WF I am very fortunate to have some of your time because I know it is very hectic. You have had a lot of people, television crews and so on, who want to talk to you, but here we are in the British Pavilion in front of Void Field, and I wonder if we could just set the agenda for the conversation we are going to have. Something that keeps recurring when I think about the pieces I see here and your work in general is a comment you made about your work which was, ‘I don’t wish to make sculpture about form, it doesn’t really interest me. I wish to make sculpture about belief or about passion or about experience’. I think a much broader approach needs to be adopted in perceiving what you do.
AK I think that is probably true. Over the last ten years or so there has been a tendency to see the work in terms of my background, and I feel that’s a shame. That has really not allowed me to deposit what I feel might be possible. But it has also restricted other people’s experience of the work, and I think that is a battle that has been fought and will continue to be fought.
WF Some people have said that the notion of the spiritual that is used in discussing your work is a welcome addition to the vocabulary of art criticism of recent contemporary work.
AK For a long time now it has been a taboo subject. It has been something that one has not been able to deal with properly, and yet it is a fundamental of the human condition and we must somehow deal with it. It is a treacherous path, I think, in between meaningless sixties talk and real things. As human beings we have consciousness, and therefore that must be dealt with on some level.
WF And yet it appears to have been denied.
AK I think artists have dealt with it. I am not so sure that those who write about art have been able to deal with it. It requires, I think, on some levels a great deal of intelligence and humility.
WF Having read a lot about your works in preparing for this conversation, I have an instinctive feeling that something quite fundamental is being missed very often, and perhaps a Western literary tradition isn’t a very adequate way of discussing what you do. At the end of the day the work is here, it has its presence, and the words have their presence, but the two didn’t seem to me to correspond.
AK I think we are talking about experience. I don’t think it is enough to talk about the spiritual or such things and leave them as ideas. One has somehow to have this whole thing, experiential and not just intellectual. I would follow, to a certain extent anyway, Beuys’ notion about the spiritual: that intuitive intelligence is the highest kind of intelligence, and in the end intuitive sense is all that one has to go on, as an artist of my kind, anyway.
WF Standing here watching people coming through this gallery, looking, responding, I get the sense of a site.
AK Yes. The idea of place has always been very important to the work. A place that is in a sense original. I mean, by the word original, to do with ‘first’, and I think that is to do with centring oneself – allowing a thing to occur specifically rather than in general. A lot of the works are about passage, about a kind of a passing through, and that necessitates a place.
WF I am reminded about the early Aboriginal response to the first British settlers, where the notion of ownership didn’t have a corresponding concept, it was much more to do with place and to do with site and relevance to a particular area.
AK I think Barnett Newman also had a very sophisticated and concise way of understanding that art needed to occur in a place. He often used the Hebrew word Makom to refer to the present and the beyond in his painting. That is an area I am engaged in.
WF In relation to the starting point, is there a linear thread that you actually trace in these series of works? With the powder pieces there is much more of a correspondence and relationship within the sequence, but something like Void Field seems quite independent of that sequential development.
AK It is. Works feed off each other. They do grow out of each other. Here I think the work forms itself both in the room and in the emptiness of the room or in the conjunction between emptiness and fullness. That is not to do with specific physical relationships between the objects but really much more to do with some specific relationship between the body and the objects, which I think is slightly different. That I think is quite a change from the early work.
WF There is no sense of the artist’s hand here.
AK We have just come through a whole period of expressionism, of artists depositing themselves in their works. I just don’t believe in it. I don’t believe that artists have anything to say. I think there must be a way, and there is a way, of arriving at a conjunction of things that have their own reality quite independent of the artist. Leaving the hand out has always been a feature of my work in that covering things with pigment was a way of removing hand. Similarly here, as you say, there is very little hand. Of course that is also something that’s part of a post-minimalist tradition, I guess.
WF You have said on a number of occasions that the work is completed by the person looking at it. How do you elaborate on that statement?
AK It has to do with me not saying too much, not being over present. I think one thing that has happened very clearly is that from being about the outside of forms with inside implied, in the early work, it has turned into a condition which is about inferiority, and in some way I seem to have discovered that emptying out is filling up, and filling up only with what you, the viewer, can bring.
WF We are standing in front of Madonna, which is large. The diameter of it is about nine or ten feet, and if one looks at it and stands about four feet away, it is very displacing; one loses one’s orientation, which I presume is really a product of the deep blue. One is drawn into it and it’s quite disturbing in a very interesting way.
AK Well, I always had this ambition to make something totally frightening. This isn’t, but it will happen to me when I can do it.
WF Colour clearly is very important in your work.
AK Yes, it is. In a way this whole show is about a conjunction of opposites. That has clearly always been a feature of what I do. Here the conjunction is between that which is physical and present and that which is not. It is not enough, I think, to speak about void as an entity. In some ways it needs to be physically present, it needs to be experienced, it needs to be there, as big a reality as it can be.
WF Obviously we can’t escape the fact that you have made this exhibition here in Venice, which has a very particular sort of light, of history, culture and so on. How did you respond to that aspect of making this exhibition?
AK There are works in this show which do tangentially refer to some of that tradition. This work refers to the Madonna of Torcello. Her blue robe identifies her as some cosmic mother, some originator. I see void as a potential space, in some ways, rather than a non-space. It is certainly existential to some degree, but a condition of beginning rather than of end.
WF Could we move to the next room. The other issue that you have often talked about is that of an interest in alchemy and chemistry in relation to art. You mention Beuys and you also mention Duchamp. Is it the magical qualities that materials and forms and spaces can have that interest you and motivate you, more than the form or physicality.
AK Yes, it is, and here It Is Man is simply a stone with this room cut out of it.
WF This carved hole in the stone, when people are drawn into it, somehow one is drawn into oneself, because of this endless blackness that one is facing.
AK I think these conditions are very hard, if not impossible, to put into words. I must let that be the experience of the work.
WF Now this is a piece called A Wing at the Heart of Things and it is two large slabs of slate covered in a blue pigment. I would like to ask you about the relationship between the pieces here with Void Field and the others. Is there a conscious dialogue that you are interested in?
AK Very much so. This work A Wing at the Heart of Things is in a sense the opposite of Void Field. If Void Field is about mass and no mass – that is to say, sky or night contained in earth – then the act of painting these two stones blue somehow makes them weightless, somehow reverses that process. It comes to be earth contained in sky. I find that kind of dialogue of opposition very important. I think perhaps there is a similar play between Void Field and Madonna and between Void Field and It is Man. One of the tasks of this show has been to try to get the whole show to work as one work, so that the sequence of events that occurs through it concur and oppose one another.
WF Another characteristic in the early pieces, the powder pieces, is to do with radiation, and in these pieces with holes within them, to do with absorption. There is a piece here called The Healing of St Thomas, and unlike any of the other works in the pavilion, this one is part of the fabric of the room. You have actually cut a slit in one of the walls, which has a red powder within it. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about this work.
AK Of course it refers to a piece of classical Catholic iconography, the incredulity of St Thomas . I didn’t feel I wanted to make a work about disbelief, but it seems that St Thomas is healed of his doubt by putting his hand into Christ’s wound. It seemed sufficient to think of the room, the house, the building, as an image of the self, and the wound occurring there in some real way. The reason why I was drawn to that in the first place was that it seems to be an image about the femininity of Christ; that in some way, on a very deep level, this process of healing has to do with some kind of transformation into the feminine. In the context of this show I find it difficult to articulate that there is a very powerful relationship between wound and void. That is to say, perhaps they both, through some kind of clearly sexual metaphor, refer to points of origin, and that seems in this context to be important.
WF Moving to the next room, there is a piece called Black Fire, and it has large boulders of either coal or anthracite and then a vertical, concave canoe-like structure.
AK It is evidently sexual and it is also perhaps the odd thing out in this show, but I felt it was important to have it here because it makes some kind of bridge between a wound and a void, as we were just saying. Perhaps it articulates in some different way the idea of site or place and the idea of physical and non-physical presence, or material and immaterial.
WF You have chosen a material that is symbolic of heating and of providing support.
AK That is clearly part of the imagery too.
WF How do you feel that the context of Venice has worked for you and the works here?
AK It has been marvellous for me. This show seems to have had a good response, and that is good, but what I think is strange is that one of the issues here is that I am Indian and yet I’m representing Britain, and that is something that I have had to deal with. But perhaps the whole notion of the five or six grand pavilions with the rest on the periphery is something that is out of date, it seems to be a kind of model from the 1930s or whatever. We need to change that. I feel that somehow we live in a much more global culture, perhaps the beginnings of a real post-colonial culture, and it is necessary somewhere to have a wider possibility for artists other than in the Western context.
WF The Venice Biennale tends to close down international art categories, and you are an example almost of the contradiction of the Venice Biennale in that you do bring together a whole range of cultural influences and interests and consciousness that becomes something else. You have talked about the notion of global culture that isn’t local or parochial.
AK Perhaps more than local and parochial, it isn’t hierarchical. I think that is the real issue in the end and that is something to be resisted with a great deal of education above all else. We have got a long way to go there yet, I think.
WF Do you get irritated by this constant identifying of this strand in your work?
AK That makes me furious. I have a great resistance to trying to look at the work for its Indianness or through my Indianness. People have walked in here and said there is a peculiar smell to this show, did you use Indian spices. The extent to which this kind of fantasy goes is incredible, and I think it is to be resisted with great anger and energy.
From Audio Arts Magazine Volume 10, Number 4, 1990
Recorded in Venice, June 1990
Transcript; Recordings at the 1995 Venice Biennale included Anish Kapoor talking about his installation, ‘Void Field’ at the British Pavilion. Others contributing were; Andrew Graham, Peter Frank, Stuart Morgan, David Mach and Gray Watson.