Anish Kapoor makes high art pop­u­lar

Ahead of his first big ex­hi­bi­tion in Aus­tralia, sculp­tor Anish Kapoor tells Bryan Ap­p­le­yard there’s too much money in to­day’s art mar­ket

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

ITHOUGHT I was in­ter­view­ing Anish Kapoor, but in­stead I ap­pear to be play­ing a game: hunt the thim­ble or some such. There is a row of doors, and we have to keep open­ing them to see if the thim­ble is inside. Yet each door re­veals only fur­ther puz­zles. There are strange ob­jects, some messy, some shiny, and var­i­ous young peo­ple, who keep con­fronting Kapoor with prob­lems that have to be solved yes­ter­day. A client in Korea is be­ing es­pe­cially re­cal­ci­trant. ‘‘ This is no way to do sculp­ture!’’ Kapoor cries as he tack­les the Korean ques­tion.

He has ac­quired, you see, through the years a sig­nif­i­cant length of a street in south­east Lon­don. Start­ing with what is still proudly ad­ver­tised as the premises of Den­ni­son Kett (rolling shut­ters-grilles), he has crept along 55m and now, be­hind the door-in­fested street frontage, he has 2700sq m — think medi­um­sized su­per­mar­ket — in which about 25 peo­ple slave away at his sculp­tures, spray­ing, brush- ing, pol­ish­ing and think­ing up prob­lems for when the boss next comes round.

He is busy, ab­surdly so, glob­ally so. But the busy­ness also in­cludes an ob­ses­sion with va­ri­ety. He works si­mul­ta­ne­ously on a huge num­ber of projects in a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of forms. Once, he would work on one ob­ject at a time, but it drove him mad; now he works on what seem to be dozens.

‘‘ If a thing is not go­ing well,’’ he ex­plains, ‘‘ you can just go on to the next.’’

Here are some of the works-in-progress I saw: gi­ant con­cave, faceted mir­rors; fi­bre­glass bowls with in­tensely coloured in­te­ri­ors; con­crete blobs (‘‘turd-like’’, he says); rec­tan­gu­lar forms of a solid, sponge-like ma­te­rial; earth paint­ings; cu­ri­ous tubes and trum­pet-shaped things. In the white room in which we talk, there’s even a Philip’s At­las of the World that turns out to be a Kapoor. It’s open at the Mid­dle East: in one side, a cir­cu­lar, an­gled void is formed by cut­ting through the pages; on the other side, the void is square. Po­lit­i­cal?

‘‘ I made it dur­ing the sec­ond Iraq war. I have a friend who told me about the con­cept of hor­i­zon­tal drilling — you drill into some­body else’s coun­try. I sup­pose I was toy­ing with the idea of world dom­i­nance.’’

A good word for Kapoor, ‘‘ toy­ing’’. He has be­come, at 58, a capri­cious ex­per­i­menter. Per­haps he al­ways was. It’s just that one used to be able to say with con­fi­dence: ‘‘ That’s a Kapoor.’’ That is no longer pos­si­ble. Take two ex­am­ples. In his new ex­hi­bi­tion, there is a huge diesel engine that, not so long ago, pow­ered a BT backup gen­er­a­tor and, er, that’s it. Yet this, too, is a Kapoor, his first ‘‘ found ob­ject’’ work. More con­tro­ver­sially, there is the Or­bit, the tower in Lon­don’s Olympic Park. It looks noth­ing like a Kapoor, and scorn was poured on it the minute it was up.

How did he feel about that? ‘‘ It’s a very odd ob­ject. I’m not sur­prised it got a bad press, but I see it like this — once you go into the Or­bit, it be­comes a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ob­ject from the one you thought you were look­ing at from the out­side. All those who have writ­ten about it well are those who went inside.’’

Fair enough, I’ve not been inside, but from out­side it makes me wince, and I’m a Kapoor fan. Mind you, even he has prob­lems with the Or­bit. He says he doesn’t make any money out of his pub­lic works — the fee never cov­ers the costs — but he didn’t even get a fee for this. ‘‘ I’m the only per­son on that project who didn’t get paid. Not a penny, not one penny.

‘‘ In fact, it cost me money. At first, I minded, I made a big fuss about it, but not now.’’

Any­way, here he is, prob­a­bly the big­gest name in world sculp­ture. He has achieved what sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of mod­ernists failed to do: he makes high art that is pop­u­lar. Thou­sands crowd around his huge Cloud Gate, in Chicago — where it is known as ‘‘ the bean’’ — and his Shoot­ing into the Cor­ner, at the Royal Academy, was a pop­u­lar sen­sa­tion. More than any­thing else, it was that ex­hi­bi­tion in 2009 that es­tab­lished his pop­u­lar suc­cess. Yet he comes from the most aus­tere, im­pla­ca­bly ‘‘ dif­fi­cult’’ tradition of late mod­ernism, which in­cludes artists such as Joseph Beuys and Don­ald Judd. For them, ‘‘ mean­ing’’ was a spu­ri­ous con­cept. Not for Kapoor. ‘‘ Judd re­ally was a great artist, but I want more. I want mean­ing. I want dif­fi­culty. I want the prob­lem of mean­ing. Some­how I felt the need to f . . k with it and make it dirt­ier.’’

One way he does this is with ti­tles. The great stretched tube with which he filled the Tur­bine Hall in Lon­don’s Tate Mod­ern in 2002 was pulled back from ab­so­lute ab­strac­tion by its ti­tle Marsyas, a Greek satyr who was flayed alive. An­other huge sculp­ture, in Mid­dles­brough, Eng­land, is called Te­menos, a Greek word for a spe­cial piece of land cut off from or­di­nary use. The ti­tles de­mand the very mytho­log­i­cal mean­ings at which Judd would have shud­dered.

Born in Mum­bai, Kapoor had a Jewish mother. That led him, as a teenager, to go to Is­rael and work on a kib­butz. ‘‘ Like all good In­dian boys’’, he ac­cepted his fa­ther’s in­sis­tence that he go into a pro­fes­sion, and he chose engi­neer­ing. It didn’t last and at some point, with­out any par­tic­u­lar signs of tal­ent — ‘‘ I couldn’t draw’’ — he de­cided to be­come an artist. ‘‘ Some­how I knew it, I just knew it. I had al­ways made things and painted as a child.’’

In Lon­don, he went to the art col­leges of Hornsey and Chelsea and worked his way through the canon, ar­riv­ing at late mod­ernism. There­after, nur­tured by Ni­cholas Logs­dail’s Lis­son Gallery, his ca­reer tra­jec­tory was pretty smooth. He rep­re­sented Bri­tain at the Venice Bi­en­nale in 1990 and won the Turner the year af­ter. In 2002 came Marsyas and, last year, Leviathan at the Grand Palais in Paris, the in­flat­able to beat all in­flat­a­bles.

Yet there re­mains some­thing in­de­fin­able



about him. He is nei­ther aes­thet­i­cally nor chrono­log­i­cally one of the Young British Artists, like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Nor does he be­long to the ear­lier gen­er­a­tion of sculp­tors that in­cludes Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow and Richard Long. He is also in­de­fin­able as far as the mon­strous ogre that is the art mar­ket is con­cerned. Artists are of­ten spo­ken of as in or out of the mar­ket. Jeff Koons is 100 per cent ‘‘ in’’ be­cause ev­ery­thing he makes is avail­able for sale. Kapoor is half ‘‘ out’’, how­ever, be­cause his pub­lic works are not in there and some of his works just will not sell. ‘‘ No­body has ever bought a wax piece of mine and no­body has ever bought a big ce­ment work — well, one was bought by the Prada Foun­da­tion. It was a risky thing to do. These are en­tropic works that fall apart.’’

Not that he is com­plain­ing. He is worth some­where north of £80 mil­lion ($124m), ac­cord­ing to The Sun­day Times Rich List. It’s not small change, though it’s way be­hind Hirst, who is worth well to the north of £215m. Kapoor is also known as a hard-as-nails ne­go­tia­tor. ‘‘ No is not a word he seems to un­der­stand,’’ one in­sider said. I would guess he’s as man­i­cally per­fec­tion­ist about his busi­ness deal­ings as he is about the fin­ish on his mir­rors and bowls. Busi­ness savvy is not, in it­self, a refu­ta­tion of aes­thetic se­ri­ous­ness.

In­tel­lec­tu­ally, he is a good deal more than half ‘‘ out’’ of the mar­ket. In a spe­cial room in his ware­house are mag­nif­i­cent In­dian sculp­tures from as early as the 5th cen­tury. He has col­lected them through the years, but he doesn’t think he should be al­lowed to own them: ‘‘ It’s ab­surd that I can buy these things. They should be­long to the world!’’ In other words, the mar­ket is a tem­po­rary rest­ing place for art. It is not the last word. This puts him not only out­side the YBAs’ or­bit but pos­i­tively op­posed to them. Like me, he went to see the vast col­lec­tion of ob­jects Hirst sold at Soth- eby’s in 2008. I came out feel­ing nau­seous; he came out un­easy. He saw the pop­u­lar­ity of art was in dan­ger of turn­ing it into a con­sumer good, de­void of mythol­ogy and mean­ing.

‘‘ It’s to do with our time — Tate Mod­ern has five mil­lion vis­i­tors a year and one has to kind of won­der what that does to art. I hope it does good things for peo­ple, but it’s as if art has be­come in the process very com­modi­tised . . . What do we do, pro­duce more stuff for Louis Vuit­ton, make more fancy-dancy goods? Ev­ery­thing gets sub­sumed into the mar­ket. Damien, in his way, says, deal with it. He has ef­fec­tively said, my work is about the mar­ket. This is prob­lem­atic be­cause I don’t want to do Louis Vuit­ton and make lux­ury goods.’’

If not the mar­ket, then what? Kapoor, like most great artists, is plainly, glar­ingly reli­gious. His art, at its best, balances some­where be­tween this world and an­other, be­tween the blankly ma­te­rial and the wholly mytho­log­i­cal. He is in love with deep, black voids that sug­gest noth­ing and ev­ery­thing. One large one was so ef­fec­tive that a man took it for a car­pet and threw his glasses down in dis­gust. The spec­ta­cles van­ished into the void.

Kapoor ten­ta­tively ac­cepts much of this in­ter­pre­ta­tion. ‘‘ I fun­da­men­tally be­lieve that some­where we are, in spite of our­selves, reli­gious be­ings; and there is some­thing about many kinds of artists I ad­mire, from Bar­nett New­man to me­dieval sculp­tors, that is reli­gious. There is some­thing about sculp­ture in gen­eral to do with the body, about how you are made to see it, that is very old, proto-re­li­gion. One of the things about ab­stract art is that it al­lows you to go back to the be­gin­ning, to ask daft ques­tions like, ‘ What is con­scious­ness? Who are we? Where are we?’ ’’

I think I found that thim­ble.

Anish Kapoor’s ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art opens on De­cem­ber 20 as part of the Sydney In­ter­na­tional Art Se­ries. For a gallery of Anish Kapoor sculp­tures, go to theaus­­view

Sky Mir­ror (2006) by Anish Kapoor

Anish Kapoor in front of Marsyas, above, at the Tate Mod­ern in 2002;

Void (1989), left, by Kapoor

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