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Lost in Contemplation

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Want a bit of art but a low-risk Covid visit? Then why not head to Norfolk to see the display of outdoor sculptures by Anish Kapoor? There, in the grandiose grounds of Houghton Hall, a contemplative walk will welcome you, a pearl of Zen in these crazy times.

Houghton Hall has been organising sculpture displays in its grounds for a few years now, featuring big names like Henry Moore and Damien Hirst, and now Anish Kapoor. When you discover the setting, you can understand why. The park is simply majestic, a joy for contemplation, and the curator Mario Codognato has used the site artfully to display some 40 years of Anish Kapoor's works.

As you emerge from the pleached limes, you’re welcomed by three massive standing rectangles. Shall you…? But the South Wing Gallery is just there, and as you put your mask on, you enter and admire early colourful works by Anish Kapoor.

Your eyes are already stunned, you breathe fresh air again. Should you look at the monoliths? But a majestic stone staircase attracts your eyes, leading to the Stone Hall, where the Mirror Works are exhibited. A series of huge coloured bowl-like mirrors hang on the walls, they are the stars of the indoors show. The contrast with the classic settings of Houghton Hall are startling and refreshing, but it’s the dancing reflection of our bodies and the surroundings as we move from mirror to mirror which astound us, and we contemplate ourselves inside the artwork.

And then the highlight of the exhibition. There, on the top of the stairs, your eyes take in all the measure of Anish Kapoor’s genius and the curator’s clever concept with the panorama before our very eyes: a perfection of geometry. Three massive sculptures stand like obelisks, with the central rectangle placed like a frame (it’s untitled, like much of Anish Kapoor’s work) for the spectacular Sky Mirror, an optical angle directing where our eyes should look. It’s witty, and you might think that Anish Kapoor’s sculptures have been especially commissioned for this show in the grounds of Houghton Hall. But you’d be wrong. The central rectangle dates from 1997, Sky Mirror was created in 2018, and Eight Eight, the last sculpture by Anish Kapoor placed in the same geometric line, was made in 2004.

Everything attracts you to Sky Mirror, a giant concave mirror reflecting the sky, as a focus on what is always above us but which we hardly ever contemplate. Because it’s what this show is about: contemplation. Unlike most art exhibitions, there’s no leaflet, no labels to explain the artwork. Which makes the show so refreshing: for once, no elitist labels aimed solely at art experts. The artwork is there simply to be contemplated, whatever your knowledge. And that's what makes this show so effective.

That may explain as well why the Working Drawings displayed in the North Wing Colonnade don’t receive any attention. Obvious drafts of art in progress, these working drawings are etched with pencils on cardboard and plywood. Is it the strange shape of the narrow corridor, the absence of labels, the Covid-risk, the amount of drawings? Most of the visitors walk past them with not even a quick glance.

You walk around Sky Mirror … but the back is as interesting as the front, and it receives lots of attention! A perfect excuse (or an ironical touch by the artist?) for our new love affair with selfies; we don’t contemplate the artwork, the sky or the surroundings, but ourselves. I wonder what is the visitors’ most liked picture …?

That’s one downside with this show, being ready to queue to contemplate artwork when everybody is trying to take the perfect picture (and selfie)!

Other artworks by Anish Kapoor are scattered around the park among permanent sculptures by contemporary artists, with a game of hide and seek waiting for you. You’ll leave Houghton Hall in an ecstatic state, rested and bubbling, your mind still lost in contemplation.

You’ll need a car to get there (alternatively, you could go to King’s Lynn by train and take a taxi), which is the only other low point of this show. This clearly explains the visitor demographic (white middle class), despite the exhibition featuring works by the renowned Indian-born artist Anish Kapoor. Even the name of the place, the very aristocratic Houghton Hall, could put off a few visitors; yet the gardens are scattered with contemporary sculptures hidden in bushes, a delight for kids and grown-ups alike.

Here's the Skinny: arrive after 2pm, Houghton Hall is busier between 12:30 and 1:30. Or be prepared to be stuck in a traffic jam before parking your car and queuing for a viewing (or a selfie).

By the way, do you know what a Ha-Ha is? Well, go to Houghton Hall to find out, but be careful, there’s a sudden drop!

Anish Kapoor is at Houghton Hall until 1 November 2020.

Karen Eeckman for Cradles & Labels

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