While one does not wish to make light of the misadventure of others, it’s difficult not to be struck by a rather overtly symbolic accident that occurred in Portugal last week. An Italian visitor to the Fundação de Serralves, the Museum of Contemporary Art located in the Portuguese city of Porto, was injured when he fell into “Descent Into Limbo” (1992), an art installation by the British Contemporary Artist Sir Anish Kapoor. The main feature of the work is an eight-foot deep hole at its center, the sides of which are painted black, so that the hole appears to descend to a great depth. The man was briefly hospitalized but later released; he appears to have suffered bruising and back injuries.
Some news reports that I’ve seen mention that the hole itself is coated in Vantablack, the blacker-than-black carbon nanotube paint to which Kapoor has exclusive rights. Regular readers will recall my explaining how this material flattens out the appearance of objects, so that they take on a two-dimensional appearance. It’s not surprising, then, that someone might stumble into a hole painted with this substance, thinking that he was merely walking across a black spot painted on the floor.
The irony of someone being injured by the emptiness of a celebrated piece of Contemporary Art, of course, should not be lost upon the reader. The work in question is supposedly inspired by a masterwork of the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506), which is now at Princeton [CORRECTION: Now in a private collection.] Painted in 1492, it is part of a wing of a now-vanished altarpiece, where the Resurrection was shown in the upper half (that portion is in a museum in Bergamo) and Christ’s Descent into Limbo was shown in the lower half.
Mantegna’s unusual composition is taken from earlier examples by his contemporary and brother-in-law Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516), such as this one in Bristol. Interestingly, given that He is the most important person in the composition, Jesus is shown with his back to the viewer, as He reaches down into Limbo to free the deceased Patriarchs and Prophets who have been awaiting His coming. Most images of this scene tend to show Christ entering from the side or standing in the center, facing outward. One could have quite a healthy art and theology discussion about the significance of portraying Him the way that Bellini and Mantegna have done.
That Kapoor, whom I have written about previously, would presume to claim that his empty, meaningless work is comparable to the sublime, powerful imagery of Mantegna is of a piece with Kapoor’s career overall. The artist has a rather over-inflated opinion of himself and his output, which the art world only reinforces in its sycophancy. One suspects that the black turtleneck brigade will blame the gallery visitor for this incident, rather than Kapoor himself for creating an inherently dangerous art installation. Note for example the tone taken by ArtNet, in its report of the incident, which notes almost with amusement that “Luckily, the pit was only about eight feet deep in reality.”