The challenge of the annual art exhibit known as Monumenta is primarily a question of volume. Works created for the site-specific show must grapple with the 13,500 square-meter nave of the Grand Palais and the shimmering glass roof (the biggest in Europe), originally built for a late-1800s world's fair in Paris. Every year the French Ministry for Culture invites a key figure of the artistic scene to fill the space; the three previous editions featured German artist Anselm Kiefer in 2007, followed by American artist Richard Serra the next year and (skipping a year) French artist Christian Boltanski in 2010.
The choice of Anish Kapoor, who's also been commissioned to design a 116-meter-high sculpture titled "The ArcelorMittal Orbit" for the forthcoming Olympic Games in London, speaks to the 1991 Turner Prize winner's mastery of monumental scale (seen in Chicago with his successful "Cloud Gate") but also to his use of color as a basic material. Indian-born but living in London, Kapoor's multicultural references show in his choice to make his Monumenta installation decidedly non-Western by asking viewers to literally enter the artwork rather than just look at it.
The spectacular piece consists of a huge cruciform balloon laying on the ground, almost as high and wide as the space itself. Describing his piece of work as a fiction, Kapoor explains he tried to give the idea of a presence while it's nothing but air. He adds that the presence comes from the connection that the color as a medium makes with the eyes and senses of the visitors. To engineer the effect—to create a form that's both light and enormous—was a technological feat to conceive and achieve, from the computerizing calculation of the flatness of its bottom and the size of each two-millimeter wide strip of material to the construction part itself.
While from the outside the piece looks like an aubergine-red ballon with neck-like forms, the inside is a bright red tunnel with holes; the aim of the artist is about experiencing two simultaneous but reversed realities.
Entering the balloon leads the visitor on a journey of sensorial discovery, an impression of what entering a womb must be like. Awash in natural light from the glassy roof, the thin red walls are lined with the shadows of the building's iron structure. Of the many otherworldly qualities of the work, the immersive experience changes as the light shifts throughout the day and from one day to another, creating varying hues of red as well as shapes of shadows.
Monumenta 2011 runs through 23 June 2011, leaving plenty of time for you to jump over to Paris and experience this fantastic exhibition. Photographs from top: EMOC/Patrick Tourneboeuf, Isabelle Doal, Didier Plowy, Isabelle Doal.