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Anish Kapoor and the Cloud Gate

How does someone reach a level of prestige that they can create a piece of art on the same scale as a building? How does someone become one of the most acknowledged living sculptors of  their time?

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First Approach

These were the question that came to mind as I wandered through the Millennium Park in Chicago up to the Cloud Gate. This massive public work is smooth, mirrored anomaly juxtaposed against the towering Chicago skyline. It captures the space between the lake and the city reflecting everything around it in a mesmerizing way. Despite being freezing cold, and sky being a gray mass overhead I still found myself enchanted by the piece for a good twenty minutes. I could see myself as a tiny dot on the surface as I walked closer. No one stopped me touching the polished surface, which still reflected everything seamlessly despite being covered in smudges and soot. I walked the perimeter enjoying the changing panorama of Chicago behind my reflection, distorting in the convex surface of the structure. I ventured into the “gate” under the structure, which defied understanding to look upon. The world turned into a mandala above my head, bending and blending as I strode to one side or the other, my face upturned. After having enjoyed interacting with the sculpture on my own I stepped aside and watched other visitors explore and play with the strange shape. I laughed to myself as “I’ll Be Watching You” by the Police floated up from the ice rink below the sculpture.

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 Cloud Gate was created by Anish Kapoor in 2004 for the AT&T plaza in the Millennium Park. “Cloud Gate is a single object of around 25×15×12m. It is made of polished stainless steel and is seamless, (” Kapoor was born in India, and went to art school in Britain in the 1970’s. After completing art school he went on to win many of the most prestigious arts awards for British Artists. Even his most early works were concerned with the “in-between”.

“Yes, I continually come back to questions about the status of the object: How fully is it in the world? How much is it what it says it is and how much is it something else? Where is the real space of the object? Is it what you are looking at, or is it the space beyond what you are looking at?” -Anish Kapoor, Interview with Nicholas Baume

The strange fractal image created by the 12ft arch inside the sculpture.

The strange fractal image created by the 12ft arch inside the sculpture.

Kapoor’s earliest works that brought him to the 1982 Paris Biennale and the 1990 Venice Biennale were on a much smaller scale than later works. 1000 Names consisted of sculptures of various geometric shapes that appear to be on the edge of either being finished or falling apart, where the artist used pigment to create them. When asked how he came to these ideas he said he wanted to “create something out of color.” Void Field consisted of a room of stones punctured by holes in the middle.

Mixed media and pigment Dimensions variable

Mixed media and pigment Dimensions variable

I first saw Kapoor’s work when I was studying abroad in Paris. He had been chosen to create a piece for the Monumenta 2011 which is a work intended to be created on a monumental scale that interacts with the Grand Palais.

MONUMENTA is an ambitious artistic encounter unmatched anywhere in the world, organized by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.  Each year MONUMENTA invites an internationally renowned contemporary artist to appropriate the 13,500 m² of the Grand Palais Nave with an artwork specially created for the event.(

For the project Kapoor created Leviathan. The piece filled the majority of the Grand Palais and could be experienced in two ways.


The first was on the outside. It was like a sleeping colossus that filled the majority of the space. You had to navigate around the edges of it, and it completely displaced the viewer. Trying to capture a picture of it was impossible as the scale was simply too large. From the outside it looked black and felt taught and full to the touch.


You could also choose to venture inside. It was like stepping into a fantasy world. Inside evoked images of a womb or a blood canal. Suddenly everything was red. The people, the walls, the floor, the light.  Everything was consumed by the color. The air was still and dampened. It was hard to hear, and it smelled of plastic. Somehow the space inside seemed even larger than the space taken up outside, which boggled the mind. I didn’t linger long inside because the whole experience was unsettling. At the time the same questions jumped to my mind. How do you get this successful as an artist to make something this big?

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Having mulled the question of Kapoor’s success over for a while I have come to some conclusions.

Kapoor isn’t trying to say everything at once. Each piece he creates is a confined experience. Many artists I have seen recently try to weave every little idea into their work, as if that somehow makes it more meaningful and important. For me it simply confuses the piece. Examples include Mea Culpa by Mary Kelly and The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist by Michael Rakowitz. My own work suffered from this while I was in studio classes in college and think simplicity is in the end more successful. 

Second, Kapoor encourages his viewers to interact with his work. Because his pieces explore the boundaries of space they inherently encourage the viewer to also explore those boundaries. He claims his breakthrough piece was When I am Pregnant. “When you are in front of When I am Pregnant, no matter how close or far away you are, it is a blur. It is only when you move to the side of it that you can see it is a form.” (Anish Kapoor, Interview with Nicholas Blaume). Forcing the viewer to interact simultaneously forces the viewer to think about the piece, and creates deeper meaning.

Fibreglass and paint Dimensions variable

Fibreglass and paint Dimensions variable

Ultimately, Kapoor’s art captures the interest of his audiences. Any piece of contemporary art that can engage an individual for more than a few seconds has accomplished something. I have visited art museums with friends and families who aren’t particularly interested in the arts and they fly through them, briefly glancing at most pieces, occasionally lingering at one or two others. I myself have been guilty of sighing at the sight of contemporary works. For the most part, to understand contemporary art you need to read the material provided with it. Plenty of people were lingering to explore and play at Cloud Gate, and I was surprised to find no information about the piece or the artist at the actual site. It didn’t need to explained to be interesting, thought-provoking, and highly successful piece of public art.

For more info on Anish Kapoor check out his website.

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