana and is on now until November 27, 2022.
Also absolutely worth your time in Venice is the tragic optimism of Anselm Kiefer at Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). Like a pinecone that needs a forest fire to sprout its seeds, Kiefer depicts the torching of Venice in brutal and awe-inspiring terms with an unquenchable vision of life after death.
- Kind of like private keys that are 99.965% “yours” are… not yours. ↩
- From the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0,10 in 1915/1916 featuring the Black Square work by Malevich in the top corner of the room:
- Indeed, it’s increasingly clear that there’s at once too many people in the world and simultaneously not enough people at all. Which is to say that there are too many wealthy consumers of goods, services, and “experiences” and not nearly enough producers coming down the pipeline to support them. This is really the western world’s double-digit inflation story just as much as are the downstream effects of Biden’s pandemic-era M2gasm.
So surprise surprise, energy prices are high here! Asking the locals, it sounds like they’re up 3.5x from a year ago, but even without asking it’s not a well-kept secret. How can you tell in-person? The interior spaces all have abysmal air quality, low air circulation rates, and are therefore stuffy as fuck! Also water bottles in fridge coolers aren’t *cold*. Think more like 8C rather than the typical 4C. ↩
- The Jewish Ghetto was a fascinating place because it was as much internally reinforced as it was externally enforced. From the external side, however, came certain professional prescriptions, which apparently limited the men to being money-lenders, rag (second-hand clothing) dealers, and medical physicians. Yes, we’ve got a 500+ year head start in these domains, so is it any wonder that we’ve produced Goldman Sachs, Calvin Klein, and Jonas Salk in the 20th century alone? ↩
- Per Rabbi Zohar Atkins, this is the point of scripture (archived):
According to Robin Hanson, the end of human sacrifice roughly correlates with the rise of writing, and specifically of sacred writing, Scripture. Why? Because, he suggests, Scripture allows us to remember the past without having to re-enact it. Thus, we can say that founding sacrifices occurred once upon a time but no longer need to re-occur. Abraham offered Isaac, was willing to offer him. Now, we don’t need to because we learned the lesson. It is enough to read the story. With the rise of Scripture, the gods are no longer compulsively hungry, as it were, because writing creates a sense of endurance, a log, a record. With writing, the past can last. This is Herodotus’s opening argument for writing history—to save events from oblivion.
- Indeed, Kapoor’s mother was Jewish, his grandfather was a cantor, and as a young man in the 1970s Anish spent time on Kibbutz. ↩
- Indeed, in his mind-expanding conversation with scholar and friend Homi Kharshedji Bhabha, Anish Kapoor speaks highly of the power of agency/intuition over the power of reasoning in creative pursuits:
- Oh the names! Truly Kapoor is at least very British in that he’s the clear equal of his countrymen Messrs. Hirst, Banksy, and XCOPY. ↩
- Only because the shadow was so singular and unrepresentative of the Vantablack pieces on display. ↩