The colossal Palazzo Strozzi in Florence has become, thanks to its director Arturo Galansino, in just a few years the benchmark site for two kinds of exhibitions. On the one hand it stages exceptional shows in the city that was the cradle for the Italian Renaissance, showcasing the big names of the time. On the other it is also a setting for retrospectives of the work of major visual artists of our age. Until 4 February it is displaying “Untrue Unreal”, a mini retrospective on British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor (born in 1954) (see here the report about Anish Kapoor Foundation in Venice).
The train coming
It begins impressively. In between the first and second rooms there is a gigantic block of dark red wax weighing 5 tonnes that moves imperceptibly on rails, like a train carriage. Kapoor explains: “The first piece is about Auschwitz and the train coming. I first made this piece at the Haus der Kunst in Munich (1). It went through 4 connected rooms, very much not forgetting that that museum was built by Hitler. So obviously the train is a carrier of emotional and physical presence. That waxy material is very much about body.”
Murder is everywhere
He adds (2): “Today murder is everywhere. The body is central to my project. But another part of my work is about the subject of our perception of reality. Is it full? Is it empty?” Here Kapoor is alluding to his most famous pieces that play with optical illusions: his stainless steel spheres, his giant bowl-shaped works in different colours, from blue to red, where you can’t see how deep they are.
Blacker than the black hole
Over the past decade he has added a very particular, almost magical, shade of black to his colour repertoire, to which an entire room is dedicated. “I’ve been working with the blackest material of the universe, meaning blacker than the black hole, that black. It’s called Vantablack. It is, in a sense, a reality and a fiction. If I put this black on a fold, you can’t see it. The three-dimensional object is taken to another place. What is real and what is not? This is the crucial issue.”
We might regret that this display of an artist who has been able to not just create his own universe but also lately reinvent himself, is a bit too well behaved. There’s little to be seen in Florence of his recent works, some of the most shocking and also astonishing paintings he’s made, using materials that reference blood and organs, like the artworks I had the opportunity to see during my stay in Seoul in September at the Kukje gallery.
Bubbling entrails, a tongue violently emerging from meat-like matter… “The body remains central to my project. It’s also a reference to the goddess Kali who is all-consuming, eating all. Blood, death, destruction,” says Anish. This work is uniquely powerful.
Three Days of Mourning
In Florence there are hardly any of these new works on show. They have names such as “Three Days of Mourning” or “Today You’ll Be in Paradise”, which are explicit allusions to the physical impact of acts of terrorism. On this latter title the artist explains: “I think you probably know where it comes from. Imagine somebody wearing a bomb. The body is dispersed. You don’t just kill yourself for a political motive or whatever reason. Also you’ll be in paradise. That’s the manufactured fiction.”
Anish Origine du monde
Lastly, if you are in Tuscany don’t miss out on a little-known work by Kapoor, nearly an hour from Florence by car. In San Gimignano, where the multinational contemporary art gallery Continua was founded, the artist has gifted a very enigmatic sculpture to the city, which can be accessed via the gallery.
Twelve metres of depth
After navigating a labyrinth of medieval streets you arrive at a townhouse with a metal grate, through which you can see a kind of well. Here Anish has squeezed in a concrete sculpture, like a giant bulge that could be seen as an “Origine du monde”. Created in 2005 it’s simply called “Underground”. You can explore inside its twelve metres of depth. You emerge filled with a sense of mystery from this expedition into an undefined beyond.
(1) In 2009 it was also the main piece of his show at the Royal Academy in London.
(2) The interview took place before the outbreak of war between Israel and the Middle East on 7 October 2023.
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