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Contemporary Sublime: Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate

Published in The Hindu Newspaper, Sunday Magazine, December 2008

A result of Anish Kapoor’s constant exploration and discovery of Shaivaite philosophy and
mythology, “Cloud Gate” encompasses a space that is at once spiritual and material. His current
solo show, being held at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Germany, titled ‘Memory’ is on till
February 1, 2009.

There is a certain joy you experience when standing in front of “Cloud Gate” which one could
associate with the joys of liberation — as if you have been freed of the burdens of the mortal
world at that particular moment as you stand looking at yourself on its surface.

In 1995 Anish Kapoor created his voids with the shiny reflective surface of stainless steel. In
“Turning the World Inside Out” (1995), the movement he simulated with the sculptures that
preceded this work, be it in the stone concavities or the dark voids, takes on a different role.
Ingeniously, Kapoor questioned the inherent quality of reflective surfaces and found it to possess
a powerful energy that enabled the viewer to partake in the trance of the deity. Here, the viewer,
seeing their own self in its infinitely deep interiors much like its precursor, “Descent into Limbo”,
has finally become one with the divine.

Kapoor defined the journey through space and time where the viewer as devotee moved through
the time warp of a proliferating deity in “1000 Names”, walked through the darkness of the
unknown towards the possible union with the spiritual in “Untitled”, was pulled into the
darkness of a fearsome deity in trance in “My Body Your Body” and fell into one in “Descent into
Limbo”. Kapoor then carved out his temples in stone monoliths and constructed both,
installations that evoked a sanctuary for his dynamic yet calm god, and a structure that
personified the ultimate manifestation of His most potent epitome in “Building for a Void”. Yet
an amalgamation of these forces of space, movement, form and content finds a beginning in the
reflective pieces of the mid-1990s and in those that he created for his exhibition “Whiteout” in
2004.

Inspired by Shiva

However, the definitive embodiment of traditional iconography and philosophy based on the
mythology of Shiva materialised into “Cloud Gate” (2004), popularly known as the “Bean”
because of its elliptical shape. The 110-ton of stainless steel that has been welded together
seamlessly, sits at the AT & T plaza in Chicago’s Millennium Park. A 12-foot high arch encourages
the viewer to walk under the sculpture and see their kaleidoscopic reflections on its pristine
surface. “Cloud Gate” encompasses a space that is both material and spiritual at a level beyond
the immediate comprehension of the viewer. Kapoor talks of this experience as being “a direct
attribute of the sublime”, a description he made of another massive work, “Marsyas”, which was
constructed at the Tate a year earlier. While it is impossible for the viewer to grasp the entirety of
“Marsyas”, he experiences the “modern sublime” as a comprehensive whole when he stands in
front of “Cloud Gate”. On its surface the viewer sees the reflection of the phallic skyline, the
clouds above and himself; as if the sky, earth and the human soul have been conjoined in a
transcendent communion. This experience takes place due to the placement of the sculpture in
front of the towering buildings that run across Chicago’s skyline. These attributes associated with
“Cloud Gate” make it the most profound manifestation of a highly evolved contemporary icon
that Kapoor has created by constantly questioning and discovering the symbolism of traditional
Shaivaite iconography throughout his career.
The curved organic form of “Cloud Gate” marks a departure from the rigid stone pieces, giving it
the aura of a living breathing creature recalling the forms in his early works from the early
eighties such as “1000 Names”. This quality, coupled with an emphasis on its horizontality,
makes it a strong reference to the couchant bull, Nandi. Furthermore, its alignment to the skyline
evokes the placement of Nandi in relation to the sanctum sanctorum in Shaivaite temples. This is
because the skyline is dotted with a number of high rise buildings, which simultaneously recalls
the phallic form of the Shiva Lingam, and the myth of the Lord’s ability to manifest multiple
times. What makes this work profound is that Kapoor successfully creates a contemporary icon
that projects an implicit simplicity, within which lies a complex assimilation of conventional
mythology.

Elemental

The surface of “Cloud Gate” literally and symbolically brings together the sky and earth, an aspect
that is essential in Kapoor’s work by his own admission. The aspect of the sky is an interesting
one. It is the cosmic theatre upon which the Lord performs miraculous feats or engages in the
dance of creation that is perceptible only to a few. In every text that narrates myths associated
with Shiva, he appears as Isana, who, as was described earlier, is his avyakta or unmanifest
characteristic. It is in this form that he performs his dance along with Vishnu — an act that was
seen only by the Yogins who had subdued their minds owing to their knowledge of Yoga. In
“Cloud Gate”, Kapoor skilfully uses the inherent quality of the mirrored surface to portray this
mythological event, thereby creating his own compelling and contemporary iconography for this
facet of the Sadashiva. While the title itself alludes to the skies, Kapoor’s icon for Isana manifests
in the reflection of the ether on the clear surface of the sculpture. At the same time, on a
transcendent level the celestial bull, engaging in meditation akin to the Yogins, ‘reflects’ His
highest form as if its able to witness the unperceivable. Kapoor’s mythology is never complete
without the engagement of the viewer. Just as in his earlier works the viewer is transported into a
spiritual realm, but this time he finds the liberation he has been seeking.

Apart from the reflection of the skyline and the skies, the viewer partakes in a ritualistic
experience of the sublime, initially, by walking around the work through multiple approaches and
entering its underbelly which Kapoor refers to as being a “very deep chamber”. This description
evokes the dark temple caves, signifying a continuum of his philosophical explorations with his
concave sculptures. The viewer is then confronted by his own presence in the work itself. The
image of the self is not really a mirror image and often gets distorted, such that there are parts
where there exists virtually no likeness. What this beckons from the viewer is a sense of
withdrawal and control of the mind such that he can see himself, in the same space as the deity,
who appears in the form that is perceivable (Lingam) and also as the Unmanifest (Isana). It is as
if the viewer, through this distortion of his physicality ceases to exist in the reality of his world
and is part of the cosmic space, that was, until this point in time, incomprehensible. Thus, he has
in a certain sense, become the non-object himself. In an invigorating experience of the powerful,
dynamic dance of creation, he exists in a time warp and yet, remains calm and still as he is
engaged in a trance that facilitates this experience in the first place. The Kurma Purana describes
a mythical event that is strikingly similar. The ancient text expounds:

They saw the most radiant, calm Siva, the God whom the Yogins see in their souls in the sublime
trance of meditation, as their own souls. The sages saw on that seat that very Lord of beings God
(Isa) from whom life of all living beings spring up and in whom it finally merges.

The viewer as Yogin brings about the communion of the mortal and the sublime, where one’s
ephemeral reflection on the “seat” that is “Cloud Gate”, signifies the cycle of life.
The sublime today

Kapoor questioned the possibility of dealing with the sublime by returning the gaze, confronting
its “spatial ambiguity” because of a loss of physicality. He questioned if this then defined the
modern sublime. Once again the answers came when he searched within Hinduism and religious
iconography that has been his fascination since his early years growing up in India. To that extent
“Cloud Gate” is not completely isolated from what he calls the traditional, dark sublime. In fact
the idea of the sublime found its first expression in his pigment works and progressively evolved
into the transcendent dark with the concavities and then finally the modern sublime with his
reflective pieces, of which “Cloud Gate” is the most persuasive.

The success of Kapoor’s work lies in its ability to relate to a global audience, as the philosophy he
chooses to express has a very universal resonance within its own inherent specificity. It is the
object of art — the ultimate expression of the artist’s intent, such that it has universal relevance,
which makes it powerful and compelling. There is a certain joy you experience when standing in
front of “Cloud Gate” which one could, at a deeper level, associate with the joys of liberation — as
if you have been freed of the burdens of the mortal world at that particular moment as you stand
looking at yourself on its surface. It is not just joy that generations of Kapoor’s audiences have
experienced but, fear, tranquillity and a sense of awe standing in front of the Maya or “cosmic
illusion”, that is his sculptures. It is an experience anyone could partake in regardless of one’s
cultural, social or religious conditioning.