“Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” sounds the opening line to W.B. Yeats’s lamentable ode to the cyclical turns of history, The Second Coming. Almost a century after its writing, those words have taken on a particular prescience in light of our present perilous politics—a fact that has not alluded the commentariat. It seems only appropriate then that in this the year 2017, a city like New York should receive a visual reminder of Yeats in the form of Anish Kapoor’s Descension, a massive whirlpool currently making literal waves in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Descension is a funnel of spiraling water treated with natural black dye and made to descend whirlpool-like below the ground. As viewers stand along an outer railing, their gaze naturally tends toward the sculpture’s perpetually dark, swirling abyss. For Kapoor, read a statement, Descension fulfills his “long-held aspiration.. to create a negative space alive with energy, continuously in process.”
Two curious questions worth considering: What has driven Kapoor’s lingering desire to create a work like Descension? And what could it possibly have to do with Yeats’ The Second Coming?
‘The Void’ is a common theme tied to Kapoor’s work. In a literal sense this concept is rendered through acts of visual trickery where the artist either reflects or distorts light to create the sense of a tear in our material reality, or “a fictional dimension which can’t be seen,” as per the statement. Kapoor himself prefers to see his sculptures as containers for interpretation, “where meaning comes about through participation rather than being delivered as a fully formed entity.”
In a recent e-flux essay on the enduring significance of The Second Coming, the writer Franco Berardi expresses a similar sentiment regarding Yeats. Berardi writes how The Second Coming, acting in a way typical of poetry, “unchains many meaningful if arbitrary associations,” a serendipitous process of meaning-making akin to a “vibrational condition that leads to conceptual discovery.”
Talking of vibrational conditions, Descension also emits a palpable rumble. The overall effect this inspires depends largely on context. Experienced during the light of day with giddy kids trying to toss little stones into its center, Descension takes on a friendly quality acting as a tool for communing. At night, though, with the crowds dispersed and the only sound coming from the whirlpool’s whirr, the work takes on a certain ominous intensity. This is precisely the place where Yeats’ and Kapoor’s work lives: that tension between control and chaos; the known and unknown forces that shape our sense of reality.
Light and Space art pioneer Doug Wheeler’s semi-anechoic chamber PSAD: Synthetic Desert III, currently installed at the Guggenheim, shares that function. Wheeler conceived the installation back in 1971 with the intention to recreate the sense of tranquil solitude he experienced upon landing his plane in the middle of the Mojave desert. The result is a room designed to minimize noise and inspire through its use of light and sound a sense of infinite space.
The experience of Wheeler’s work varies intensely among viewers. For some the silent space—where there is nothing to do but sit and contemplate stillness, the tinnitus in your ears, and trippy tricks of the eye that come after spending ten minutes staring into a colorful abyss—proves too much to handle. Unlike Descension, there is only one mode for experiencing this installation. Here the void is inescapable and it’s up to each individual to find meaning through that experience.
For decades a Black Hole was considered by prevailing scientific thought to be a vacuum hell bent on swallowing everything that comes into its path. In more recent years, however, notable physicists such as Stephen Hawking have had to make room for ideas like Leonard Susskind’s theory that Black Holes expel as much information as they take in. In a similar sense, artwork the likes of Yeats, Kapoor and Wheeler serve as little reminders that, in nature, destruction is always evened out by creation.
A New York-based South African writer, Robin is also a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU.