Anish Kapoor’s unfortunately suggestive Brexit artwork is a perfect lesson in how not to make art about politics

There is an arrogance to this particular brand of political art that chooses to point out the obvious rather than inspire change. Perhaps instead of endlessly trying to capture the Void it’s time to create work that fills it

April 04, 2019
Anish Kapoor (pictured) has created a special Brexit artwork for the Guardian. Photo: PA
Anish Kapoor (pictured) has created a special Brexit artwork for the Guardian. Photo: PA

Mention Anish Kapoor and it won’t take long before theories of The Void come up in conversation. Anish Kapoor loves the void. He revels in it. Collectively, over a career spanning three decades, Kapoor has tasked the viewing public to look into the unforgiving eye of a whirlpool in his 2017 piece Descension and into the empty void of Descent into Chaos— a work that threatens to engulf its onlookers into a never-ending black hole of Vantablack™, a colour he trademarked in 2017.

It seems that he can’t get enough of it. As such, he has now directed his quest for emptiness towards the darkest void of all: Brexit.

Yet Kapoor’s latest work seems to have united the normally fractious art world on a subject entirely different to that of the impending doom of a No Deal.  “[A] Frightening Rift tearing the UK apart—or gateway into another land?” made for an interesting choice of words from Guardian critic Jonathan Jones, considering the “rift” in question looked gapingly and obviously like something else entirely.

Named Brexit, Broxit, We all fall Down and created specifically for the Guardian, Kapoor’s latest attempt at political activism sees a map of the UK split down the middle; counties, cities and green pastures roll into a bleeding chasm, pulling anything and everything into its orbit.

Acting as a tight-fisted metaphor for the violent divisions caused in the aftermath of the UK’s referendum vote, the piece has instead drawn laughter from primarily women on social media, who have made comparisons to sanitary towels, and poses the question whether Kapoor can differentiate between a harrowing apocalyptic gorge and female anatomy. (In the words of critic and curator Audrey Wollen: “Beware Male artists making artwork about emptiness, / nothing does not belong to you, / girls own the Void, / back off fuckers.”)

Much like the politics of female sexuality, “the Void” in art has invited much-convoluted hyperbole, stretching from Yves Klein’s 1960 photograph Leap Into the Void to Thomas Heatherwick’s honeycomb-like architectural objectVessel.

Launched last week at New York’s Hudson Yard, the literal empty vessel has been described as almost anything but an empty vessel, with critics instead choosing to reference Escher’s impossible stairways and a need for uniting people together via the form of a Bionicle maze.

At once empty and yet imbued with meaning, the nothingness of the Void has enabled artists to project their own desires, fantasies and politics into it—at times more successfully than others.

Deep gulfs aside, Kapoor’s ode to Brexit is one in a long line of artists using the turmoil of post-Referendum Britain as a foil for art activism. Recently acquired by the V&A, Grayson Perry’s Matching Pairs feature two near identikit vases, each decorated in Perry’s trademark illustrations, mapping out the different facets of “Britishness” as exposed via the outcome of the 2016 referendum.

Once again Leave and Remain are pitted one against the other—only it’s not the bottomless pit of an abstracted vulva that separates the two sides, but instead a preference for Waitrose over Morrisons or Tony Blair over Churchill.

In hovering over the psyche of Britain, surveying the discord and separatism from above (literally, in the case of Kapoor’s Broxit), there is an arrogant omnipotence to this particular brand of political art that chooses to point out the obvious rather than inspire change.

This sort of art stands in stark contrast to the work of those like Wolfgang Tillmans who have used their art world influence to take a public stand. In his Anti-Brexit photo series, which he shared in the form of posters, t-shirts and images for social media, Tillmans uses text to debate and engage, challenging the—at times—apathetic attitude of the art world. Against the conceptualism of Kapoor, Tillmans makes a case for political art that is accessible, open and vulnerable.

If anything, Brexit, Broxit, We all fall Down is a perfect lesson in how not to create work after Brexit, providing artists with a lesson in observation—large, painful-looking pink rifts can look more biologically literal than the intended metaphor—and political nuance.

Perhaps artists have talked about the Void enough. Maybe it’s time to fill it.