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Anish Kapoor

Pat Harvey

Royal Academy
Until 11 December

ReviewsKapoor'I am not trying to say anything as an artist', beams Kapoor. 'Yet, showing is in some way associating with what has been in these incredible rooms before'. He can say that again. Other than Henry Moore no living artist has ever had the entire suite of the RA's public galleries assigned to their work - and Moore died before the event could take place.
Kapoor is the 21st-century equivalent of his modernist predecessor. Once no city square would seem complete without a curvaceous reclining Moore, now the most sought-after is Kapoor. Chicago has Cloud Gate, a stainless steel sculpture resembling a large blob of mercury, nicknamed The Bean. He is now working on the world's largest public art project, the Tees Valley Giants: five huge environmental works costing £15m destined for towns in the north-east of England.

Kapoor was born in Mumbai in 1954 to a Hindu father and Jewish Iraqi mother and sent to the Indian equivalent of Eton, before coming to England. His Indian roots, obviously important to his in the early work, but he has progressively downplayed them. Afraid of being typecast he refused to participate in 'The Other Story: Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain' at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. He claims to be bored by issues of ethnicity, saying he is interested in emotionality, not nationality, and that the question is not about cultural attribution but 'How good is the art?'
But Kapoor cannot escape his background. The RA show is a cocktail of would-be mysticism, post-modernism and technical bravura. A practising Buddhist, he is consistent with that world-view's metaphysical sleights of hand, quoting the phrase 'Form is void and void is form'. 'Being and nothingness', as Jean-Paul Sartre might have put it.

The first room of the show 1000 Names  with its variegated shapes of red, black and gold growing out of the walls and floor, cannot but recall the spice markets of India. Yellow, an enormous vortex of pigment designed to suck the viewer into an experience of infinity - 'a thing which is so yellow in its yellowness it's almost like water is wet', says Kapoor - neatly bridges the gap between painting and sculpture, recalling the coloured field paintings of Barnett Freedman and Mark Rothko. But the serenity is short-lived, as the intermittent reports from Shooting into the Corner, an installation where a cannon fires canisters of red wax into the corner of the next gallery at 20 minute intervals, pierce the air. Described as 'a terrible psycho-drama' by one of the curators, this contraption was the talking-point last year at a gallery in Vienna where its trailing, simulated blood and guts evoked thoughts of the Holocaust. But all this is small beer compared to the climax of this exhibition.

In a bizarre enactment of Bob Dylan's 1979 album title, Slow Train Coming, a 30-ton coach-shaped block of blood-red wax glides noiselessly and imperceptibly through five whole galleries, sloughing off portions of itself on to the elegant carved doorways as it squeezes through. In a nod to the Minimalist mantra of objects made without hands, Kapoor named it Svayambh (self-generated).To him the notion of entropy - of the destruction of architecture, of autumn rather than spring -"the moment of sinking"- is important.

All this is stimulating, entertaining, even soothing. But what does it really amount to? For all his sophistication, is Anish Kapoor really a gigantic showman? An expert confectioner of fairground rides? A smorgasbord of metaphysical morsels? Hard to say. What is certain is that he has touched a nerve with today's meaning-hungry public. As Nigel Halliday noted in Third Way recently, it takes a Christian worldview - or at least the echoes of one - in the culture to find and celebrate meaning for its own sake. The alternative is to play at it.

Pat Harvey