Anish Kapoor, Leviathan, 2011. Interior view.

Leviathan: Anish Kapoor at the Grand Palais

For the fourth installment of Monumenta, Anish Kapoor transformed the elegant Grand Palais in Paris with a surreal, space-invading installation. Instead of walking into the museum proper, visitors entered a gigantic, womb-like world where orifices suspended high overhead morphed into other mysterious spaces. From the street, there was no indication of Kapoor’s work. Leviathan did not become visible until visitors passed through a single air-tight revolving door into a brightly colored, totally enclosed bubble. (The other doors were for emergency use only.) Most people entering the installation expressed surprise at the size, the color, and the space. Someone asked about the possibility of running up the sides toward those orifices, but quickly realized that there would be no exit. Before the installation opened, Kapoor said that “visitors will be invited to walk inside the work, to immerse themselves in color, and it will, I hope, be a contemplative and poetic experience.”

Inside this large space, everyone from young children to people in their 80s milled around, examining and touching the walls, making comments such as, “This feels like a trampoline bed” or “C’est énorme.” The floor and sides felt like a vast gym interior, somewhat reminiscent of Trisha Brown’s trampoline performance/installation at the 2007 Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. One group of young travelers swayed back and forth in a circle while chanting and moving their arms, accepting Kapoor’s invitation to meditate. The steel girders of the Grand Palais’s beautiful structure took on new life when seen through Leviathan’s translucent pink skin. (Although the interior was actually bright red, sometimes, depending on the light and time of day, it appeared as a brilliant hot pink.) The heat on a spring day in Paris, however, quickly became overwhelming in the closed interior, so visitors were not encouraged to linger.

After the initial experience, viewers returned to the museum entrance and then re-entered the vast space of the hall to see the exterior of the installation. In contrast to the exciting translucency of the interior, the exterior resembled a gigantic group of plastic eggplants or enormous conjoined purple bodies. Kapoor calls them “bulbs.” They sprawled or stood depending on the viewer’s position; the installation would have dwarfed a large cruise ship. People became very small. The Grand Palais’s dramatic painted steel staircase offered seats where viewers could relax and see the forms from different points of view.

In the exhibition catalogue, Jean de Loisy, curator (and new president) of the Palais de Tokyo, describes one of Kapoor’s early drawings as “a red mass somewhat reminiscent of a paramecium,” a microscopic single-celled organism. In a taped interview with de Loisy at the Grand Palais, Kapoor discusses the power of abstract art—color and space act similarly for many of us, and abstract art can go to the source, the primordial. Although Kapoor rejects Jungian archetypes, he believes that we bring some kinds of universal ideas to our looking. He comments that viewers all share some sense that a space with three holes is uterine.

Of course, the title of his Monumenta work immediately calls to mind both the biblical sea monster and Thomas Hobbes’s seminal work, in which “leviathan” serves as a metaphor for the state. Kapoor dismisses associations with Hobbes but acknowledges the biblical reference. In discussing the title, he notes that color and space have a psychological possibility or condition that can prompt viewers to bring their own associations: “Since you are unable to see the entire work in one glance, you must build it in your head or imagination.” de Loisy compares Leviathan to the swollen body of the Venus of Willendorf, and Kapoor agrees. When he put a three-by-three-foot model of Leviathan on the wall of his studio, it did indeed resemble that small, prehistoric artifact; the interior acts as an eternal swollen womb.

Leviathan, 2011. Exterior view of work at the Grand Palais, Paris.

Kapoor observes that the artist must dare to work without knowing the outcome: “My not knowing can reveal a kind of wonder I believe you will share.” Besides the artistic components of the work, the process of creating it—finding materials, planning, cutting, and tailoring—was very complicated. Cutting by computer still leaves room for discovery, and, Kapoor and his team of 150 could gauge their success only once the work was installed and filled with air. Photographs of the installation in process show dark, purple pools of plastic lying on the floor like deflated balloons, in sharp contrast to the majestic yet poetic shapes to come. For the bulbs to sit properly on the floor, they needed to be flat on the bottom instead of rounded; but the scale of the work did not permit practice trials in the studio, so an element of surprise became an essential part of the process.

Leviathan engaged a broad range of viewers, regardless of taste in art. The experience extended beyond looking, and reading wall text, providing a stunning encounter with the unexpected. Works such as Marsyas (2002) at Tate Modern in London or Cloud Gate (2004) at Millennium Park in Chicago also experiment with skin-like tension and allow us to see Kapoor’s ability to create the poetic in art using a variety of forms and materials. Unlike Richard Serra’s Promenade with its confrontational standing steel rectangles, (the 2007 Monumenta installation), Kapoor’s Leviathan, through its color, sensuous materials, and gigantic forms, offered visitors an embrace. Kapoor’s genius is in his ability to create sculpture that dances between the accessible and the esoteric—making sculpture relevant to the public while avoiding the predictable.