Sunday Times, 07 October 2012
I thought I was interviewing Anish Kapoor, but instead I appear to be playing a game: hunt the thimble or some such. There is a row of doors, and we have to keep opening them to see if the thimble is inside. Yet each door reveals only further puzzles. There are strange objects, some messy, some shiny, and various young people, who keep confronting Kapoor with problems that have to be solved yesterday. A client in Korea is being especially recalcitrant. “This is no way to do sculpture!” Kapoor cries as he tackles the Korean question.
He has, you see, acquired over the years a significant length of a street in southeast London. Starting with what is still proudly advertised as the premises of Dennison Kett (Rolling Shutters-Grilles), he has crept along 60 yards and now, behind the door-infested street frontage, he has 30,000 sq ft — think medium-sized Sainsbury’s — in which about 25 people slave away at his sculptures, spraying, brushing, polishing and thinking up problems for when the boss next comes round.
He is busy, absurdly so, globally so. But the busyness also includes an obsession with variety. He works simultaneously on a huge number of projects in a bewildering array of forms. Once, he would work on one object at a time, but it drove him mad; now he works on what seem to be dozens. “If a thing is not going well,” he explains, “you can just go on to the next.”
Here are some of the works-in-progress I saw: giant concave, faceted mirrors; fibreglass bowls with intensely coloured interiors; concrete blobs (“turd-like”, he says); rectangular forms of a solid, spongelike material; earth paintings; curious tubes and trumpet-shaped things. In the white room in which we talk, there’s even a Philip’s Atlas of the World that turns out to be a Kapoor. It’s open at the Middle East: in one side, a circular, angled void is formed by cutting through the pages; on the other side, the void is square. Political?
“I made it during the second Iraq war. I have a friend who told me about the concept of horizontal drilling — you drill into somebody else’s country. I suppose I was toying with the idea of world dominance.”
A good word for Kapoor, “toying”. He has become, at 58, a capricious experimenter. Perhaps he always was. It’s just that one used to be able to say with confidence: “That’s a Kapoor.” That is no longer possible. Take two examples. In his new exhibition, there is a huge diesel engine that, not so long ago, powered a BT backup generator, and, er, that’s it. Yet this, too, is a Kapoor, his first “found object” work. More controversially, there is the Orbit, the tower in the Olympic Park. It looks nothing like a Kapoor, and scorn was poured on it the minute it was up. How did he feel about that?
A good word for Kapoor, “toying”. He has become, at 58, a capricious experimenter. Perhaps he always was
“It’s a very odd object. I’m not surprised it got a bad press, but I see it like this — once you go into the Orbit, it becomes a completely different object from the one you thought you were looking at from the outside. All those who have written about it well are those who went inside.”
Fair enough, I’ve not been inside, but from outside, it makes me wince, and I’m a Kapoor fan. Mind you, even he has problems with the Orbit. He says he doesn’t make any money out of his public works — the fee never covers the costs — but he didn’t even get a fee for this. “I’m the only person on that project who didn’t get paid. Not a penny, not one penny. In fact, it cost me money. At first, I minded, I made a big fuss about it, but not now.”
Anyway, here he is, probably the biggest name in world sculpture. He has achieved what several generations of modernists failed to do: he makes high art that is popular. Thousands crowd around his huge Cloud Gate, in Chicago — where it is known as “the bean” — and his Shooting into the Corner, at the Royal Academy, was a popular sensation. It was, more than anything else, that exhibition in 2009 that established his popular success. Yet he comes from the most austere, implacably “difficult” tradition of late modernism, which includes artists such as Joseph Beuys and Donald Judd. For them, “meaning” was a spurious concept. Not for Kapoor. “Judd really was a great artist, but I want more. I want meaning. I want difficulty. I want the problem of meaning. Somehow I felt the need to f*** with it and make it dirtier.”
One way he does this is with titles. The great stretched tube with which he filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2002 was pulled back from absolute abstraction by its title, Marsyas, a Greek satyr who was flayed alive. Another huge sculpture, in Middlesbrough, is called Temenos, a Greek word for a special piece of land cut off from ordinary use. The titles demand the very mythological meanings at which Judd would have shuddered.
Born in Mumbai, Kapoor had a Jewish mother. That led him, as a teenager, to go to Israel and work on a kibbutz. “Like all good Indian boys”, he accepted his father’s insistence that he go into a profession, and he chose engineering. It didn’t last, and at some point, without any particular signs of talent — “I couldn’t draw” — he decided to become an artist. “Somehow I knew it, I just knew it. I had always made things and painted as a child.” He went to the art colleges of Hornsey and Chelsea and worked his way through the canon, finally arriving at the Beuys-Judd climax of late modernism. Thereafter, nurtured by Nicholas Logsdail’s Lisson Gallery, in London, his career trajectory was pretty smooth. He represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and won the Turner the year after. In 2002 came Marsyas and, last year, Leviathan at the Grand Palais, in Paris, the inflatable to beat all inflatables.
Yet there remains something indefinable about him. He is neither aesthetically nor chronologically one of the YBAs, like Hirst and Emin. Nor does he belong to the earlier generation of sculptors that includes Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow and Richard Long. He is also indefinable as far as the monstrous ogre that is the art market is concerned. Artists are often spoken of as in or out of the market. Jeff Koons is 100% “in”, because everything he makes is available for sale. Kapoor is half “out”, however, because his public works are not in there, and some of his works just will not sell. “Nobody has ever bought a wax piece of mine, and nobody has ever bought a big cement work — well, one was bought by the Prada Foundation. It was a risky thing to do. These are entropic works that fall apart.”
Not that he is complaining. He is worth somewhere north of £80m, according to The Sunday Times Rich List. It’s not small change, though it’s way behind Hirst, the market maestro, who is worth well to the north of £215m. Kapoor is also known as a hard-as-nails negotiator. “No is not a word he seems to understand,” one insider said. I would guess he’s as manically perfectionist about his business dealings as he is about the finish on his mirrors and bowls. Business savvy is not, in itself, a refutation of aesthetic seriousness.
Intellectually, he is a good deal more than half “out” of the market. In a special room in his warehouse are magnificent Indian sculptures from as early as the 5th century. He has collected them over the years, but he doesn’t think he should be allowed to own them: “It’s absurd that I can buy these things. They should belong to the world!” In other words, the market is a temporary resting place for art. It is not the last word. This puts him not only outside the YBAs’ orbit, but positively opposed to them. Like me, he went to see the vast collection of objects Hirst sold at Sotheby’s in 2008. I came out feeling like a Strasbourg goose, force-fed, nauseous; he came out uneasy. He saw that the very popularity of art is in danger of turning it into another consumer good, an empty vessel, devoid of mythology and meaning.
I would guess he’s as manically perfectionist about his business dealings as he is about the finish on his mirrors and bowls. Business savvy is not, in itself, a refutation of aesthetic seriousness
“It’s to do with our time — Tate Modern has five million visitors a year, and one has to kind of wonder what that does to art. I hope it does good things for people, but it’s as if art has become in the process very commoditised… What do we do, produce more stuff for Louis Vuitton, make more fancy-dancy goods? Everything gets subsumed into the market. Damien, in his way, says, deal with it. He has effectively said, my work is about the market. This is problematic, because I don’t want to do Louis Vuitton and make luxury goods.”
If not the market, then what? Kapoor, like most great artists, is plainly, glaringly religious. His art, at its best, balances somewhere between this world and another, between the blankly material and the wholly mythological. He is in love with deep, black voids that suggest nothing and everything. One large one was so effective that a man took it for a carpet and threw his glasses down in disgust. The spectacles vanished into the void.
Kapoor tentatively accepts much of this interpretation. “I fundamentally believe that somewhere we are, in spite of ourselves, religious beings; and there is something about many kinds of artists I admire, from Barnett Newman to medieval sculptors, that is religious. There is something about sculpture in general to do with the body, about how you are made to see it, that is very old, proto-religion. One of the things about abstract art is that it allows you to go back to the beginning, to ask daft questions like ‘What is consciousness? Who are we? Where are we?’”
I think I found that thimble. Go and look for it yourself.