Sunday, 12 June 2011


If you want to experience something really unique, you must head to the Grand Palais in Paris to see Anish Kapoor’s latest work, LEVIATHAN.
As Kapoor casually describes it:  “it is a single object, a single form, a single colour”. Well, be prepared for a shock!!! I had planned to see the work and then go shopping on the close-by Champs Elysees but I ended up completely losing track of time, staying almost two hours and having to really force myself to leave.
The press release states: Anish Kapoor’s ambition “is to create a space within a space that responds to the height and luminosity of the Nave at the Grand Palais. Visitors will be invited to walk inside the work, to immerse themselves in colour, and it will, I hope, be a contemplative and poetic experience.” Designed using the most advanced technologies, the work will not merely speak to us visually, but will lead the visitor on a journey of total sensorial and mental discovery. A technical, poetic challenge unparalleled in the history of sculpture, this work questions what we think we know about art, our body, our most intimate experiences and our origins. Spectacular and profound, it responds to what the artist considers to be the crux of his work: namely, “To manage, through strictly physical means, to offer a completely new emotional and philosophical experience.”

I can only conquer with this statement: when you see the work, you go through various stages of feelings. First, you experience it emotionally with your body. The exhibition is entered through a darkened entrance hall and you are then literally swallowed by an immense red womb-like space lit from the outside through its monochrome soft surface. The smell is bizarre, mainly because the membrane is made of rubber, and the pressurized air inside makes breathing uneasy. After a while your body adjusts to this impression of suffocating and you slowly start to look around. You discover a strange space which you can hardly embrace completely as it is made of three orifices open into pod-like spaces. The sun projects the pattern of the Grand Palais’s roof (a gigantic glasshouse) over the rounded shapes above you, mixing its straight lines with the rounded ones of the dome. The pictures below may better illustrate this than words…

Inside. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Detail of patterns created by the sun. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Global shape. Photo press pack.

If you are lucky enough to visit Leviathan on a slightly cloudy but still sunny day, it feels like the “thing” is breathing. At that stage, you are either entering into a meditative sate of mind or panicking out of claustrophobia!

When you regain consciousness, your mind then starts wondering: how big are the pods? What are they made of? How is the whole thing holding into place? What is the actual volume of the space? Where does the light come from? How does it look and feel at night? Etc…
Two or three museum guides are permanently available inside the structure, first to check that nobody is suffering a panic attack or damaging the work, but mainly to answer questions.

The sheer dimension of the structure is speaking for itself: 34m high, 100m long and 13,500 cubic meters in volume. The surface is made of specifically designed translucent PVC generally used to cover football stadium and developed by a high tech French company. Years of research have been necessary to reach the right elasticity and the exact hue of red desired by Anish Kapoor.

PVC surface. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Four pieces, one for each of the three pods and one for the main body, have been created in the factory, then stitched and welded together directly on-site to build the whole structure.

Photos press pack. Courtesy of Serge Ferrari

The structure was then inflated and requires permanent pressurized air blown into it to stand upright.

Photos press pack. Courtesy of Serge Ferrari.

Following the emotional and the rational stages comes the realisation of the monumental size of the work. After staying inside the structure, you are invited to see it from the outside. And your mind is blown once again, as Leviathan happens to fill the entire surface of the grand Palais and match its shape, looking even more gigantic. Pictures are again certainly the best way to describe it:

Photos Isabelle Busnel

As a long admirer of Anish Kapoor’s work, the final stage I went through was trying and relating this project to the concepts usually explored by the artist. A very interesting exhibition catalogue helped me making sense of these notions.

Cover page of the exhibition catalogue. Photo Google Images

Colour and monochrome: colour is fundamental in Anish Kapoor’s art. The colours he uses are often pure and monochromatic, are not meant to serve as decoration but are usually the very principle of the work. Leviathan is dark red, a colour Kapoor has already used in many projects. “My tendency is to go from colour to darkness. Red has a very powerful blackness,” he says. What is amazing in this project is the variation of the colours depending on the outside light, from very bright red at noon to purple at dawn. Visitors are invited to come at different times of the day with the same ticket to experience those changes.

The skin of the object: “Anish Kapoor makes the skin an intensely sensitive zone, crucial to the understanding of its work […] the object does not tell its own story but leads into our mind’s world” says the exhibition catalogue. In Leviathan, the skin of the object is everything as its technical characteristics, soft and elastic but solid at the same time, allow the structure to exist only thanks to the pressurized air.

The original body: in the catalogue one can read “the works of Anish Kapoor address our body and sometimes our deepest memories. The scale of the sculpture or its concavities connects to the spectator physically and mentally in the work”. It is particularly true in Leviathan, where the visitor is swallowed by the structure. I have heard people around me saying they had the impression of being in a uterus, or in an artery leading to the heart, or in a cathedral, etc… This work can’t leave you emotionally neutral!

The sublime: the art of Anish Kapoor is often related to the sublime, “this specific emotion sparked by the impression of vulnerability before the forces of nature. His creations, often huge […] give the viewer an inhuman temporal and spatial scale […], the loss of familiar markers, the sensation of being swallowed up vertiginously by the work” states the catalogue. I already experienced that feeling in front of Yellow at the late 2009 Royal Academy of Arts’ Anish Kapoor retrospective, but Leviathan is much more powerful as you enter inside the structure and genuinely experience a loss of temporal and spatial scale.

Anish Kapoor in front of YELLOW (1999). Photo Google Images

Emptiness: for Anish Kapoor, “creating emptiness does not lead to emptiness […] the more is emptied out, the more there is. Emptying is filling up”. Leviathan is just an empty structure, but it is full of sensations, noises, smells, colours and, as it is impossible to embrace the whole structure while standing inside or outside it, full of mystery. Kapoor’s statement applies particularly well to this work.

I will stop here, as there would be so much more to say about Anish Kapoor, and particularly Leviathan. You must have figured out by now that I absolutely loved this work! It is so far the most powerful and emotional experience I have ever encountered in front of an artwork. If you have the opportunity to jump in the next Eurostar to Paris before June 23rd, I can only encourage you to do it!


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