Oct 2009 Journal

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Art notes (review)

The Royal Academy of Arts (RAC), once the bastion of artistic orthodoxy, has launched its first solo exhibition of a living artist. Whatever your views on installation art, Anish Kapoor’s vision is massive. Sculptures both convex and concave, blinding colours, cannon fire - the concept is everything.

And this concept is change, challenge and uncertainty. In Svayambh (Sanskrit for self-generated), the red waxen tracks of a ‘train’ - itself a block of red wax - squeezes slowly through the galleries’ classical arches bleeding chunks of the red stuff on its way. When displayed earlier in Nantes and Munich, the train’s relevance to Auschwitz was considered a powerful symbol.

The other installation, Shooting into the Corner, covers two rooms in which a cannon shoots occasional projectiles of red wax, which are loaded into the gun in barrels. By the time the exhibition ends next month, the RAC’s august walls and ceilings will be covered by an impenetrable red impasto. When I saw it, some blobs had already reddened the delicately sculptured architrave. The theme of leaking redness is manifestly tragic, a hint of devastating suffering caused by war.

I prefer Kapoor’s more nuanced mood. For instance, Yellow, a massive fibreglass and pigment installation, is a hole receding deep into the wall, suggesting the sun. Or When I am Pregnant, a rounded object which swells darkly from the white wall, lends the room a trompe l’oeil effect.

There are concave-mirrored blocks which behave like lenses designed to disturb conventional ideas about space and man within it. There are concrete blocks with sexual connotations. And there are swirling tubes ending in a brilliant red mouth of a trumpet. Let your imagination soar!

A time of kings endowed with god-like manifestations, pyramidal palaces and human sacrifice is what we understand about the life of the Aztecs. According to a new exhibition, Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, at the British Museum until 24 January, the true name for Aztecs is Mexica and their last ruler, Moctezuma, who was vanquished by the Conquistadores around 1520, is something of an enigma.

In his 18-year rule, this warrior-king controlled an empire reaching from the shores of the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, dominated by the pantheistic rituals of the calendar. Moctezuma surrounded himself with artefacts of primitive, yet stunning, beauty: stone sculptures and monuments, mosaic masks made of turquoise and gold, jewellery from rare materials like obsidian and greenstone. Eagles, jaguars and reptiles consolidated faith in nature, many gods and the universe.

But as Spanish explorers like Hernan Cortes brought Christianity to the region, predicted by many omens, Moctezuma, initially attracted to them, relinquished his power. Did he die at the hands of his Spanish captors or his fellow Mexicans, who felt he betrayed them? It remains a mystery.
At the beginning of this exciting display of Aztec art and history, there is a magnificent painting of the king in full feathered warrior regalia; at the end, he is depicted by a colonial artist as a humbled, submissive, ultimately tragic figure.


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