Rosa Martinez on Anish Kapoors Islamic Mirror

Spanish curator extraordinaire Rosa Martinez and internationally renowned sculptor Anish Kapoor are both known for vast undertakings: She has helmed biennials in Venice, Santa Fe, São Paulo, and Istanbul, and his works and exhibitions are characterized by seismic scale (see Cloud Gate, his 110-ton polished steel sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, and “Memory,” his just-opened exhibition at the Berlin Guggenheim). Their recent collaboration, however, in the small Mediterranean city of Murcia, Spain, is more intimate — if just as large in political scope. Kapoor’s Islamic Mirror (2008), a circular concave mirror, has been installed in a 13th-century Arab palace. Now both a cloister for nuns and a reliquary for Islamic and Christian objects, the Santa Clara Convent has a radical historical trajectory, which its newest guest elegantly conflates with abstract aesthetics and contemporary global politics.

Kapoor’s work, on view through January 10, 2009, is the first in a new annual series of contemporary art interventions in the public space organized by the Culture and Tourism Department of the Government of the Autonomous Region of Murcia and curated by Martinez. ARTINFO sat down with the curator in a subterranean hotel bar in the city — lined with both ancient Islamic walls and bottles of rum — to talk about the project.

The site for the Kapoor work has an incredibly charged history.


Yes, first the space was Islamic, then it was Christian, and now it is a historical monument where everything lives together. As an Islamic palace, it was used by the caliphate. Then, when the Castilian conquerors arrived, they gave the palace to the nuns, and it was eventually abandoned. In the ’90s the city began a restoration and they discovered all these Islamic remains, and so in 2003 it was opened as a museum for Islamic art on one side of the pool and gardens and a cloister on the other.

I was struck by how subtle Kapoor’s work is: Its fragmented surface disallows any of the carnivalesque mirror watching that his other pieces often inspire.

I think the scale here helps. The Sharq al-Andalus Hall is not very big, so the piece allows personal contemplation. It’s not for a massive number of people. The nuns like silence, and the museum inspires silence. Anish has this beautiful sentence in the catalogue that says the experience of contemplating a work of art should be like “an act of prayer, consecrating a particular time which is separated from one’s ordinary life.”

In the current climate of global terrorism, installing a work called Islamic Mirror in a Christian convent could be seen as provocative. Have there been any such discussions of that here?

There is a cliché now that everything Islamic is “bad.” I mean, we have fundamentalism in the Catholic church as well. A good thing about postmodernism is that we have to be more careful concerning the real and the unique truth. For me, the unique truth is the right for humans to live and fight for their own happiness. A reporter recently asked Anish how it was that he could be Hindu and Jewish and a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, and at the same time have this “Islamic” mirror installed inside a Christian convent — he wanted to know what is coming out of all this. Anish said: “Art.” And it’s true. The idea of living together, this is the main question of today — how to negotiate difference and accept difference. I think art helps. It creates these micro-transformations.

How did the nuns feel about the piece, and its title?

The nuns were very happy to have it. They know they are living in an old Islamic palace, and they asked to read my text so as to understand everything about the artwork. They said that they were going to publish it in their own magazine, which goes to all the other cloister communities in Spain; that is just beautiful. I think that they know it is art, and art is a step over everything. It’s also an abstract work. If it was iconic, it might have been easier for it to provoke some confrontation.

I understand that the title was in place before the site even came up.

Yes. Anish was connecting to the Islamic history of mathematics — the Alahambra, for example — and exploring the relationship of the square and the sphere. It’s an Islamic concern, but it’s also common to many mystic traditions. However, if including the word “Islamic” makes the title controversial, it is perhaps because people are projecting their own fear and paranoia. It’s more about Anish being free to explore other mystical traditions, which is a right we all have as human beings. Maybe it’s idealistic, but I think its art’s obligation to propose those ideas. Art is not only a place for beauty. It is also a place for a critical analysis of the reality we’re living in.

But what about critics who say that Kapoor trades too much in beauty, the sublime, and a sort of easy humanism that doesn’t address the realities of the world?

I think he is able to communicate both: this mysticism, but also sensuality. His recent works are very scatological as well — for example, the huge, red wax-like piece on train tracks [Svayambh, 2007] in Munich last year. Even if his pieces are beautiful, they’re sometimes very frightening. But it is not a minimalist abstraction; Anish has the body of the spectator in there all the time. It is very humanistic in that way.

Which of your own political and aesthetic ideas factored into your installation of the Islamic Mirror?

I liked very much this idea of placing the mirror — with its very contemporary aesthetics — in an Islamic context, and having it face a convent with cloistered nuns with the pool in between. In Arab design, the pool plays the role of a mirror by reflecting the sky and bringing it down to the earth, bringing the cosmos down to the living. The piece breathes very well there. I think it connects the beauty of history with the beauty of the present. And so you say: Ah, it’s worth it. It was a beautiful present to all of us.