A State of Becoming

May 2013

Delving deep with Anish Kapoor

You would be mistaken to think that Anish Kapoor’s sculptures are all about exquisiteness of form, when, in fact, they are actually about its negation. His perfectly made, smooth and usually very shiny works, often grand in scale, may at first register a mighty physical presence but are really only vehicles intended to transport one into another world, somewhere mysterious and personal. DAMN° visited his studio and learned exactly how he feels about his life and his work.
ANISH KAPOOR, 2012. During his exhibition at Museum De Pont, in front of his ‘Shooting into the Corner’ installation from 2008-2009. Photo: Peter Cox © Anish Kapoor / Museum De Pont
As a sculptor, Anish Kapoor is highly interested in materials: in their properties, limitations, and potential. But his deeper concern is the immaterial, or what he calls the ‘non-object’. A talk with Kapoor therefore easily leads to paradoxes. All summer and autumn, the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin is exhibiting some 70 of his works, from the 1980s to the present, in stone, steel, glass, wax, and pvc. Among these are early sculptures made with pigment, a phallic paint canon that shoots wax onto the wall, and mirror sculptures that capture space and the viewer in a different dimension. DAMN° spoke with Kapoor about his artistic motives. “One of the ideas that’s been around in my work for many years is the idea of the non-object. At one level, one might say that the history of sculpture is the history of material. But for every material there is also a kind of non material.” During a visit to his studio in London, Anish Kapoor told us that the non-material has been his obsession for many years. An example is Descent into Limbo, a work he made in 1992 for Documenta IX in Kassel (a newer version is on view in Berlin as of mid-May). It looks simple: there is a dark circle on the floor in an empty room. It could be a painted surface you can step on. But in reality it’s a hole in the floor, an opening to an oval underground space covered with pigment. The pigment disables the viewer’s sense of spatial orientation. There appears to be a solid surface where in fact there is emptiness. And this is right where Kapoor wants to have us. Form is emptiness. “My adventure as an artist is to question the status of the object. Ever since the first pigment pieces I made, I’ve been involved in, or obsessed with, the idea that objects are never what they say they are. They are always contingent, always anxious, always have other memories, other possibilities. In short, material is never just material; it’s always something else. (...) Over the years I’ve come to feel that objects are in a state of becoming. They are almost saying that you need to participate in them. It’s not enough to look at them as an image.”
Kapoor’s sculptures anticipate a viewer who will approach and become part of the work. They are not classical sculptures presented as finished forms to be contemplated. They function rather like conductors, intermediaries, leading to a certain kind of experience and perception. All this doesn’t mean that the appearance and aesthetics are not important. On the contrary. In the process of developing the work, on a technical and material level, the artist doesn’t spare cost or effort. In his studio he has several assistants doing experiments, sanding moulds, and polishing shiny surfaces to a grade of perfection wherein no human hand can be discerned. Kapoor spent 10 years researching to get the right concave curve in a mirror of steel. He wanted something that is hardly possible to make and is only satisfied if such an impossibility has become a physical reality. But once the mirror is there, and has become part of a sculpture, it’s no longer about the physical complexity or form of the object, it’s about the effect it has. About the way it magnifies or swirls around the image of the viewer who approaches it in space. “It’s all about the body”, Kapoor says of his works. And therefore scale is of utmost importance. He seems to like the less-comfortable zones of experience. He is attracted to darkness and black holes, interested in places that create fear, terror, and awe. Or he refers to primal experiences, to the womb, and to blood. The performative Shooting into the corner exemplifies that. It’s a canon that every half-hour shoots a lump of red wax into the corner of the exhibition room. A work with aggressive and sexual connotations, and again, a sculpture that has no fixed form. One could also call it an ever-changing painting.
Kapoor seduces his audience into the dark. The highly polished surfaces, the minimal clarity, the strong colours, the elegant curving lines, are all inviting, if not beautiful, but the inner content of the work is not necessarily pleasant or smooth. There is often this moment of disorientation, of undermining expectation. “The whole point of making abstract art is that it allows a certain relationship between the object and the viewer that is delicate, and which is full of the experience of the viewer, while very carefully directed by the artwork.” Back in 1988, when Anish Kapoor had a show at his London gallery, he talked about the qualities of ancient Indian sculptures and about the way people in India have a connection to objects. There it’s quite common to have a small shrine at home, with some objects that are regarded with respect, since they contain something hidden. For Kapoor, the link with India is vital to his way of dealing with objects. But, as he already mentioned back then, it was also vital for him to leave the country. Twenty-five years later, at the opening of an exhibition at Museum De Pont (Tilburg, 2012), he prefers not to talk about India anymore. We’re standing in front of one of his concave-shaped sculptures that hangs like a giant bowl on the wall, opening upwards to face the viewer. The curved surface is covered with dark blue pigment. If you move towards the work, the pigment starts to surround your whole field of vision and creates and endless space. “Pigment dematerialises the object”, says Kapoor. “It stops being an object and turns into a kind of apparition. A fleeting non-object.” Pigment is also a link to Kapoor’s Indian origins. “Of course, I’m from India”, Kapoor says. That’s the way it is. But he doesn’t like to discuss his work in that context anymore. “In this global art world, everybody is talking about their origins being a kind of motor of the work. That is a big mistake.” Kapoor rather sees the heart of an artwork being its power of invention. That’s what matters. He doesn’t deny that the pigment can be related to India, but at the same time his use of monochrome is clearly related to western modern art. That’s not Indian at all. One should not forget that the artist has been in England for 40 years. Born in Bombay, he left the country in the early 1970s to work on a kibbutz in Israel, and came to Great Britain in 1973, where he attended art school. His whole career took shape in London.
“One of the reasons I’m interested in monochrome is that it does something to time. When you have monochrome in the right context, it induces a kind of dreaminess, a kind of reverie. Mondrian used colour as a compositional tool. I love Mondrian, but I’m not interested in composition; with my work I want to make singular conditions. Colour can do that; a monochrome can do that in a very particular way. It’s a non verbal condition; that’s wonderful. There are only a few artists who work in that way, for instance Elsworth Kelly and James Turrell.”
Kapoor was invited to make spectacular, large scale works like Cloud Gate (2004) in Chicago and The Orbit, a 115-metre-high tower for the Olympic Park in London (2012, in collaboration with Cecil Balmond, Arup AGU). Again, he was looking for a twist in logic, a challenge to the material. “The tradition with towers is that they are symmetrical, because the structure holds itself up. But 21st century techniques allow us to build asymmetrically.” Spectacular projects are often empty, in terms of deeper meaning, he acknowledges. But working with big productions for a large audience doesn’t necessarily mean loss of content. In such a context he also wants to create something meaningful, to invoke a sense of awe or wonder. Or to show sharpness. “One of my references for The Orbit was the Tower of Babel, a tower that represents ambition and is really about destruction.” Kapoor is an artist with a spiritual quest, and this, together with his interest in darkness and immateriality, keeps his work alive and changing. “I’m interested in the idea of a kind of utopian space. These kinds of ideas are out of fashion. Each one of us might have utopian ideals, but we don’t express them communally. We don’t see them as collective ideals any longer. I think art can express that problem, or that question. Art allows some of those utopian places to exist, without delineating them.” ‹
The exhibition Anish Kapoor is at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin from 18 May to 24 November 2013. www.berlinerfestspiele.de
UP DOWN SHADOW, 2005. Wood, wax, and oil-based paint. 172 x 172 x 101.5cm Photo: Dave Morgan, courtesy of the artist, © Anish Kapoor / VG Bildkunst, Bonn, 2013
EXHIBITION VIEW DE PONT, TILBURG, 2012 with Slug and Cornerpiece. Photo: Peter Cox © Anish Kapoor / Museum De Pont
UNTITLED, 1990. Fiberglass and pigment Dimensions variable Photo: J Fernandes and S Drake. © Anish Kapoor / VG Bildkunst, Bonn, 2013
‘Shooting into the Corner’. Photo: Peter Cox © Anish Kapoor / Museum De Pont
This article appeared in DAM38. Order your personal copy.