NB You were born and raised in India before going to art school in London, where you have lived ever since. How can we understand the intersection of different cultures in your work?
AK I use red a lot. I’ve gone so far as to title a work My Red Homeland. It’s true that in Indian culture red is a powerful thing; it is the color a bride wears; it is associated with the matriarchal, which is central to Indian psychology. So I can see what leads me there culturally, but there’s more to it. One of the ways color has been used in art since the eighteenth century is to move, as in Turner, from color to light. My tendency is to go from color to darkness. Red has a very powerful blackness. This overt color, this open and visually beckoning color, also associates itself with a dark interior world. And that’s the real reason I’m interested in it. Is that Indian? I don’t know that it matters.
When I was a student in the U.K. in the mid ’70s, there was Anthony Caro and the Greenbergian formalist approach to sculpture , which I found completely without any relevance. There were artists, like Joseph Beuys and Paul Thek , who worked in other ways. It’s as if there is a different poetic mood that you need to bring to the object, otherwise you can’t see it. In other words, artists don’t make objects, artists make mythologies, and it’s through the mythologies that we read the object. That idea seemed to question the status of the object; it seemed to say the object is an uncertain thing. And that’s what I’ve been exploring ever since!
NB To what extent do you see an Indian influence on your work?
AK Could one do an analysis of my form in terms of Indian aesthetics? I expect one could. I’m drawn to form that seems to have multilayered interpretive possibility. Yet I’m not interested in overtly readable symbols. As much as I love Brancusi, A Bird in Space is too obvious for me—I think we’ve moved somewhere else. Negative, interior form interests me. I’m also drawn to form that has a kind of iconic readability, what I call “proto-form.”
NB Are you referring to particular architectures?
AK For example, Jantar Mantar, the observatories made byMaharajah Jai Singh, a Rajasthani king, around 1730. They are absolutely amazing, and also mysterious in their architectonic form. For example, there are staircases that just go up to the sky. They are for observing the stars, but they don’t lead to anything. The sundials are also incredible.
NB The idea of an observatory seems appropriate in relation to your work, which is so much about the acts of viewing and perceiving, of charting inner and outer space.
AK Absolutely, and I respond very strongly to the instruments’ physical relationship with the ground; some of them are even submerged in the earth. And there is also a very interesting relationship to the idea of the cosmos. One could look at all the great symbolic monuments, but I’m just as interested in the little huts on the roadside. There’s huge variety and invention. Take the open-air mosque; it’s a wall without a building. That’s so powerful. It seems to magically enclose an area without there being any buildings, just a wall. It says something about the way an object comes to life, comes to infiltrate physical space, but it also says something about the way space itself is a philosophical entity and not simply where things happen.
NB It seems that in the early period of your career being labeled an Indian artist risked a kind of marginalization. Do you think that still holds true today?
AK It really has changed a lot over the past twenty-five years. The whole attitude to travel has changed, the idea of foreignness. When I first came to the U.K. in ’73, at art school I was asked over and over again, “Do they have cars in India or do people go around on elephants?” I’m serious! There has been a huge cultural shift, and now India is one of the great emerging economies. These changes in context and perception can be a real force.
NB As the cultural context has changed, so too has your position as an artist, as an established figure in the international art world.
AK Yes, but I’ve always taken the position that my psychobiography is incidental—it’s a tangential starting point for the work. You know, I’m not Tracey Emin! This is where two traditions—the modernist and the Asian—coincide very well. The modernist art that I admire views the self as a springboard from which the work takes on a life of its own. You find a very similar attitude in Asian art, where the self isn’t the entity out of which all expression is determined. The self is only a means. That’s why I keep saying, “I have nothing to say.”
NB Is that where the idea of the work that makes itself comes in?
AK I have always been interested in the mythology of the self-made object. As if without an author, as if there by its own volition. In Indian thought that’s a pretty strong idea.
NB What is it that attracts you to the idea of a work that is the product of something other than the artist’s subjectivity or imagination?
AK It is complicated. Fundamentally, I feel that we are religious beings and not simply biological ones. When one sets out to look for a language that gives meaning at some level to the abstract, one of the meanings that occurs is, in very broad terms, religious. Now I don’t mean doctrinal religion, but a sense that there are some fundamental moments, and one of them is origination. Life in a process of willing itself into being. Of course the notion of objects that make themselves, that are without authorship, is a kind of fiction. It is a useful fiction about the making of the object and its content, and it has very straightforward practical applications.
NB What, then, are the ways in which one might consider your objects as self-made? One is appropriation—say, the appropriation of a form from architecture, or from nature; a given form that is somehow adapted. A more “pure” appropriation might be bubbles of air encased in resin, with its literal capture of a natural phenomenon. You did not make the form but you created the conditions under which it could be generated. Or there is the idea of the mechanically “produced” form of Past, Present, Future, a gesture that makes literal the idea of the self-made object. Here are at least three different examples of how nonsubjective creativity is manifested in your work.
AK Yes, the “unauthored” work is a fiction, but still a very important way of thinking about a problem.
NB And for you that relates in a broad sense to cultural myths of origin, from the Aboriginal dream time to the Biblical story of Adam .
AK Exactly. The idea of self-manifesting seems to do away with God
and all the authorial problems of the making of objects. In the case of Past, Present, Future the fiction seems to say, take a wall, cut a disk out of it, rotate it in space, and it results in an object. It is a very old way of making sculpture. There is something about the symmetry it proposes which I think is very interesting and relates to basic forms and all sorts of different architecture. Of course I’ve always made a lot of symmetrical forms, forms that seem to propose that they were made by moving something in 360 degrees or 180 degrees or some variation.
NB So, rather than “express” the self, there must be a kind of resistance to the self, or a collaboration between the self and the external?
AK The piece I made at the Haus der Kunst is a big block of red waxy material which passes through the doors of the building. It is bigger than the doors, so it is “carved” by them. The result of having set up this process is a form that is orthogonal—a big block. Again, it uses the fiction of autogeneration.
NB In the resin pieces there is a dialogue between the static, frozen moment of the bubble and the mobility it implies.
AK The first one I made was called Space as an Object. When a bubble is encapsulated in a transparent block it is as if, in some “proto” sense, space becomes an object. Air it may be, but space it is too. It is also very much in a state of becoming; there’s an implied motion in these bubbles. They are random. The material is cured under both heat and pressure. When you pour the material, there is always air in it somewhere. The trick has been to learn how to get the air into the center—but the forms that emerge are completely random. I am putting a whole series of these objects together—it’s like a collection of butterflies.
NB Given that your work always has a very strong aesthetic signature, it seems counterintuitive to hear you talk about the self-generating object. Yet it is a familiar paradox that for so many artists since the 1960s the imperative to get outside of the self actually leads to a very strong artistic signature. A LeWitt is clearly a LeWitt; a Judd is clearly a Judd. Still, some kind of resistance to or negation of the self is essential to the strength of this work. In my view, that is because the fiction of an all-controlling subjectivity is unsustainable in our period. The work of art that engages with processes beyond the self seems more truthful about what it is to experience life today.
AK Abstract art either works very hard to keep reference at bay or it does the opposite, which is to accumulate reference unto itself. I am interested in layers of meaning. The red block at the Haus der Kunst takes on all kinds of references. There is a sense of geology, of body and blood, of some deeply visceral realities. The building is shitting this thing. In this work architecture comes to be not just a mirror of the self, but it partakes of the self in some much more profoundly psychological way. A straightforward gesture can generate a whole host of metaphoric parallels. One has to pose a fiction very carefully hoping that some of these layers can accumulate on top of the basic proposition.
NB And that process, with its useful fictions, has been a very fruitful one for you.
AK When you interrogate the idea of the autogenerated in relation to my work, I can’t help talking about the religious dimension, the myths of origin. As Gauguin put it, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
NB Your sculptures are often characterized by formally refined, perfectly articulated and executed forms. They work by being very distinct from anything around them. Cloud Gate is surrounded by both built and natural forms, yet it is extraordinary because it is so completely different from everything around it, which it also reflects and transforms. It almost seems magical.
AK I’ve always been interested in the magical. When I’m working on something in the studio I often find myself wondering, how good it is, if it’s doing enough. What I mean is not whether it’s working formally—that’s relatively straightforward—but whether it generates enough of that nonphysical, non-object-related character. The other side of that coin is when whatever it’s doing becomes too active. It’s a short trip from Disneyland to something truly mysterious. Truly mysterious implies that there is something else going on—it’s a matter of meaning.
NB There are striking antitheses within your work. You’ve developed the mirrored objects to a state of extraordinary refinement and surface perfection. Their solid structures notwithstanding, they seem to liquefy before our eyes. You then produced a body of wax pieces which are visceral, bodily, and process-based. They carry a strong sense of touch, while the mirrored works eschew the hand in every way.
AK It must be that I’m perennially uncomfortable! Somewhere in the work there is a real search for love and death, blood and guts. There’s also a lot of work that seems to be very cool and distant. For me the two things are completely near each other: it’s not that the one is cool and the other hot, it’s that they both partake of the same inner world. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s not necessary to say everything all the time. It’s okay to make work that alludes to bodies of knowledge which previous work has dealt with—without having to encapsulate.
It seems to me that there are two basic ways of working: one is that the artist leads the work and the other is that the work leads the artist. The work ought to lead the artist, not the artist the work. For the artist to lead the work one must assume that the artist knows what he or she is doing and has something to say. When the work leads the artist the process is one of discovery. I don’t have anything I’m dying to say, but I do know that if I allow myself to excavate, to research, the process leads to meanings that could never have been logically imagined.
NB That reminds me of one of my favorite of LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”: “The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.”
AK What I’ve done over the years is to have evolved certain languages. To paraphrase, there’s the pigment language, the void language, the mirror language, the wax language—as well as a few others. What I want to do is innovate in all of them. Of course they all relate to each other, but in many ways each is quite different as well. I feel that gives me great freedom. I see similar ways of thinking in the work of other artists, Sol Le Witt being a prime example.
NB Let’s look at these “languages” in more detail, starting with the pigment pieces.
AK What is important about these works is not that they are made out of pigment. The curious thing is that they appear to be made out of pigment. “Truth to materials,” which was a big thing when I first started making sculpture, seemed to hold the whole thinking about sculpture down to the nuts and bolts of its factual realities. It said that what you see is what you get, and I think that art is exactly the opposite. What you see is not what you get! For me the illusory is more poetically truthful than the “real.” People would often wonder about the pigment pieces—are they really made of pigment? Well, some of them are and some of them aren’t, and that has never been a problem for me since I believe an object is read through its skin. I wanted to put truth to materials to one side and say that art is about lots of things that are not present.
NB Yes, although your works never feel like the relics or by-products of a performance. They are fully realized, intentional objects.
AK I suppose I have a foot in both camps! I like the idea that the object has its own Gestalt , its own resolvedness, even as it accumulates other layers of meaning. I’m not talking about narrative. They may have references, but they are not narrative objects: they don’t delineate the process of their own making. At the same time, there is a suggestion of ritual in the layout, the sprinkling of pigment, the delicacy of the surface.
NB While I have called them “fully realized” objects, they also challenge the status of the object. They seem to be about borders and limits, about the surface and skin of the object and where it begins and ends. This is, of course, a consistent theme in your work.
AK Yes, I continually come back to questions about the status of the object: How fully is it in the world? How much is it what it says it is and how much is it something else? Where is the real space of the object? Is it what you are looking at, or is it the space beyond what you are looking at? In a way this is why I chose the title 1000 Names. It is as if these objects are the one-tenth of the iceberg that is visible. They define the plane on which they are shown, whether it is the floor or the wall, and they protrude into the space. So many of the works that I’ve made subsequently come back to this idea: that the space itself is only notionally defined, that there is something beyond it. It is a proposition about space treated as a poetic idea.
NB The pigment pieces are largely geometric and refer to archaic or originary forms; forms that like the flower or the spiral come from nature, but that also inform architecture in a very basic way. You end up with a formal language that is organic but also culturally rooted.
AK Absolutely. I suppose there are two things: one is what I’d call proto-architecture, and the other is biological. In a way it is both the flower and the breast.
NB The figure of Artemis immediately comes to mind.
NB Of course these forms are very stylized, and are also unified by the monochrome pigment. How did you develop the forms; did you model them in clay or make drawings?
AK I drew them; I’ve always drawn things on the walls in the studio.
NB Why drawing on the wall rather than in a sketchbook?
AK I do both, but a sketchbook is normally closed. You have to open it and then the pages are sequential. The great thing about drawing on the studio walls is that it is a constant if only tangentially observed presence. One drawing will lead to another or might lead to an object. So they infiltrate my consciousness in a way that is fruitful.
NB I’m thinking about the way these works evoke forms from the world of nature or architecture. Caro’s formalism and the truth-to-materials idea had played out. That left the problem of how to derive a form—inventing a shape in the manner of, say, Henry Moore was seen as just too arbitrary and subjective. How did you approach this problem?
AK It is a very good question. How do you start this stuff? I had the idea that I wanted to make something out of color. Inevitably, the first forms relate to how pigment lives in the world: basically as a cone. Then you might go from a cone, as I did, to a pyramid. Then I let go of the idea that it had to be made from powder all the way through. You could not tell whether they were solid pigment. That little tension arises; the object has a kind of improbability to it.
NB There was a moment of giving yourself permission?
AK Yes, but that didn’t take long at all. What I did realize, and it was an important idea for me, was that these “partial forms” carried the implication that there was some other part of the form. The moment I began to think of those protrusions, all sorts of other forms began to occur. I began to explore. I wrote on the walls of my studio at the time that there was no hierarchy of form; that geometry, non-geometry, the organic, everything goes. I was looking for a kind of unitary form. There are all sorts of unitary forms around; what I began to look for were the ones that had a certain bodily recall.
NB Where did the idea of making work with color, with pigment, come from?
AK I left art school in ’78. A year later I made a trip to India where I saw piles of pigment— it just fitted with what I was doing. I had the very exciting sense that here is a new way to make an object; it felt to me as if this really was something that nobody had done before.
NB Did it also feel like a response to the American minimalist idea of “what you see is what you see”?
AK On one level you could say of Judd’s boxes that what you see is what you see, but the truth of the matter is that if one looks at them in the full context of art, they are not only what you see. A stack of boxes is not just a stack—it’s a ladder, it carries a whole series of very pertinent emotional and even esoteric references. The same is true when one looks at Flavin today, and I would say the same is true of dear Sol [LeWitt], even though Sol worked very hard to keep all of that at a good arm’s length.
NB Germano Celant compared your early work to Arte Povera, seeing it as a more tactile and organic counterpoint to the industrial aesthetic of minimalism.
AK I must say I worked quite hard to get rid of the hand; I’ve always felt the hand of the artist is overrated. I think this work is very connected to minimal art even if its aesthetic might seem to be closer to Fluxus or Arte Povera. I am always surprised when I look at Arte Povera by how painterly it is, how much it relates to image and not to form. One of the things about minimal art that I’ve always thought was very important, thinking principally of Judd, is its “objectness.”
NB That sense of a form that feels like it comes out of the world but at the same time has nothing to do with the world?
AK Exactly. It has a kind of otherness about it and yet lives wholeheartedly in the space. I would say the generation of sculptors with whom I have been associated, principally Cragg and Deacon , are all very concerned with “objectness.” The kind of declaration that the object makes, of itself, of its presence. I don’t talk much about how things are made. If you push me I will, but the making of it, the nuts and bolts of it, how it’s held together, the actual physical aspect of the object is something I’ve wanted to keep away from. I’ve always felt that it has nothing to do with looking.
NB But then again, as you said of the nature of pigment, it in itself leads you to certain forms.
AK It does. I suppose I am looking for a state where a thing seems to be fully formed, pure, essential, unencumbered by making!
NB With that idea in mind, let’s leap forward a decade to the work When I am Pregnant. Here the idea of a protrusion operates in a very different register. It suggests the way in which your objects often feel as if they have the potential to become something else.
AK I love the idea that there are two kinds of becoming: one is an almost cinematic experience of the object, of its seeming evolution as one looks at it; the other is an internal state, a more poetic one, of the becoming of the work in the imagination of the viewer.
As for When I am Pregnant, let me tell you a story. I was at Uluru, or
Ayers Rock as it was known then; a very powerful proto-place and quite the most religious place I’ve ever been to. I spent four or five days there. I’d get up at four o’clock every morning, drive to it, and spend the whole day doing the circumference walk. Unbelievable things revealed themselves every day. I felt deeply connected with it, and with a kind of possible interpretation, a symbolic interpretation of the holes and the strips of stone that seem to be leaning against it. I was amazed, not at the monolith, but at the way the monolith seemed to be made up of symbolic events. It is so powerful, I can’t tell you. I wrote very extensive notes of my trip there, one of the ideas I wrote down was simply “white form on a white wall.” When I am Pregnant, an object in a state of becoming, was the result.
I came back to London and proceeded to make a white form on a white wall—I had to have a form that could be both present and not present. The form sticks out of the wall a good foot and a half. To get it to disappear you have to pull the form out in every direction, attenuate it, so that it blends itself out into the wall. I love the physicality of that! This is a full, pregnant form and yet it is not present. When you look at it directly it looks like fuzz on the wall, inhabiting that “non-object” state. Of course, I had already done a lot of work with the idea of the void object. I was looking for states of material that push their physical boundaries of their physical status. I like the idea that all material has a kind of immaterial present (modern quantum physics would fully support that notion). As you know, I’m obsessed with the “proto” and I love the idea of the pregnant. I’ve always felt drawn to aspects of the feminine, which shows in a lot of what I do. I read somewhere that certain monks formally ask each other if they are pregnant yet, and that has to do with whether they have reached a state of spiritual accomplishment. So I wondered, well, am I pregnant?
NB And this was really a breakthrough work, the first white-on-white piece?
AK Yes, it was. Years later I made the work called Sister, which is the inverse of the same idea.
NB The experience of these works is dynamic; they demand interaction and mobility.
AK When you are in front of When I am Pregnant, no matter how close or far away you are, it is a blur. It is only when you move to the side of it that you can see it is a form. I’ve become more and more interested in that slight manipulation that forces the viewer into doing something. It is a form of address, if you like, the way the work directs a particular kind of looking.
NB Let’s turn to My Body Your Body which is among your works that relate to the void.
AK My Body Your Body is set into the wall, so it is a space beyond the gallery space. Like the pigment pieces, it extends the idea of manifestation, by which I mean it implies a sense of the present and of place. The pigment pieces worked with ideas around architecture and the body. The void pieces take those ideas one step further as they go beyond architecture; they live as holes in the architecture rather than as objects in the space. They bring a new complexity to the problem of space from the point of view of the body. They are about darkness and the uncanny, something half-known or half-remembered. Darkness is something we all know; it is the condition of things when the lights are switched off, but in a way it is also an internal view of ourselves. The work makes a material move towards the non-object, which is certainly perceptual but it is also psycho-physical.
NB How does the notion of “the infinite” play out here?
AK These works always propose a picture plane that directs the viewer towards a deeper interior. Maybe the quintessential work in this series is Descent Into Limbo, which is a hole in the ground. It reads not like a hole in the ground, but like a black carpet sitting on the floor. It is not an empty dark space, but a space full of darkness.
NB What are the two bodies suggested in the title My Body Your Body?
AK One, if you like, is darkness. The other is bodily space. At first it looks like a flat picture on the wall, and then there is the dawning perception that it is actually a volume, and that the volume is curved, long and narrow, and reminiscent of various holes in our own bodies. I like the fact that the viewer is implicated in the act of looking. I am interested in the idea that a work of art can say, “Come on, come over here. I can engage you deeply and my space infiltrates yours.” That may be why over the years I have been very drawn to exotic materials that seem able to pull you in. Scale is another thing that can entice the viewer into the object.
NB Which leads naturally to your interest in highly polished surfaces.
AK Yes, that’s another stage in this adventure of mine. All of the works we have discussed, from the pigment pieces through the void pieces and some white ones on the way, have dealt with the idea that deep space is one of the things that seem to confuse the status of the object. At some point in the mid ’90s I began to wonder if mirror-polished objects had the same spatial qualities. The first mirror-polished object I made was rather akin to Iris. It was a three-quarter sphere, polished on the inside, set behind a wall. To my astonishment it had the same kind of perceptual skin across it as Descent into Limbo. And it seemed it was not a mirrored object but an object full of mirroredness. The spatial questions it seemed to ask were not about deep space but about present space, which I began to think about as a new sublime. If the traditional sublime is in deep space, then this is proposing that the contemporary sublime is in front of the picture plane, not beyond it. I continue to make these works because I feel this is a whole new spatial adventure. To make new art you have to make a new space.
NB That interests me because it goes to the heart of what is contemporary about your work. In its formal qualities, particularly the mirror-polished pieces, is a sense of both limitlessness and morphological dynamism. The sense of an object that morphs from one thing into another as you experience it. That when you interact with it you enter a space which seems neither on the surface nor inside. The work posits a kind of compressed energy, and that resonates very much with changes in our perception of the world. Our understanding and experience has been exploded onto both a micro and macro scale. The visual language that describes the world is changing; these works capture that transformation in a quite extraordinary way.
AK Space is perhaps one of the only truly abstract entities. One of the things about mirrored objects, and especially the forms that are inside-out, is that they seem to be very active, to be in various states of becoming. I made an earlier piece in concrete where the floor in the room turns into a funnel; the whole space is in a process of involution. The mirrored objects seem to take that process one step further. I am intrigued by the analogy with digital space, the Internet, and by the development of ideas in physics.
NB To what extent is the computer a useful tool for you?
AK The making of Cloud Gate, for example, involved a great deal of computer modeling to analyze the form in order to make it well enough. But I don’t use it to draw anything. When I make a model it is a much more manual process; for Marsyas I made a stocking model. The computer may be a great way to discover something, but I’ve yet to use it that way.
NB Casting steel at the scale in which you work and with the accuracy that your mirrored pieces demand must be a formidable challenge.
AK It can become a quite impossible pursuit of perfection. The interesting thing about a polished surface to me is that when it is really perfect enough something happens—it literally ceases to be physical; it levitates; it does something else, especially on concave surfaces. Brancusi made a number of polished objects, such as the heads, that have convex surfaces. Jeff Koons has also used polished convex surfaces. But what happens with concave surfaces is, in my view, completely beguiling. They cease to be physical and it is that ceasing to be physical that I’m after.
NB In different ways, each body of your work makes the status of the object uncertain, but at the same time also makes the subjective experience of the viewer uncertain. In this way they reflect on our uncertain state as subjects in an ever more spectacular world, a world of dazzling beauty, power, and threat. These objects capture an experience of the liquefying and dissolving of solid form—which is a thrilling, seductive, and dangerous thing. It literally throws us off balance as it suggests a world beyond our grasp.