JK: The French public discovered your work on the occasion of the 2011 Monumenta at the Grand Palais. Your Leviathan had nothing of the monstrous “primitive chaos” signified by the Hebrew word. Three immense rosy buds, sunny droplets of blood, or translucent membranes of a swollen uterus: I was absorbed by one of these satellites. Empty or infinite? I looked for Jonah engulfed by the whale, Job in search of forgiveness, Pinocchio setting fire to entrails under the sea in order to escape towards the light with his father. I found none of them, but rather encountered Anish Kapoor, an artist who thinks with his eyes and with his skin. Generous and yet fully within himself, he cited my book on art and abjection, Powers of Horror … The contact was immediate, a matter of tactile thoughts.
Now Versailles – a completely different space from the latticework-enclosed Grand Palais. But which Versailles? A “grand name, sweet and rusty”, as Marcel Proust jealously whispered, which serves “to refine and expand not so much the joys of another age as the melancholy of our own”? Not really. We will visit it, beginning with the Jeu de Paume room, as we walk through the château’s gardens. But first, an impression: in the spaces of this enchanted island, this “vast and mathematical, thoughtful and channelled” site (Philippe Sollers), and by provoking its vibrant memory, you install uncertain objects, fragments, in-betweens and dismemberments in an unyielding process of formation and deformation.
I am captivated, struck by this way you have of lacerating the splendid beauty of the site without insulting it. You force something frightening upon it – when you have “nothing to say” you say, “I’ve always had the impression that I’m creating something frightening”. Yet, another obvious fact soon becomes arises. Far from emptying the space of Versailles, the formlessness of your destructive happenings proves to be a chaste and hideous coupling between site and host – an exuberant expenditure of energies, a furious affinity between life and death, gestation at the very heart of the carnage. All of this was already there (the visitors perceive this and let themselves be swallowed up), pulsing beneath the rational beauty of the place. Shooting Into the Corner, the Dirty Corner, the Empty mirrors, have been here forever. They inhabit the geometrical charms and their natural coolness, with which you both augment and shorten distance to the point where every distance is definitively blown apart, the frightening and/or the sensual become palpable, and your bullfighting-like scenes have the effect of a poetic break. This embrace does not reject Versailles, it invites us to grasp it from within.
AK: The apparent rationality of Versailles belies a secret, a sort of abjection, an undeclared need to hide all that is untidy. Interior disquiet is supressed, rational order is given supreme place. It is my purpose to push the unresolved, the untidy, the uncertain in this place – to have the body shrivelled up in all its naked, vomiting nastiness – somehow emerge out of the imposed order of Le Nôtre’s grand scheme for the garden. One might say that there’s always the parallel, it is always sitting there. And the question then is how to approach it without illustrating any problem, because as we know of course there is no problem, just the body and the body’s sense that it so easily loses itself in this terrifying order.
Beauty emerges not because we want it, but only if it is inevitable, in spite of our wishes or desires our work is to recognize its presence.
The artist has not to place works here in a more or less interesting way. He must unearth the uncanny and force Le Nôtre to reveal what he has hidden. This is a fight between rationality and the unexpected. I don’t need another good place to show my work and Versailles does not need decoration.
JK: Could the hideous, frightening and orgasmic appropriation of this space of calculated rapture represent a striving for the sacred? Its rehabilitation in disillusioned modern eyes?
AK: Sensuality is terror. Beguiling terror, we lose ourselves in its guise. Sensuality somehow convinces us we are not alone. It shortens the distance between me and the other and fools us into the illusion that all is not lost.
Perhaps I could start by saying that a void object is not an empty object; its potential for generative possibility is ever present. It is pregnant. The void returns the gaze. Its blank face forces us to fill in content and meaning. Emptiness becomes fullness. Things are turned upside down. This must reveal our phantasies about voiding ourselves. Somehow we must avoid our own death. We are not done, finished, ended. It’s a sort of opening up rather than an ending of possibility. Contradiction is its essential truth. A thing and its opposite. Having said that, terror sits on our shoulder – perhaps it is not true, could it be that the void is not pregnant with possibility. Maybe there is an actual and real end, actual death and loss of self.
In art, I feel there are two subjective objects, there is obviously the subjectivity, so to speak, of the artist, and then the art object itself creates subjectivity. So we are playing between these two possibilities and implied in them is intimacy. Art is very good at intimacy, very good at saying, “Come here, come and be part of this”. This intimacy, it feels to me, sits very cosily with both fear and beauty. It’s not either fear or beauty, it is fear AND beauty, they are always together. The sensual is a tool in the game of the intimate, it is only because of it that we are called to enter. The art I love, the art I make, I hope, celebrates the sensual while always knowing that decay is close.
JK: Let’s start our visit with the Jeu de Paume room, outside the château, in the nearby Saint-Louis neighbourhood. It is steeped in historical significance: the Estates-General of 1789, the Constituent Assembly, the Revolution, the first version of the Declaration of Human Rights. It’s History in action: liberty-equality-fraternity, but also the guillotine, decapitations, the Terror, the Napoleonic wars, and more wars, global and otherwise, the Holocaust, fanaticisms, all of it without end. We can’t escape, there’s blood in every corner …
And you make a banal corner bleed – two white walls intersecting at a right angle, in this museum that is anything but banal. A cannon fired blood onto the cornered whiteness in another of your exhibitions (such as at the Royal Academy in 2009). Here, in the Jeu de Paume, a corner bleeds on its own, in front of the gaping cannon as though before the eye of a camera or our own voyeuristic eyes.
We know that you stand apart from abstract art, from conceptual art, but also from the narrative and theatrical currents in contemporary installations. Still, history inevitably makes its way into your installation Shooting Into the Corner, installed as though by chance in this glorious site that, as you say of all sites, “pre-exists” and “participates in” your flow of blood that reveals this site anew.
The granulated material of this blood burgeons like a haemorrhage incapable of healing over our permanent wounds and empties the walls of their whiteness. But no – it is quivering, living flesh, recalling other red masses you are drawn to, like butchered meat, aborted foetuses, menses, female genitals, flowers, and so on. There are no women in David’s drawing, nor in his unfinished painting, The Tennis Court Oath, nor in the version by Luc-Olivier Merson. The feminine had to burst out somewhere. Now it has.
I find it fascinating to see how colours become space, first in Giotto and in a very different way in Jackson Pollock. I observe that it is the pigments that sculpt your “in-betweens”, and it is also due to colour that these uncertain objects of yours do not judge but insinuate themselves into our bodies as pleasure-seeking or distraught spectators. The red makes the vibration of the muscles iridescent. We can see bones, nerves, ova and sperm in the grains compacted in giant menhirs whose pale cream-grey is heightened by the black and the yellow. To “move inward”, to attain the level of intimacy, you have your favourite colours: “blue, black, red and yellow”.
AK: I am interested in the way you interpret Shooting as a corner that refuses not to bleed, that continues to bleed. And of course there are all the obvious political interpretations of the situation – I take those and put them to one side. I am interested in them only in the context of the work I show in this potent place.
JK: But you put this installation not in the Orangerie, Galerie des Glaces or Trianon, but here in the Jeu de Paume …
AK: I think of this space as a ritual arena in which everything including murder can take place. Think of this as a bullfighting ring or a boxing ring where there are rules of engagement but in reality they are formalized forums for aggression and even death. Shooting Into the Corner draws to itself a different reading here. It can’t help but make political comment. That however is not my primary purpose.
The work has its own language which is affected by where it is shown, but its inner workings are not changed by context.
Previously when this work has been exhibited, it has been presented as an overtly theatrical event. A shot of wax is fired every twenty minutes and there is a slow accumulation of the red material. This time, here at Versailles, my instinct is to have no action, no shooting, the action has happened, the shooting was. It is spent. I speculate that the ejaculation happened. Time was. It is a curious thing about action that even if it happened in the past we read it as current, not just as encapsulated in a past moment. Especially when the means of the action are present, as they are in this work Shooting Into the Corner. I am conscious here that the large painting on the facing wall, The Tennis Court Oath by Luc-Olivier Merson (1883) after the original drawing by David (1791), represents a past which holds the promise of the future and that all those represented in the painting are committing to this new future. Time has two modes. Past and present are mixed up with each other symbolically.
JK: So in this exhibition, we won’t see the cannon shooting red pigment onto the wall. The cannon is there but it is not shooting?
AK: It has shot. There’s a lot of stuff there, it is an event that happened. The corner has been violated. In that room, there is also an event that happened. It is symbolized by all the raised hands, as a promise to the state and its future. Those raised hands happen to be at the same angle as the gun. There is a kind of similarity in this gesture. It is a gesture of promise, allegiance, brotherhood and such things, all of which are phallic. There are no women in that painting. It seems to me that the only female present is the building. Architecture herself. I represent her as the corner. I am interested in the enigma of the male/female, let’s call it a kind of psychodrama, between the male and the female. The state and its subjects, and so on…
JK: It’s a state of war. This is war!
AK: Indeed, war. Between surging unconscious and rational mind.
The corner is triangular. Symbolically speaking, what could be more female than that? The cannon and the corner are in a troubling and aggressive relationship. Is it just the shooter that is phallic – or is it that they are both, gun and corner, in a psychodrama that makes both phallic? Is the corner phallic too? The gun and the corner are two unavoidable sides of the same equation. They need each other. Like the state and the citizen or the lover and the beloved. There is a symbolic act of penetration that makes both sides potent. This is undeclared war.
Then there is also a question here of the relationship between blood, body and painting. What was Jackson Pollock painting with? Semen, blood and body, it could not be anything else. Shooting Into the Corner is a process through which an object makes images, violent images. This set-up makes a painting, it stretches painting into space, scattering material in an act of violence. It challenges architecture and forces a symbolic reading. Space is not passive. This work draws space into a charged dialogue in which the two parts, the corner and the cannon, are at war and the space between them is witness to horror and fascination because horror is fascinating. Painting is a witness. Painting is the evidence left over after carnage.
The Jeu de Paume uses painting to memorialize the event of statehood, the foundation (birth) of the modern state of France. It uses an image, a painting, to symbolize this moment. A moment of immense violence.
Shooting Into the Corner stages a painting in process, it declares a ritual space and fills it with bodies spilling out. Sculpture becomes painting. I am interested in these tensions between image, space and theatre.
JK: Of course, the images are inevitable, as far as they prompt in the visitor a representation of objects or of emptiness, of contours and volume, of destruction and disappearance. At the same time, in parallel, the monochrome combustion of war embodies the coupling of the feminine and the masculine, but also of all forms and spaces. Ultimately, outward identities are transfigured, violently returned to the singular self, which is in turn threatened, dismembered, alarmed.
AK: This for me is the intimacy of fear. Shooting is timed: every twenty minutes, there is a theatrical expectation. Everybody is alert, expectant, even with anxiety, waiting with their hands on their ears, this is going to be terrifying.
Colour is ejected violently everywhere. The body is not contained; red is the refusal to contain or the inability to contain, rationality is not enough. Rational means lead to an irrational object. Unconfined and uncontained. Red stuff everywhere – spilled out, bursting out. The space of the memorial to the state becomes the space of violence and the inability to contain. I am interested in the way intimacy can become, and so easily becomes, a place of tension and aggression. I am present as a witness to this event, my body is present. For me this is one of the main questions in sculpture. You cannot just look and remove your self, somehow the body is implicated. Innocence is lost, we are witnesses.
JK: This veritable spate of matter does more than just shoot rationality. Its sculpted turgescence bypasses the image, going beyond the screen of representations and assembling in a sensual experience that precedes or exceeds the visible.
AK: Yes, this material is not just colour. These are objects, they are made from wax, they weigh about 5–6 kilos each, they are objects that become colour. I have always found that interesting – the relationship between colour and stuff. It is actual “matière”. The stuff-ness of colour, or in colour, it is more than an illusion; this is not just colour as surface. Red is dark, it is of course blood but it has visceral depth. Red is its own poetic entity, mysterious as a sustainer of life and the stuff of death. Colour is never passive. I have always looked for colour that is a “condition” not a surface. I want an immersion in colour much as one might be immersed in water. All around, everywhere.
Colour expands space. It makes more space.… To make more space is my ambition. Colour makes new reality.
JK: In the gardens of Versailles, Anish Kapoor, you dare to defy the great André Le Nôtre (1613–1700), the genius who “sought only to assist nature” (according to the Duc de Saint-Simon), the gardener, architect, hydraulic engineer, man of theatre, and troubling friend of Louis XIV, who claimed to “elevate his thoughts” by creating groves and parterres, amused the pope and reflected the sun for the Sun King. You take over his Tapis Vert, which leads from the Parterre d’Eau to the Apollo Fountain. You appropriate these spaces he conceived and that have witnessed the work and presence of Poussin, Bernini, La Fontaine, Molière, Delalande, Lully, De Sévigné, not to forget the Encyclopaedists, and so on … and you stick in the shockingly titled installation Dirty Corner! Red and black – I had expected that; broken columns, rubble and ruin, and this giant horn that opens its rapacious maw in our direction. Tragedy and joking, so be it. Does the dirty tube aspire to whistle rational geometry? Panting throat. Insatiable ear. Excited orifice – male or female? Eye of the camera that has mistaken its pigment – red instead of the usual black. An antenna, ultimately, that bends the infinity of sense and non-sense, of that disintegrated intimacy and body we mentioned earlier, towards our shapeless flesh as weary travellers. And the blood starts to move, we are absorbed. Would your motto be “the absorption of Being, by Being”? A sort of physical transcendence.
AK: Le Nôtre’s rational order refuses the romantic. There is no picturesque and there is no nostalgia. Le Nôtre gives us instead rational geometry. A fully formed, in-control vision of geometric perfection. He is showing us a mind object where the mess of nature is obscured or hidden by straight lines crossing in serene perspectives. The Tapis Vert is its focus, excavated to be flat, forming a perfect V. Rational, clear, singular, digestible, consumable in one confident view.
I will flay the Tapis Vert, lay it open like a dismembered body, remove its skin. Remove its green order and turn it into a Dirty Corner. Like a body lying on the ground with its legs open, unclear as to whether it’s a male object or a female object. With a vast internal opening; like an ear or a vagina – uncertain. A long tube that might be male, a vagina/phallus. A construction site being built or arrested in decay, we are unclear. I want confusion. The very opposite of all the garden sets up for us. There is a lot going on: big mounds of earth, stones, a lot of colour, all sitting contrary to what Le Nôtre has set us up to look at. It feels to me to be central to how we might understand the acuteness of Le Nôtre’s genius. I am not putting well-placed sculpture around the gardens. My objects are formally located coming down the central axis, in accordance with the way in which Le Nôtre planned the space. But each of them is chaotic and in anxious tension to Le Nôtre’s formality.
Decay, sexual unclarity, and especially process, is central to my aim. It is once again a sexual site with something going on that isn’t fully nameable, it isn’t fully rational. I don’t actually know what all this is yet. I haven’t made the work, so I don’t know. I am happy and nervous to not know. I think that is my job, it is what I am asked to do.
JK: I remember you said that you don’t like the colour green, and here in the gardens of course, green is prevalent. For you, the green keeps us on the surface of life. Doesn’t it convey the illusion that we can naturally see the nerves of life, that we can tame, decorate, embellish, control and destroy it? Whereas you, on the contrary, want to open our senses to the unbearable process of life bound for death, within intimate sexuality itself. Here, your confrontation with the tamed beauty also embraces the battle of colours: you confront the green with the immediacy of red and black.
AK: Correct. I have rarely used the colour green. Here there is a lot of it. But in this garden the problem is different. Le Nôtre gives us mathematical perfection. I am deeply interested in mathematical objects. In this garden he has given us an almost perfectly formed mathematical object, which is eternal. That is one of the things about properly conceived mathematical objects: their sense of time is circular. Dirty Corner disrupts this. A thing that is in process implies that it started somewhere and that it must end somewhere, but to leave it un-done is to open different aspects of time. That is one of the purposes in this work, to suggest a notion of time that is not enduring in the way a geometrical object would have it.
JK: Your mirrors are my favourite stopping-points. Their formal purity unfolds another emotion, which we haven’t mentioned yet: JOY. Something musical light, truly celestial. The Sky Mirror in front of the Parterre d’Eau and the fascinating, masterful C-Curve on the château steps complete the infinity of astral light in the presence of the NOW. This vertical time that does not elapse, or an infinite point, something that only humans possess, as Albert Einstein noted, regretting its absence from science. This grasp of cosmic expansion in a piece made by man, which you offer us with these huge lenses – I discovered it for myself recently, right there in Versailles, in an unusual form. Could this be another correspondence between us? I will show you, in Louis XV’s Clock Room, an enchanted clock conceived by Claude Siméon Passemant (1702–1769), a nearly unheard of technician, astronomer and engineer to the king, who was also a patron of the sciences in this era when the Enlightenment was already starting to be felt in Versailles. I built my latest novel around this artisan and his famous “astronomical clock”, which he presented to the Academy of Sciences in 1749 and which was programmed to give the “universal time” until the year 9999. According to the Kabbalah, this number evokes the foundation, the union of masculine and feminine, as well as dissolution, and even the Apocalypse. This reminds me of your idea of abolishing time. This fabulous astronomical clock, which captured the flight of time, integrates scrupulous observations of the universe and their rewriting in mathematical language. These are invisible, unrepresentable experiences. Science defying religion, the monarchy. But this astral clock also, and to no lesser degree, speaks to intimate realities, by the obscenity of this phallic jewel, this royal treasure which plays with the masculine, sexuated body, its finite nature and going beyond it. As the old world was crumbling all around them, just like it is today, Passement’s clock folded up the infinity of cosmic time and brought it back down into the minds and the mirrors of Versailles. Perhaps this world is not so different from your own, after all?
What’s more, in its rococo housing made by the clockmaker Dauthiau and the bronze sculptors, the Caffieris, Passement’s android clockwork figure is … devoid of arms and of hands. And it didn’t escape me that you are no lover of hands: to the point of making us believe that you “worked quite hard to get rid of the hand”, that “the hand of the artist is overrated”, and that “the key is in the intention”. The intention of my Passemant was to inflect the infinite into the human now, and he calculated the movement of the stars to offer us this present. But you? Is your preferred organ for achieving this extravagant goal the gaze? The skin or the interior? When I’m Pregnant, you write, like “a white form on a white wall,” or red on red, OR 9999. Handless, your intention is visibly cosmic.
AK: Beautifully said. I love what I hear about your investigation of the Kabbalistic. To start backwards, with hands. Some of the artists I admire most had a lot of hands, you know, hands are all over their work. But really, all those hands are just in order to convince us that the force at work is not human, that somehow it is all beyond the body. That is one of the fascinating problems. How can the hand also not be a hand? The hand always implies a kind of expression. It is as if then there is something to say. I am interested in states of being that are not expressive, that are beyond expression. A place where the hand is a vast object, so big as to not have a thumb print, without gesture, where only intention matters. Of course this is a phantasmatic problem. I’ve often tried to work with the idea of the auto-generated object, the object that makes itself, that made itself. And in so doing, the fiction is that it resolves the problem of where the body is. It is the other side of the human equation. The body is problematic, what the body does is problematic. The body is always locked into its attitudes to sexuality, desire and death, all of those difficult human questions. The removal of the hand is somehow the other side of that, it is beyond ME and possibly therefore beyond time.
You quite rightly point to it here, with your reference to the Kabbalistic. An apocalyptic resolution of the problem of being. In other words a world that is made of opposites: male and female, dark and light, good and bad, geometry and abjection. Somehow, no hand seems to me to point to the possibility of a kind of utopia. It is a kind of transcendent.
It is our place as artists to intuit the cosmic. What I know is never enough. My instinct throws me into new possibilities. My work is to trust and to do. Internal languages link to cosmic possibilities. Skin is the membrane of joining, it is permeable and transparent. It contains and yet is a medium of the identity between inside and outside. What is inside it is as profoundly mysterious as what is in the cosmos and in many ways identical to it. Body, spirit and cosmos are both poetically potent and interdependent.
JK: The hand is the organ of production par excellence, expressing and making objects. Homer faber is a worker. We all want to work, having a job gives us dignity, losing our job is a loss of status, etcetera. The aesthetic intention you mention is not a “making” in that sense of the word, more a way of transcending, not only work, but also expression itself, the self, desire, and the body. We could say it’s a “physical transcendence”, because you give form to these types of transcendence in signs that are material, but are not perceived as finished works or expressions; they are seen, rather, as invitations to transcend what exists.
AK: In your work on abjection, you talk about the pre-symbolic object, the state before, and maybe beyond.
In art, narrative arises through process. The object does not need to say anything, it allows narrative and meaning to arise, rather as in psychoanalysis. Perhaps it is possible for art to touch upon this state of ambiguous matter which is pre- symbolic, which is before the object, which is just condition, held somehow in that pre-formed. Before words… we know this state and yet cannot fully hold or name it… a condition of proto-matter, proto-form or the non-object as I have previously called it. This is an internal object, known and unknown
JK: On the lawn around Apollo’s Chariot is your vortex, Descension. Vertigo, which becomes subterranean here, is not just a funerary hole; it imposes the dimension of the invisible, of the empty, of the non-expansive, which we spoke about, and that I call the pre-symbolic or trans-symbolic. Mind you, a contemporary of Louis XV and of Passement, the Marquise Emilie du Châtelet (1710–1749), preceded you in this area. A mathematician and physicist, translator of Newton and enamoured more of Leibniz than of Voltaire, she wrote a Discourse on Happiness, and also reflected on the nature and the propagation of a strange substance she called “fire”. Now a feminist icon, this other heroine of my novel prophesied the existence of a “strange matter” without extension and a “passive energy” that modern researchers are now deciphering as dark matter and dark energies. You yourself have called some of your works Laboratory for a New Model of the Universe (2006). This presence of the void, which runs through your Void Cube, in the Bosquet de l’Étoile, pierced by canals, seems to scan our orifices and our viscera, but you use it to tame hollowness, emptiness, nothingness. Descension adds to that, evoking not so much nothingness as emptiness or the enigmatic “dark material”. That’s a new connection between my secret Versailles and what you are exhibiting today. Another world behind the world, connecting a hidden tradition? It’s certainly an invitation to travel, opening the senses to what is beyond the sensible, the visible, the representable.
AK: Yes. Brancusi made great propositions of what one might call the original-geometric. His works are of a refined primary geometry, not dissimilar to Le Nôtre in a way, all those objects point onwards and upwards, their end form is the rocket, going up. Into the light, towards the sun. This is the phallic hero of mythology and his form strikes out to modernity.
The opposite of this is the anti-hero. Formed from that which is involuted, the mangled, the dirty, the abject. Descending inwards and downward, or inwards and backwards, towards darkness and the unformed, to the back of the proverbial cave rather than its entrance. No hero to go to the light – instead a descent into limbo, a descent into darkness. The heroine of darkness. Hidden, half seen, underneath. It seems to me that that is the place of the object after psychoanalysis. This is the dark object, the internal object, the proto-object, the object that is in-between day and night. In-between being and non-being.
It is inevitable that most of the matter in the universe is dark. How could it be otherwise? I mean do we site what physics describes or are we describing our own inner and psychic truth in spite of the objectivity of science. Of course it is both. Of course it is in-between light and dark, could it be anything else?
The vortex of Descension is a centrifugal force, a centrifugal object, it is a geometric object. Descension creates an almost perfect form. It does so through natural geometry. I like that, hidden in here, is a geometric object made of water.
The nub of Descension is dark, it’s root is dark. It is a dark spinning pit. Leading down to the centre of the universe. A geometric object. A force of nature. A female object.
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
Interview with William Furlong in I Have Nothing to Say. Interviews with Anish Kapoor, edited by Richard Leydier (Paris: Rmn-Grand palais, 2011), p. 27.
Julia Kristeva, L’Horloge enchantée (Paris: Fayard, 2015).
First published in Anish Kapoor. Versailles