Iconoclasm is a genuine recognition of the power of the work of art. Nigel Halliday


Kapoor, Anish - VM - Meryl Doney

Anish Kapoor: Ascension


by Meryl Doney

Set centrally below the impressive dome of the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice is a white drum-like pedestal. There is silence. Then, suddenly, a rushing sound and a turbulent blast of air. Smoke begins to pour from the centre of the drum, twisting as it goes, ascending towards a cone-shape high in the dome. The feeling is of an overwhelming upward thrust. The piece is called Ascension. It is by British sculptor Anish Kapoor and is being shown in the Basilica as part of the Venice Bienniale 2011.

Throughout a long career, Turner Prize winner Anish Kapoor has been interested in exploring natural materials, geometric shape and organic form. He has worked on a variety of scales and with diverse materials. His initial interest in defining negative spaces and employing mirrored surfaces led to a number of pieces such as Cloud Gate (2006, colloquially known as ‘the Bean’) in Chicago and ArcelorMittal Orbit commissioned as a permanent artwork for London's Olympic Park. In 2006, he installed arguably his best-known work, Sky Mirror, a three-story stainless-steel sculpture for the Rockefeller Center, reflecting the New York skyline. He described it as a “non-object” because its reflective surface allowed it to disappear.

With Ascension he is on a different quest. The immaterial becomes concrete. He says of it, “In my work, what is and what seems to be often become blurred. In Ascension, for example, what interests me is the idea of immateriality becoming an object, which is exactly what happens in Ascension: the smoke becomes a column. Also present in this work is the idea of Moses following a column of smoke, a column of light, in the desert …”

Previously exhibited in gallery spaces in San Giminiano (Italy), São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and Beijing, the work takes on new meaning in the spiritual context of Venice’s Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore. Kapoor is aware that this context evokes other cultural and religious meanings. He specifically mentions the column of smoke God provided to the Israelites to guide them through the wilderness, the powerful, material evidence of God’s presence with them.

As an aside – this is a happy example of the importance of context. In recent years there has been a move away from the ‘white cube’ of the gallery to explore the effect that other spaces have on the perception of works of art. As the Financial Times reviewer of an exhibition I curated in Wallspace Gallery in London put it, “It’s always refreshing to see contemporary art outside its habitual white cube and (Doney) has carefully selected works by Taylor-Wood that resonate in a church setting. Indeed, the location does these ambiguous films many favours. They take on meaning that would remain elusive if they were displayed in a neutral gallery space. The imposing ecclesiastical architecture amplifies any inkling of a spiritual theme into a fully-fledged religious concept.”

In naming the work Ascension, Kapoor is also making reference to the ascension itself – Jesus’ last moments on earth, when as Luke’s gospel describes, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (Luke 23:51)  

This pivotal moment has been a perennial subject for artists. The earliest direct depictions date to around the beginning of the 5th century. One of the earliest, an ivory generally dated 400AD, shows Christ climbing a mountain towards the outstretched hand of God. Later images, particularly in northern Europe, show Jesus’ feet ascending into the clouds, while some include his two footprints left on the earth.

Kapoor’s Ascension is different. Wholly abstract, yet uniquely challenging in conveying something of the experience of the Ascension. The images of the piece can convey something of its power, but in the absence of the work itself, it is even better to experience the sound and moving image captured in videos made at the time, see and other online videos.

Watch as visitors to the Basilica stand, as Jesus’ disciples would have stood, gazing upwards. Their different expressions and body language mark the individuality of each reaction. In the cathedral, as on the Mount of Olives, something strange and unprecedented is being witnessed. Immaterial smoke has become a twisting, rising column. Because of its very size and materiality the piece evokes a powerful sense of upward movement and force, capturing for the individual onlooker something of the sense of awe and mystery that must have overwhelmed those first disciples.


Anish Kapoor: Ascension2011. Photos Met Museum

Anish Kapoor CBE, RA, (born 1954) is a British Indian sculptor specializing in installation art and conceptual art. Born in Mumbai, Kapoor has lived and worked in London since the early 1970s when he moved to study art, first at the Hornsey College of Art and later at the Chelsea School of Art and Design. Kapoor represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1990, when he was awarded the Premio Duemila Prize. In 1991, he received the Turner Prize and in 2002 received the Unilever Commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Kapoor received a knighthood in the 2013 for services to visual arts and the Padma Bhushan by the Indian government which is India's third-highest civilian award.

Meryl Doney is an independent curator, specialising in presenting exhibitions in cathedrals, churches, festivals and other challenging spaces. She has curated over 40 exhibitions and performance pieces, including Moon Mirror by Rebecca Horne in St Paul’s Cathedral and Presence: Images of Christ for the Third Millennium, a series of thirteen different exhibitions in British cathedrals, involving 50 contemporary artists. Between 2006 and 2011 she was Director of Wallspace, a 'spiritual home for visual art' in All-Hallows-on-the-Wall church in the City of London. In 2015 she was guest curator for CLEY 15, the North Norfolk open-submission exhibition at Cley-next-the-Sea. She was a member of the Organizing Committee of the Methodist Collection of Modern Art until 2018 and chairs the Art Advisory Group for St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 17 May 2020