Published in Asia Tatler, May 2014
Anish Kapoor, whose long, luminous career has made him a household name, talks about mystery, banality and the spaces in between
Under the glass roof of Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau museum—which 70 years earlier was bombed and almost completely destroyed, and decades later stood on the outskirts of a barbed wire-laden and heavily guarded wall—a monumental mechanical and red wax installation topped by a big red circle captured the attention of an audience, eyes cast skywards. Anish Kapoor’s ‘Symphony for a Beloved Sun’ (2013) unfolded before viewers like a silent Wagnerian opera without the actors. A dramatic abstract carnage took place before the viewer, as wax pellets moved up one of several metal conveyor belts and then dropped onto the ground below, into a formless bloody wet mess saturating the floor with red—soft forms systematically disposed of by a machine. In a city defined by a violent past and historical anxiety, which still bears the scars of this past across its landscape, it was impossible not to see the piece as an allegory of historic tragedy. Kapoor gives the viewer a lot to mull over; indeed, that’s the point of his work.
The 60-year-old Bombay-born, London-based artist has enjoyed a 30-year career that has seen him surpass many of his contemporaries and become a household name. One of Kapoor’s standout achievements occurred in 2009 when he became the first living artist to exhibit his works in the whole of London’s Royal Academy. The show drew 275,000 visitors, making it the most successful exhibition ever by a living artist in London. Kapoor, appointed an Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2010, was commissioned to create a spiralling 115-metre- high tower to mark the 2012 Olympics.
To say Kapoor is one of the most significant and influential contemporary artists today would be stating the obvious. His significance doesn’t lie merely in gargantuan shows or lists of accolades. Throughout his expansive body of work, there are pieces that will force you to rethink your expectations, and the way you look at and engage with sculpture.
To understand Kapoor’s work, don’t try to read it in the context of his Indian-ness. Born to a Hindu father and a Sephardi Jewish mother, Kapoor feels that trying to comprehend his work, or any artist’s work, in the context of his background belittles the creative process. It’s an issue that has long been a thorn in the artist’s side.
“Ethnic origin is incidental,” he says over the phone from his London studio. “The art world goes through this banal fascination of artists from India, from China, from wherever. Banalities! But in the end all of those things are irrelevant. We don’t talk of Picasso as a Spanish artist. Who cares? It’s the nature of the invention and the poetic quality of the work that either carries it forward or doesn’t. In the end, especially in the field of culture, I think it’s about how we move the conversation forward. What is the conversation? What are the new ways to feel? Does art offer some kind of obtuse reflection on our deeper selves? I think it does. But not because of where we come from.”
From the outset, inspired and influenced by the work of Romanian artist Paul Neagu, his role model at Hornsey College of Art and Chelsea School of Art and Design in the 1970s, and the work of German artist Joseph Beuys, Kapoor was interested in art’s ability to foster a deeper poetic and philosophical engagement with the world. This became a hallmark of his work, enabling him to provide a singular defining vision to a body of work diverse in its use of materials—his clusters of pure pigment powder in ‘1000 Names’ (1979-1980); the polished, reflective stainless steel of ‘Cloud Gate’ (2004); the red wax in ‘Symphony for a Beloved Sun’; and the PVC of ‘Leviathan’ (2011) for Monumenta at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Form may be the defining principle of sculpture—think Alberto Giacometti and his ravaged, stretched-out humans, or Richard Serra and his spirals and toruses—but not for Kapoor. He isn’t a sculptor in the classical sense. He prefers to play with the present and the absent, creating anti-sculpture with “non-objects” such as in ‘When I Am Pregnant’ (1992), with a soft bulge emerging from a wall; ‘The Earth’ (1991), a black hole of pure pigment on concrete giving the illusion of a bottomless hole; or ‘My Body, Your Body’ (1993), a fibreglass, orifice-like void that recedes into the wall, creating a black-hole effect that sucks the viewer in. These are fun works of illusion, challenging traditional notions of sculpture, and they also challenge the viewer. They’re unexpected, occupying a space between form and non- form. “I’m interested in all those intermediary spaces,” says Kapoor. “Between culture, between object, between sculpture. They’re fascinating. After all, much of the world is so ordinary and so banal. There are few things in the world that are fascinating, exciting and mysterious that remain mysterious.”
Mystery is key to Kapoor. He once emphatically stated that artists don’t have anything to say. “Oh, I continue to say that! [laughs] Or at least I don’t have anything to say. If I’ve got something to say, then I can go ahead and say it in my work. The point of being an artist is that one has to dare to go into an unknown space, in which you literally don’t know what you’re doing,” he explains. “I’m deeply interested in psychoanalysis. In psychoanalysis you lie on the couch—I’ve done it for many years—and you allow the space to evolve to become whatever it is, this issue, that issue, and you see the connection between them. That kind of evolves into a persona. There’s the analyst, there’s me, and there’s this third object, a fantasy object if you like. That’s what the artist does: create a fantasy object. If I knew what I was doing, then that third object could hardly arise. It is through the process of allowing yourself to be in a space of not knowing that something happens. So, I insist on saying that I have nothing to say, because it gets in the way.”
The in-between nature of Kapoor’s work creates space for an interplay between viewer and material, allowing the viewers to create their own narrative in arriving at the meaning of the work. Our role becomes that of psychoanalyst, trying to decipher the non- verbal symbolic language before us to decode the spiritual and philosophical intention. Kapoor says, “The viewer as a philosophical concept becomes something very important. We give as a viewer, and it’s also as if I have to give my psychic matter and my experience of the world to this thing, this work, to get something back. I come to it with my own experience.”
Kapoor once declared, “I wish to make sculpture about belief, or about passion, or about experience.” It’s the sort of pretentious statement made by many artists, and that few live up to—but he’s one of the few. At his best, Kapoor has an alchemical ability to turn an object into something more than itself, more than the artist, conveying visually that which cannot be put into words. During Art Basel in Hong Kong, Kapoor and Lisson Gallery will be bringing some special works to the city. Look beyond the reflection in the mirrors and see for yourself.
Master Works: Five of Anish Kapoor’s most celebrated sculptures
This colossal crimson horn was comprised of steel hoops joined by a flesh-like membrane of PVC. The title refers to a satyr in Greek mythology who was skinned alive. After the 155-metre- long structure took over a hall at the Tate Modern, it was dismantled.
My Red Homeland (2003)
In this enormous circular sculpture, a central motorised steel blade carves a course through 25 tonnes of visceral red wax, dissecting and reshaping it into new forms, reflective of the role of the artist.
Cloud Gate (2004)
A highlight of Chicago’s Millennium Park, this 110-tonne structure is formed from highly polished stainless steel that reflects the city’s skyline.
Sky Mirror (2006)
This giant concave disk of polished stainless steel directs attention towards the views above. Since its exhibition at the Rockefeller Centre in New York in 2006, it has since been relocated to the Dallas Cowboys Stadium.
This 115-metre-high tower was created to mark London’s hosting of the 2012 Summer Olympics. A fusion between art and daring engineering, the controversial landmark was lauded by many as a radical piece of architecture, and maligned by others as an eyesore.