On Exhibit - Anish Kapoor, Lida Abdul and Dinh Q Le at the Sackler Gallery

"S-Curve" by Anish Kapoor is installed by the entrance to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The 32-foot-long piece reflects and distorts the images of visitors.
"S-Curve" by Anish Kapoor is installed by the entrance to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The 32-foot-long piece reflects and distorts the images of visitors. (Photos By John Tsantes -- Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008

Forget "Multiverse."

Artist Leo Villareal's 40,000-LED-bulb, psychedelic light show -- which recently debuted in the underground tunnel connecting the National Gallery of Art's East and West buildings -- is nice and all. But with considerably less fanfare, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery has almost simultaneously unveiled a work of comparable op-art pedigree that manages to provide not just eye candy, but food for thought.

Plus, it uses a lot less electricity.

Called "S-Curve," the massive, wall-size sculpture by contemporary, London-based artist Anish Kapoor is a 32-foot ribbon of highly polished steel. (Actually, it's two 16-foot pieces that snap together almost seamlessly. Just try to find the joint.) At more than seven feet tall, it runs much of the length of the Sackler's entrance pavilion like a shiny, sinuous fence or a fun-house mirror. Its two reflective surfaces, which gently curve horizontally and vertically, create concave and convex facades that mirror and distort visitors, along with the very architecture of the room and the grounds outside. As you walk by, the world itself seems to churn (there is no other word for it). To bulge, swell and sometimes to disappear into a vortex of watery, warping horizon lines. Stand in one spot, and it turns the Smithsonian Castle, as glimpsed through a nearby window, on its head.

But there's more going on here than meets the eye.

Like Kapoor's best-known work of public art (the equally reflective tourist magnet "Cloud Gate" in Chicago's Millennium Park, which reflects the surrounding buildings and sky), "S-Curve" operates as what Sackler curator Carol Huh calls a "virtual screen," simultaneously meeting the artist's "binary conditions of materiality and immateriality." In other words, it's there and it isn't there at the same time.

Let me explain.

When you look in a mirror, what do you see? The mirror? Or what shows up in it? That's the way "S-Curve" works, too. At first, it's a structure, blocking your way. But spend some time with it, walk around it, and it erases itself. You stop seeing it as a thing and start seeing things in it, discovering its "interior infinity," to use Huh's phrase. Like any mirror, it pulls you in, even as it pushes you away, she explains, disrupting the conventional sense of what our relationship to an object should be. Me eyeball, you art? The distinction is no longer clear.

Huh calls that creation of a connection to the "dynamic power of objects" a good thing. Especially if it happens the minute you step through the museum door.

Coincidentally, there's a new show downstairs where all that comes in handy. "Moving Perspectives: Lida Abdul and Dinh Q Le" features three short videos that just happen to deal with the theme of mutability.

Born in Afghanistan but based in the West, Abdul returned to her homeland to make two works that question perceptions of psychologically loaded objects. In her "In Transit," a ruined Soviet airplane becomes a plaything for children and not an instrument of death.

Similar flights of fancy are at work in Le's "The Farmers and the Helicopters." In this more documentary-style short, the Vietnamese-born, U.S.-raised artist interviews former countrymen who grew up during the Vietnam War, all of whom have radically different views of the once-ubiquitous helicopter.

One farmer calls it an immoral machine. Another is so obsessed with it -- infatuated, really -- that he has built his own from scratch.

As with Kapoor's "S-Curve," these videos just go to show that objects in the mirror -- particularly when it's a rear-view mirror -- are sometimes squishier than they appear.

Perspectives: Anish Kapoor Moving Perspectives: Lida Abdul and Dinh Q Le "Perspectives" through July 19 and "Moving Perspectives" through March 1 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). Contact: 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). http://www.asia.si.edu. Hours: Open daily 10 to 5:30. Admission: Free.

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