1st June 1993

HB Homi Bhaba
AK Anish Kapoor

HB Being here this morning in your workspace and looking at different works in progress I want to ask you, how dark, how deep must a void be, or a cut be, in order to be frightful or disorienting?

AK It needs to be real. It needs to have appeared in some self-evident way, which has everything to do with the way that it’s made but not necessarily with how it is made.

HB When you say it has to be real in a sculptural sense, as a maker you do make a real cut, a real void.

AK That is to objectify, I think, a little too specifically.

HB When I ask you how deep the cut has to be, or how frightening the void is, I’m trying to get at the enigma in the work, between the void being a hole, and also being recognized as a painted surface. That’s the terror, the inquiry.

AK Of course artifice is the method of the real and the physical. A real real is a psychologically real. Artifice is part of the reality of art and can function towards giving something a “real” life. What I’m trying to get at is much simpler than that. The real is a matter of weight, of mass, or of absence and non-mass. It matters to what depth, with what edge, in what form. These things make the work, determine its reality.

HB Absolutely. The problem in talking about technique and representation, or significance – “making” in relation to reading/viewing, if you will – is that technical decisions are familiarly read as transcendental value, or teleological process: the physical and psychic means of production are lost in the aesthetic, epiphanic ends. The decisions you talk about, inscribing the cut or hole in the stone, are somewhere between the physical and the psychic….

AK I think they are excavated in the subconscious in exactly the same way as they are excavated in the object. The process of making that decision about where, about how deep, is a process of internalization which brings together the psychological and the physical. I made a work a few years ago called The Healing of St.Thomas, after the story of the redemption of St. Thomas. The metaphorical language is that he reaches out to touch what is apparently an illusion only to find reality. The eye and the hand need each other. Once he has touched the wound, a kind of healing takes place in Thomas. He is healed of his doubt.

The work is a simple cut in the wall, a wound in the wall. The wound has a shape which is vaginal, more to do with wholeness than death. It refers to the space beyond the wall, and of course it sees the architecture as a metaphor for the self. I could have made this work in a block of stone but that seemed to be too concrete, to figurative, not real enough. Too much to do with narrative and not enough with psychological potentiality.

HB Is psychological potentiality not itself narrative?

AK Well of course it is, but it is without definition.

HB Cutting the wound into the actual wall, makes that dwelling of the wound something that transforms the wall. The wall is now not simply the surface upon which something hangs, but its very substance is transformed by your inscription of the wound. You productively confuse what it means to be physically scarred, or what it means to be psychically healed, through the wall.

AK I have a fantasy about the auto-generated, self made, somehow revealed object. I feel that is what the pigment works which I made between 1979 and 1983 or ’84 were really about. It is the same kind of thing with some of the stone pieces. The stone is left rough and stony, as if it were a quarried block, as if what has actually happened is that the intervention in the block pre-existed in the quarrying. Of course it is the other way round, but it’s that kind of language that I’m interested in. I want to deny the hand. I want to get beyond gesture.

HB The attraction for me is dialectically, if not diametrically, from the other side. For instance, when I look at the early work, the powders and pigments seem to show up both the fragility and the embellishments by which those dramatic forms are refused a kind of naturalistic “real” referent. Now what you have just said is fascinating: you talked about a fantasy that erases the process of generating something by saying that its sculptural seed has always been there; that you are only enhancing or embodying that figural potential.

AK I’m not sure that that is what I was saying. I’m not saying what Michelangelo was reputed to have said, about the sculpture already being in the block. What I am saying is that there is a problem, a romantic problem, about the hand. There is the question of manufacture as witnessed in the object. To me these are irrelevant traces. The traces of manufacture actually get in the way of looking. Perhaps this is a fantasy about some original moment.

HB Exactly, that is why I wanted to bring us back to what is most interesting about fantasy. It is that one is aware, as you’ve just said, that the fantasy has itself to be staged, to be projected. You’re absolutely correct to say that, in some romantic ideas of art, the marks of making, the process of production, are subsumed or overwhelmed by the presence of the thing.

What is so interesting in your work is that the viewer is put into a very problematic position. When I stand before the work, the place where I would in some way want to see some affirmation of my viewing, my gaze returned, I am taken into the very innards of the void. The soft pigments will not allow me to settle on the hard lines of the object. My eye will be led into the very extreme pinnacles of the piece, and then my gaze is scattered onto the pigment on the floor around the piece.

As a viewer of your work, I am part of a different fantasy. Not the fantasy of pure origination, but the fantasy of the wonders, and even the physicality of the process of fabrication, rather than origination. It is the movement between the self in possession of it-self, and the self dispossessed, that makes me feel that your work deals with the way in which ineffable, invisible psychic realities have their own shape, their space, their signs .… which is why I started with the question, how deep does the cut have to be to have a real terror?

AK The really terrifying terror must be the terror that you bring yourself.

HB No, it is not just that. You always bring a terror. It is how you are made to re-encounter it again as something that you already knew yet quite suddenly knew.

AK It is in the telling, or retelling of something we already know but don’t realize we know. Back to proto-experience which is always surprising, always new. When I started working with the void, hollowness, emptiness became my main focus. I think the objects became less narrative and more psychological. The relationship with the spectator became more intimate. I was looking for a condition of emptiness, which if it was empty enough might return your gaze like some blind mirror. I was looking for a particular condition of emptiness, conditioned to fear perhaps.

HB Can I interrupt you? Here you have a large craggy stone, and you have made a particular penetration in it, a particular hole, and the beauty of it is that every other crease in the stone, every other plane, every other cut in the stone, is somehow informing that emptiness. But you also to some extent control the identification with the void. I cannot just void my anxieties into it, I cannot just entirely fantasize about it.

AK No, of course not.

HB And I think that resistance to an unbridled, subjective identification is really interesting tension in your work.

AK I’m thinking of Descent Into Limbo which is a much later work. The reality there is one of fear. Standing on the edge, somewhere between a hole and a plane, with a diameter and a depth which is more than big enough to completely lose oneself both physically and psychologically. In limbo, in-between. This is not an experience of voiding ones fear into emptiness – it is a conditioned experience of fear.

HB Everything about it makes you both afraid and inveigled: from the windowless cube, the tomblike structure, the narrow slit through which you enter, and then the hole, or the void; and also the way in which the light works from above so that it is very tentative and tenebrous. I’m very interested in the specific nature of the void and the hole. You mark it very specifically, and yet its reverberations are carried through a range of other media, through the way in which the light deflects from the squareness, and gives the void motion: the terror lies in the movement of the void. The fragility of the void in relation to the solidity of the stone, the complete bitter smooth darkness inside the void, and the edge on the outside which can be much more frangible, these are the moments of terror. But what is the acknowledgement of terror about? Anish, what are these terrors?

AK I wish I knew.

HB But you do know.

AK The void has many presences. Its presence as fear is towards the loss of the self, from a non-object to a non-self. The idea of being somehow consumed by the object, or in the non-object, in the body, in the cave, in the womb, etc. I have always been drawn to a notion of fear, towards a sensation of vertigo, of falling, of being pulled inwards. This is a notion of the sublime which reverses the picture of union with light. This is an inversion, a sort of turning inside-out. This is a vision of darkness. Fear is a darkness of which the eye is uncertain, towards which the hand turns in hope of contact, and in which only the imagination has the possibility of escape.

HB So supposing there is this one particular kind of relationship between the non-object and the non-self. But there is also a way in which those moments of the void can be productive through the erasure of a particular kind of individualist history of the self, towards a recognition of something much more collective. Now, the “not” is just a negation. It could be a much more public recognition of symbolic, unconscious elements that are not so easily discernible in the occurrence of everyday life, but no less a part of the inter-subjective space. A space where the erasure of a memory or the suppression of a subject’s history becomes the element of recognition that provides the links for a community, or the narrative of its history.

AK The non-subject void. The space between subject and non-subject, between recognition and chaos.

HB This reminds me of the lyrics of an American song: “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, but don’t mess with Mr. In-between”.

AK I think that’s what we’re doing, messing.

HB We’re messing with the in-between, the void, the not-there.

AK Who is not here and who is here, who is actually in-between.

HB In some of my work, I’ve called this the third space, but not a third space that integrates two given spaces. I put this to you because I see the great effect of your work in this area that I call the third space. Critics are too keen to ask, in response to your work, what belongs to India, what to the West? What is of the inside and what is of the outside? And as you quite rightly put it a moment ago, I think that what we are doing is messing with the boundary that defines these divisions of space, time and culture. We are more interested in why, within certain traditions of critical thinking, people can only deal with cultural difference by dividing it into a binary schema or a polarized schema.

AK It is easier to define in-betweeness in terms of what it is not.

HB Would it be a simplification to say, first of all, that the strategy of this space, to put it in concrete terms, is not dissimilar from the strategy of the space when we actually see it physically in the work. It is not just darkness versus light; or the smoothness of the black versus the wrinkling of the stone; or the frangible surface of the pigment versus the hard shape inside. It is much more the way in which the void is unavoidably present in all the surfaces of presence. To look for a positive statement of this shape, of the void, we will not be able to find it in the way in which other positive presences and positive forms of naming are found. There is a sense in which it is thought that clarity of thought lies in making statements in the affirmative, not in the negative. Don’t tell us what a thing is not, tell us what it is – but that is so complicit, with a certain historical and cultural notion of knowledge. I often say to people, why? Why can’t I say things as a gathering of negatives, and why can you not accept that it is somehow rhetorically, and even formally, in-between the saying of the one thing and the re-saying of it that something may exist? There is a particular philosophical tradition of putting things in the positive, so I think we should try, but I don’t think we should be overly hung up on that.

AK Similarly the whole of the tradition of sculpture concentrates on positive form. The negative in sculpture has relied on a symbolic relationship with the positive. In the last few years I have been working to try and leave behind form and deal with non-form.

HB This in-between space is something that, for a moment, I want to bring back to our particular locations as artists or writers linked with a certain history. A history of migration, a history of coming from India, a history of cultural hybridity in our own lives. I think we constitute a particular genre of the producers of meanings and symbols and arguments. We have a trajectory that has been produced by the often unacknowledged cosmopolitanism of colonial cultures. I think there is something about the mixture of cultural traditions and ethnic boundaries, so that what actually happens in the interstices, in the in-between, is neither a simple interaction, consensual or disensual, of two given traditions, but the opening up of a space of “thirdness”, that reveals the “doubleness” of the self or one’s cultural provenance. I would like to ally that space to the occurrence of the not-there or the void. It’s not a space of inversions or reversals of previously given polarities or values or hierarchies. I think it is space where we are much more aware about how boundaries or identities are complex negotiations.

AK Between the two or in the new.

HB You know the famous statement from Heidegger about the bridge that it is not the banks that define the bridge but the bridge that defines the banks. The creative challenge lies in dealing with the cross-ways, in making the leap, across the void, between cultures.

AK The very idea of dealing with Indianness and our…

HB Our mélange, our mixture.

AK Mélange, in continuously redefining Indianness.

HB And continuously redefining Englishness.

AK Precisely, and that, I think, is a very important condition. One of the things that one can see happening in art being made in India today is that somehow it seems to accept its condition as Indian, and I think we’re in a kind of odd position of neither accepting that particular condition or this one.

HB Yes, but I think it’s important to say, as some writers and critics have not been careful to do, that we don’t impose our condition necessarily upon the priorities and prerogatives of Indian artists and critics working in India.

AK Yes.

HB Working in this peculiar interstitial space is not confined to the art of migration or diaspora. However, what is more graphically obvious in this milieu of mélange is the making of art, or the “work” of culture, as a form of survival negotiated in the psychoanalytical sense. In the sense that there is no resolution to the return of one’s past – as repression, memory, ghostly fixations. One has to negotiate psychic reality, its phantasms and desires, in the midst of material reality, at the point at which one has to take responsibility for one’s social and cultural self-constructions, and one’s recognition of the place of the Other.

AK Quite. Renegotiation in psychoanalytical terms, is precisely the right area, because it holds as anchors certain affirmed realities that are continually redefined on the surface in relation to the present circumstances. In those terms one would remain continually Indian and never Indian. Let’s say, at least substantially different in each repetition and I think that is an attitude which we need to define because of our own indeterminate condition.

HB I couldn’t agree more.

AK There is something else that I am very interested in pursuing a little further. Something that does make me a little uncomfortable. While I affirm in-betweeness I also wish to say that there is nothing in-between about this at all. The void works are for me a poetic and spiritual concept. In-betweeness is a statement of cultural certainty and not one of cultural ambiguity. If we are to speak of void as in-between then it is not in-between two predefined cultural realities, but, in-between in the sense that it is potential, that it is becoming, that it is emerging, that it is probable, possible.

HB I think the important thing about this in-between space is that it really confuses and makes one question the way in which you connect an attribute to a name, the fixity, and fixation, on cultural naming. It explores the way in which the “naming” of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity is an act, an activity, a structure of authority – not an essence of the subject or object itself.

When I talk of naming, I am referring to that hoary problem: the place of repetition in the construction of identity – be it personal identity, cultural identity, sexual identity. How are we to understand the way in which elements of one cultural text repeat in the context of another? When diverse cultural symbols or signifiers interact “in the interstices”, how do we dispose of them in concurrent spatial or temporal frames? How do we understand the interactive, not as circular repetition but as the initiation of invention, a form or presence that will not settle into the past or the present? Every repetition, however much it is enshrined in a historical past or a particular political present, requires us to rethink questions of context and meaning through the making of the mark, the penetration of the hole, the place where you decide to void the stone. Specificity is the condition of historicity.

I would like to ask you about the transformative process of naming and repetition in your work. For instance, the series called Angel, and the work you did in Japan, Dragon – both winged beasts! One is a guardian of heaven, light; the other the demon of the earth, fear and flight. They are both painted stones and the process of making the work was about transforming the natural process that deposited the stones – Angel came from quarry, Dragon from a river bed. In Angel, the slate has this particular formation like layers of feathers, and the process of painting them seems to rob the stone of weight, it somehow interjects an uncertainty into the stoniness, lifts the mass…

AK Gives it flight.

HB So in a way you rid it of one kind of authority to infuse it with another kind.

AK Yes, in such a way that the stoniness is taken over by the colour. There is a difference between the affirmative presence of colour and the absent space of colour. Colour is very strikingly present, or here, but can appear as an ethereal, absent, or dreamlike space beyond surface.

HB Each repetition re-makes the work … Angel, the stone had been almost attenuated, that sort of striated stone almost lifts off.

AK It is more than naming which places the two works in different contexts. Dragon came out of quite a long-term interest in Japanese and Chinese gardens and the kinds of stones they use there. I eventually found the stone in Japan, although the stone actually came from somewhere in northern China. What is interesting about this stone is that it is deposited and then formed by corrosion, with the result that there are very deep holes in it, so even though it’s painted in precisely the same way as Angel, the work seems to have a darkness, seems to be somewhere in-between body, cave and beast. In a certain way, between heaviness and lightness, between organic and inorganic, blue is a curiously inorganic colour, even though it occurs naturally. Of the earth and not of the earth. In this incarnation Angel is repeated as Dragon. In-between earth and hell as opposed in-between earth and heaven.

HB Of musculature and mountains.

AK I think you’re quite right to the point out the similarities between the two works.

HB not just the similarities but the repetitions with difference.

AK Yes. I have also made a number of void works, but each one is different, each one seems to hold the notion of the void, the condition for it, in different terms, and that has to do with the difference in surfaces, difference in scale.

HB I have always felt that the most threatening thing, and the most creative impulse came from what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences. And I think that it is understanding how, despite the visual marks of similitude, each repetition, the whole history of a piece, its context, its aesthetics, its conditions, can never just be learned from something that went before.

The rules for reading it also exist in a kind of indeterminate space. That’s what gives the work its own presence, and at the same time, opens it up to interpretation in a spirit of transformation, its potentiality for being translated into other media, other cultural systems.

By the way, you know we referred to them as “void” pieces, but I think that maybe the time has come to rethink that term. It is not just the seeing into a void, but the way in which seeing the void does not let you forget any of the other very problematic things about surface, edge, depth, death, time and tradition and the disjunctive play of these dimensions. I think that “void” does not quite carry off the complexity of that experience, and re-thinking of historical and sculptural space that it requires.

AK It doesn’t.

First published in Anish Kapoor, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Exhib cat.1993

Re-published in Anish Kapoor Stone Sakip Sabanci Museum, Exhib cat. 2013-2014

Sakip Sabanci Museum 2013–2014

Tel Aviv Museum of Art 1993

In conversation with Nicholas Baume