JT John Tusa
AK Anish Kapoor
JT When talking about the work of the sculptor Anish Kapoor, you should beware of the adjectives. They can get very overheated: "implacable, yet whimsical":; "hysterically sublime!":; "tactile and dreamlike":; those are just a few phrases to be going on with. Maybe it's a response to the intense colours he uses - cobalt blues, crimson reds, impenetrable blacks, all applied so that they seem to soak up the light, and soak up the action of the viewer's eye too. Now it may seem odd to be talking about colour in relation to a sculptor, though you can't talk about Kapoor's work without referring to it. The colours are at the service of the shapes - excavated holes in blocks of stone and rock; highly polished discs or bowls, like domes of heaven, said one critic. Kapoor's objects take on and disrupt the orderly space of galleries. "Exuberant, irrational, vital forces thrusting through floors or walls": - there go the adjectives again! Critics may have occasional reservations about his work, but they can't shrug it off with a throwaway phrase. It's definitely not that sort of work. Anish Kapoor is rising fifty, and can look back at most of the art world's badges of honour: Venice Biennale, Turner Prize, Documenta, retrospectives in all the right places. More recently he has stormed the bastions of the most prestigious arts institutions, creating the vast installation Marsyas; there he filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. And designing the settings for this year's Glyndebourne production of Mozart's 'Idomeneo'. His work reveals a simple profundity, says one writer. It's a primal experience says another. Kapoor himself insists, I've nothing to say, which is where, here in his Camberwell studio, we begin.
Why do you say that you have nothing to say?
AK One of the currents in the contemporary experience of art is that it points to the experience of the author. That is to say it dwells in the author. It seems to me that there's another route in which the artist looks for content, which is different from meaning. It may be abstract, but at a deeper level symbolic content is necessarily philosophical and often religious. I think I am attempting to dig away at - without wanting to sound too pompous - the great mystery of being. And that, while it has a route through my psychobiography, it isn't based in it.
JT So at least you are walking away from what the romantic idea of the artist, that it is the life of the artist, the view of the artist, the experience of the artist which is absolutely central to the art, and you take the artist with the art bag and baggage.
AK I am. I think I'm saying that there is another position. Maybe it is my Indian roots that prompt me in that direction. Of course, I also see a connection thereby with the minimal art of the sixties and seventies. The idea that the object in a sense has a language unto itself, and that its primary purpose in the world isn't interpretative, it is there as if sitting within its own world of meaning.
JT You make the distinction between subject matter - and one can certainly see that your pieces are not about subject matter - and content. Your sculptures are full of content. But just fill out that antithesis.
AK Putting aside subject matter is saying that a content can arise. It does this seemingly out of formal language, considerations about form, about material, about context. When subject matter is sufficiently out of the way, something else occurs; maybe it is the role of the artist then, as I see it, to pursue this something that one might call content.
JT And can that content at a certain stage even migrate into something that is more like subject matter, without being explicitly a subject?
AK Yes, I think it can. Let's just underline this by saying that artists don't make objects. Artists make mythologies. When one sees a work by Picasso, let us say, what we look at is the mythological context in which Picasso worked. It's as if one's looking beyond the image, beyond the work as displayed. One is looking at Picasso’s mythology, which is about money, fame and a life lived in truly creative endeavour, or so the story goes.
JT The moment you mention Barnett Newman I immediately think of his series 'The Stations of the Cross', which after all that is very strong subject matter. So how does this distinction between content and subject matter work out in the case of a series like that?
AK The important thing there is to look at the work. On the face of it you are absolutely right. The moment that you are, as we all had the opportunity recently to do, in front of those works, they seemingly have nothing to do with the Stations of the Cross. They are a series of black and white canvases with "zips": - these areas without colour, without painting; nothing to do with the Stations of the Cross other than that he has very carefully made the title part of the content. It's as if the words then act as another form in the process of looking. So therefore one has to ask oneself the question about where this content arises. Is it about whether the content is resident in the viewer, or whether it is resident in the work? Now that's a subtle yet very clear manipulation of the act of looking.
JT If it wasn't in the work though, you can't always invest what you take to it can you? There has to be something immanent in the work.
AK Precisely. There's something immanent in the work but the circle is only completed by the viewer. Now that's a very different position from a work with a subject matter, where the work itself has a complete circle of meaning and counterpoint.
JT It tells a story, you recognise that story, you tell it back!
AK But here is an incomplete circle which says "come and be involved. And without your involvement as a viewer, there is no story!": I believe that that's a complete kind of re-invention of the idea of art.
JT And is that what you hope and think people do with your art, because after all now, after twenty-five years or so, people come to an Anish Kapoor and they expect to see eternity don't they? So they arrive in the gallery and say I'm going to lose myself. Now is that a helpful thing for you?
AK Well, as I was trying to say earlier on, artists make mythologies, not objects, so perhaps this is one of those mythologies that's come to reside in and around my work.
JT Did you set out to make it?
AK Yes. And I could also say no, in that meaningful mythologies - after all things don't get to be even remotely mythological until they have some deeper resonance - I believe that one cannot set out to make a work that's spiritual. What does it mean? What is a contemporary iconography for the spiritual? Do we know? Is it some fuzzy space? Is that enough? I believe these things come to be because there are other resonances.
JT Are you aware that you have changed what you do because people suddenly started saying "I go to a Kapoor and I see eternity and I lose myself etc":? Has there been any reflex back from viewers' reactions to you?
AK It must be there to some extent, but one doesn't make art for other people, even though I am very concerned with the viewer. It is in that abstract eye of the beholder that the circle is completed. I make art for myself.
JT So if there were no commissions at all, what would you do in the morning?
AK Oh that's great, I’d love that. I would come to the studio and do my thing. What one does in the studio in fact is to pose a series of problems to oneself. You can come in and say, yes I have this funny notion that I want to make a blob of gooey mass of certain dimensions, that has a certain effect. And then, having made it, I've got to look for some deeper meaning, for some reason for this thing to be in the world. There's enough stuff in the world anyway!
JT But you can't invest it with a meaning after you've made it.
AK Oh, those processes are complex. One can find a way to do precisely that. Naming is one of those ways. Context is another. What happens if I put it next to another object? How does that change its reason for being, its effect on the body? One of the phenomena that I've worked with over many years is darkness. Darkness is a fact that we all know about, an idea about the absence of light. Very simple. What interests me however is the sense of the darkness that we carry within us, the darkness that's akin to one of the principal subjects of the sublime – terror. A work will only have deep resonance if the kind of darkness that I can generate, let's say a block of stone with a cavity in it can have a darkness, is resident in you already; that you know already. This is not a verbal connection, but a bodily one. That's why sculpture occupies the same space as your body.
JT Do people ever say that they are frightened particularly by those bottomless black pits? Of course, they're never pits, they're usually quite shallow, but that's the point. Do people say that they're frightened by them?
AK It has happened. I showed a work at Documenta in Kassel, in Germany, in 1992, a work called Descent into Limbo, after Mantegna– "Christ descending into the limbo":; you entered a room about six metres cubed. In the floor, a space, in fact a hole, but made in such a way that it was a space full of darkness, and read like a black carpet on the floor. One makes a room, closes the door of course, there's always a line, people stand outside and wait, which in this case took about forty-five minutes. There were people who went into that room and hugged the walls, they were terrified that this kind of omphalos at the centre of the room would suck them in. There was a man, who stood in line for forty-five minutes and went into the room, took his glasses off, he was so furious, he'd done a lot of things in the name of contemporary art but never stood in line to look at a black carpet! So he took his glasses off and threw them. And of course then they disappeared into the void of the work! This is total success in my terms.
JT But your other colours, your blues, your reds in particular, these are the most intense, sensuous, light-affirming colours as well. And actually, I've never found your blacks that terrifying, they are restful, the eyes just shut out. But your blues and your reds, I mean they couldn't be more about life could they?
AK Red is a colour I've felt very strongly about. Maybe red is a very Indian colour, maybe it's one of those things that I grew up with and recognise at some other level. Of course, it is the colour of the interior of our bodies. Red is the centre.
Brancusi's great adventure in form, it seems to me, is a proposition which is modern, which is about upwards, onwards, the rocket, the form that's phallic and forward. Donald Judd's great adventure in form, it seems to me, was to close form, was to enclose form.
JT Squares, rectangles..
AK Exactly, and to bring colour into space. I think, if I might be so bold as to dare to put myself in that lineage, I'm interested in the idea that form in a sense turns itself inside out, that the inside and the outside are equivalent to each other, that we don't just enclose. The form is continually in a warp, and continually turning itself inside out. Now I have a feeling that's a very contemporary idea about form.
JT I'm interested you mentioned phallic because I get the impression sometimes that when people look at your works, the one thing that they feel they can't quite mention in their English way is that of course they are womb-like. Womb-like is the easy bit. Vaginal and things like that.
AK Anti-phallic, the opposite of Brancusi. Inward. Downwards.
AK If one took a platonic model one might say the back of the cave, away from light towards darkness.
JT But you actually penetrate to the back of the cave, and penetrate is the word.
AK Rather than the front of the cave, which is light and forward and out towards the open world.
JT But the fact is that your shapes are very apparently simple, even when they are deceptive. What I'm curious to know is that you have this intense and complex theoretical basis; but when it comes to making things, you're doing things with a deceptive simplicity, and that's a very interesting transfer isn't it?
AK Yes, the eye is a very quick instrument. The eye gets it immediately - I'm interested in that moment of immediate recognition. An object lives in a space in a particular way, you walk into the space and then you say "yes that's it!": or "that's not for me!": - whichever way it goes.
JT Yes, or it's just a black carpet!
AK But it's an immediate translation. The theoretical stuff comes later, it's sort of irrelevant. I'm much more interested in the effect that the body has, or that the body receives from a work.
JT Let's talk practicalities for a moment. You said that you're a terrible carver - indeed you do very little at all - so what makes you a sculptor? Is it an instinctive three-dimensional urge?
AK I think I understand something about space. I think the job of a sculptor is spatial as much as it is to do with form. The idea that an artist has to make everything themselves is…
JT It lingers there doesn't it?
AK Well, it lingers, it's certainly not true however, it's certainly not necessary, and I doubt that it's ever been true. The problem with stone carving is that it takes months and months and months, I have a very dedicated, wonderful team of young fellows who do a lot of the preparatory work for me. Roughing out a stone is just damned hard work.
JT But finishing it off you'll do?
AK Well I'll do some of it, where it's necessary. Much of what I make is geometric, and has a kind of almost mathematical logic to the form.
JT Yes. You're getting the proportions right.
AK The proportions, of course. I have a small stone yard in Battersea where I go every morning, talk through the current projects with the guys. They then do a day's work and I'll see it the following morning. And then, of course, as we come to finishing something then I'll spend more and more time there trying to resolve things.
JT You work both with organic materials and with inorganic materials. Clearly I would say the appeal of the organic - the rock and the stone - is in no way greater than what you can get, the subtleties, the effects, with the inorganic. That's not a barrier for you in any way.
AK No. I do like the idea that artists nowadays work in all sorts of materials. I've just shown you a work I've been making with smoke. To be an artist, in any of a huge number of ways, seems to me to be a huge psychological liberation. (Picasso?) He worked incredibly hard to liberate himself. You know he was able to fracture the world and make cubism and then to reconstruct the world and make these very whole organic kind of images, and then very sexual things towards the end of his life. We can now, if we can liberate ourselves enough, open the possibility. The art world is so much more open.
JT Yes, in the work you've just mentioned, pushing smoke into a room, then extracting it so powerfully that it turns into a column of smoke; the moment I say column of smoke then I think of course of the biblical references, the column of fire and so on. And I was wondering why isn't that a work of art, but only for a second, because I will remember that as much as many other flat painting on a wall!
AK Let's think of Moses and the burning bush. One can hardly make a move in the right context without calling up a whole series of mythological references that are already in our cultural pot.
JT Simply because you choose to have them in your cultural pot, and of course you are Indian and you are part Iraqi and you are part Jewish. Were you formally taught these things, were they formally or casually talked about in the family conversation?
AK Somewhat. My grandfather was the Cantor in a synagogue in Poona – a small town not far from Bombay – but my parents were fastidiously a-religious. So while some of this was around, its much more that I feel that the symbolic world, which I insist is the nub of a problem for an artist like me, is latent in most actions I would wish to make as an artist. And the work is to find that latent content.
JT But it does sound as if you have a great deal of this in your own cultural and personal bedrock.
AK I feel it's important, yes. I mean one can hardly be Indian and not know that almost every action, which hand you eat your food with, for example, has some deeper symbolic level of interpretation.
JT But quite a lot of the time, understandably, you wanted to avoid the Indian tag. I was rather shocked when I came across an article from 1998, not that long ago, which said "you're the most successful Indian artist living in the West!": Nobody would say that now, so is that why you can talk about the Indian influences much more openly, because you're not pigeonholed?
AK In the late seventies, when I first started making work as a professional artist, I was making objects out of colour pigment. They looked more Indian than some of the things I'm doing now. What was interesting or problematic for me then was that they were referred to as exotic. The exotic is a tag that seems akin to the touristic, as if one was viewing the work from the outside. My job was to get a view from the inside.
JT It's a bit like decoration as well isn't it?
AK Precisely, you have to get beyond that seemingly decorative façade. The exotic's always been a real problem for me. However I am Indian, that is part of me, and I'm proud of it. Indian life is mythologically rich and powerful.
JT And incredibly rich in colours. Just because you use bright colours, which Western artists are frightened of using, why should you have the exotic label stuck on you?
AK Well things have changed now. The art world has changed, but maybe the way we have learned to look has changed in the last twenty-five years, and the exotic is much more acceptable. There are many artists now, younger artists, who work out of the exotic.
JT Chris Ofili. Extremely exotic. And who could be more respectable than that at the moment?
JT What do you think of the idea though of cross-culturalism, when it is raised? Does it mean anything to you?
AK If what we're saying is that we're building a kind of bridge, in Heiddeger's sense, between one bank of a certain cultural reality and another bank of a different cultural reality, then maybe there is a moment of crossing. "Mister In-Between": can be powerful and new. If on the other hand, rather Madame Butterfly-like – it all comes back to the conversation about the exotic - from which one can extract those bits that are attractive, and have them reside in a resident culture, then it's cheap and trivial.
JT It's bells and whistles isn't it?
AK Yes, precisely. "Mister In-Between":, I think has opened a whole host of possibilities, which are tremendously exciting.
JT But what you're not saying is "I'll take a bit of English because I'm here, I'll take a bit of Indian because I'm there, and I should put in all the cultural references of which I'm a part because that acknowledges them all, doesn't reject any of them, and is fantastically politically correct!": That is certainly not you!
AK Yes, but then one wouldn't be taken seriously as an artist if that's how it went.
JT There's quite a lot of talk about that sort of multiculturalism in the art world isn't there?
AK Yes and it's extremely trivial, and to be put to one side.
JT Which we'll happily do! Back to when you come in to work – I think this is important - what do you feel as you're coming in to work?
AK Either immense determination that on this day I am going to do so and so and so and so, or - which is equally interesting and much more difficult – I don't know what I'm going to do today.
JT Are you frightened by that?
AK No. Having said what I've tried to say about uncovering a symbolic world, I've learned over the years it is in that cloud of unknowing that something new can occur, that it is precisely in those moments when I don't know what to do and boredom drives one to try. (WORD?) I don't know what to do, I'm going to try so and so today. And then just trying it out. Then maybe there's a host of possibilities, which one might pursue for weeks or months or days, or whatever it is, either getting somewhere or not.
JT Do the dead ends worry you?
AK No, I think the dead ends are really interesting. I used to empty the studio out and throw stuff away. I now don't. What I find is that there will be a whole series of dead ends, constantly, that a year or two down the line I'll come back to them and wonder why didn't I see this before - it's so obvious! In a sense re-investing in little moments of insight. There isn't a project. I'm trying to say one does not set out with the idea that "I've just had a great idea and now I'm going to go and perform it":. Almost all art that's made like that doesn't go anywhere, even if it appears to at first.
JT Except when you did your huge PVC and metal figure for the Tate Modern, Marsyas: that was a project.
AK That was a project that came out of a whole lot of other projects. I started making, two years before, a little model out of cardboard and stockings.
JT Yes, it's over there in the corner of the studio and it's twelve inches by six inches.
AK Exactly, which proposed the idea of some kind of quasi-architectural space with this membrane stretched across it. Now I didn't realise when I was asked to take on the Turbine Hall that that's what I'd end up doing.
JT And you already had that in your mind?
AK Yes , including the other model on which it sits, which is a proposal for a visitors' centre for the Salvation Army down on the South Bank.
JT And the interesting thing about that other model is that while one could recognisably see it as being related to "Marsyas":, what you then did was the twists and the turns in the membrane - that's what makes it different.
AK What we're saying is that work grows out of other work. That there are very few "eureka": moments of "here is a completely new, unforeseen idea":. For me anyway, all ideas grow out of other ideas.
JT But you also say that you've got to be ready when you come to work to face emptiness. Is that worse than boredom or just a different way of expressing it?
AK I think it's more resolute than boredom. Boredom is that terrible time after you've had your sandwich at lunchtime when all those endeavours seem fruitless, but vital to live through that seeming, day after day "oh God, what-am-I-going-to-do-with-myself-feeling?": The fear of the emptiness that it implies, the fear that is have I got something else to do, have I done what I have to do, and how can I encourage myself to keep on going? I'm not an artist who has an agenda that's set by the work. That is to say I haven't made a decision - unlike some very great artists of course - to make work out of steel, or whatever. I do all sorts of things, and tie them together by some emerging content. So they may be diverse in their form, but not their content.
JT And everything you say about the continuity, that has a rather reassuring sound to it. But are there moments when there really is the emptiness that you described when nothing seems worth doing and you don't know what you're going to do next anyway?
AK Well I haven't had one of those periods for a good long while. The last time that happened to me was rather interesting. It was in the early eighties. I'd just done a show in New York, the first time I'd ever made a show in New York, and at the time all the galleries were in SoHo and every time I'd go out of the apartment I was staying in, I'd meet people on the street and they'd tell me how wonderful I was. I was probably about twenty-five years old. And do you know what, I believed every single word of it! I loved it! You know as I look back on it, it was a good show but it wasn't the best show I've ever made. It sold within the first three minutes, and I came back believing all that stuff. I came back to the studio, which was empty, there was no-one to tell me how wonderful I was, and I spent the next two and a half years making almost nothing. A deep lesson not to believe in ones own mythology, I'm glad it happened so early, I'm thankful it happened so early. Emptiness is what artists have to live with. The difficulty is to not rush to fill the emptiness up.
JT And how did you get out of it?
AK By slowly getting back into the studio and making some new things. It took me two and a half years, which is a long time and not a long time. A long time if one has to live it every day, but in the bigger span of things perhaps not.
JT And now, if you get a bad review, or somebody says "Marsyas is big and heavy and clunking!":
AK Which happened!
JT Which happened.! You take that in your stride. But it would be difficult though if everybody was saying "Kapoor's run out of steam, he's repeating himself!": Can you imagine how you would keep your sense of self-belief and integrity under those circumstances?
AK Well one doesn't know those things until they occur. And these things happen. I remember William Feaver writing about my drawing show that I did at the Tate, and said "this is the worst show the Tate's ever done":. Well, that flawed me for a little while, and then you kind of get on with it. I sort of think of it as column inches; little does it matter, in a way.
JT It's said sometimes, "oh Anish Kapoor's very ambitious":. Now that can say more about the person who said it than about the person about whom it is being said, but still, how ambitious are you?
AK I am very ambitious.
JT To be what?
AK To challenge myself. To make art that I've not made before. As I was trying to say earlier, the modern world has a huge range of formal possibilities, whether one's talking about spaces to show in, or materials to make work with. I'm ambitious to try and occupy as much of that territory as I can allow myself to. So what I see this as is me battling against my own limitations. The image that I've conjured here of Picasso liberating himself in order to be able to go to a fractured world or a whole world is a battle that he fought with himself. At least that's the way I see it. And I think there is something about opening one's heart to the possibilities that one doesn't even truly or readily know are there – emotional possibilities as much as anything else.
JT What are your limitations as a sculptor?
AK Oh they're manifold. I don't know. Do you know, much of the work that I've made over many years now proposes the idea that for every form there is a kind of counterpoint in non-form. One of the things that I see myself battling with now is not the non-form, because in a way I feel I've done some of that, but the form. So what happens when there's form and no non-form? Where can I go with that? That's a battle I need to investigate, fight, whatever.
JT The phrase you used about Picasso, about integration and disintegration. It strikes me what would be really interesting is what happens when you decide to explore disintegrated forms rather than the amazingly integrated forms, or is that what you've just been edging towards?
AK It may well be, it may well be. It's very hard to imagine what that looks like. We live in a fractured world. I've always seen it as my role as an artist to attempt to make wholeness. Do I have the emotional wherewithal to be able to recognise the fractured nature of the world, and take on the death that that implies, rather than the resolved completeness of the death that is implied by my background, which understands death as part of life. There is something else.
JT Is it almost a rediscovery of how, say, cubism might apply to your work, what happens if you apply those principles?
AK Quite, that's what's been hanging around in the background here. Yes, I don't know if I'll go there.
JT You've observed that there are at least three stages of an artist's life - the first ten years they say, "oh that's very interesting, haven't seen that before":; in the second stage, they say, "oh we've seen that before, but it's still quite interesting!": Then you come to stage three. Now presumably you are at stage three where you are having to say, what am I going to do next? Do you feel that you're at that stage?
AK Unfair question number seventy-five here! Let's see. Well I'm certainly not in stage one. It's very hard from my perspective, from within the story so to speak, to know whether one is in one's mid-career; I expect I am in my mid-career. And I think I do feel that there is still everything to prove. Being an artist is a very very long game. It is not a ten-year game. I hope I'll be around making art when I'm eighty, and I think the idea that somehow one has done what one has to do and therefore you can kind of steadily carry on - well it's not something I recognise. I feel there's everything to do yet.
JT So you never think I wish I'd been an engineer, and how simple life would have been?
AK Not at all. I feel this is an immense gift. And one does afford oneself the luxury to be able to come into the studio and all day, every day, spend one's life making aesthetic propositions! And what an immense luxury, and one that I hope I will carry on doing.
JT John Tusa