Words are very much like lizards; they change colour according to position.
– Lafcadio Hearn, Talks to Writers
Critical agency regarding Kapoor's work has attained an almost bespoke parameter and verges on oxymoronically transcendental signifiers like 'dreamlike and tactile' or 'implacable yet whimsical' or, in the case of Jonathan Jones, gushed confession of dislike in extremis: 'His sculptures do not frighten the horses. They are essentially decorative, often gorgeously so, but they lack profundity. Compare his use of colour with Mark Rothko's purple murals in the Tate Modern and you will see the difference between Kapoor and a great artist.'
But, how do you stand in front of a cipher qua Kapoor?
We can take in his works and listen to the critiques; we can take his works to the heart and open ourselves to, as St. Augustine proclaimed, audi parted alterum, hear the other side: Anish Kapoor 'himself'.
The following is a venue of a polemic which utilizes Kapoor's own words – culled mostly from all and sundry interviews of him – to traffic my biases and (mis)understandings about Anish Kapoor.
But I see what it is, you are not from this part, you don't know what our twilights can do. Shall I tell you?
I was born in 1954 in Bombay to an atheist Indian and a Jew from Baghdad… Yes, my mother was an Iraqi Jew, my grandfather was the Cantor in a synagogue in Poona; I'm Jewish and I'm also a Buddhist or thought so for a pretty long time – but not in a conformist way; I try to meditate every day, twice a day for half an hour; I've been doing this for many years.
…When I was growing up in India, I realized what a blessing it could be to believe strongly in something. Religion is very important in India, even in the Jewish community.
I have lived in Great Britain since 1972. I studied at the Chelsea College of Art and Design.
But, I find these biographical titbits not useful and one of the currents in the contemporary experience of art is that it points to the biography and experience of the author. That is to say it dwells in the author. It seems to me there's another route in which the artist looks for content, which is different from meaning. It may be abstract, but, at a deeper level, symbolic content is necessarily philosophical and often religious.
I think I'm attempting to dig away at – without wanting to sound too pompous – the great mystery of being. And that, while it has a route through my psycho-biography, isn't definitely based on it.
May be it is my Indian roots that prompt me to go in that direction or may be it's my experience of being in therapy for almost 15 years and I think I'm saying that there is another position. The idea that the object in a sense has a language of itself, and that its primary purpose in the world isn't interpretive, it is there as if sitting within its own world of meaning.
Also, I make a distinction between subject matter, content, and meaning. Putting aside subject matter is saying that content can arise on its own. It does this seemingly out of formal language, considerations about form, about material, about context. When subject matter is sufficiently out of the way, some thing else occurs – may be it is the role of the artist then, as I see it, to pursue this some thing that one might call content.
Let's just underline this by saying that artists don't make objects, artists make mythologies.
When one sees a work by Picasso, let us say, what we look at is the mythological context in which Picasso worked. It's as if one's looking beyond the image, beyond the work as displayed. One is looking at Picasso's mythology which is about money, fame, and life lived in truly creative endeavour, or so the story goes.
Now, I'm moving in the opposite direction. You can't take that literally, but I'm moving in the direction of a kind of mental emptying.
People had always seen the body as the centre of my work. It can have something unspeakable. But, over the time it became something full of blood and guts, something physical; for many years I wanted to create a whole from a broken world or a broken personality. I lied that I couldn't even function without the support of a psychoanalyst. I had always found the process in which a psychoanalyst worked to be very similar to the artistic creation. At first you completely objectively collect a certain amount of material, and then you look at the whole thing from various perspectives to understand what has emerged. During this process, I tried to create or recreate myself with all I had. Then I began to become more and more interested in whether it was possible to deconstruct myself and I increasingly felt that I'm on the path of deconstruction. When I stopped therapy, I had the feeling I was reaching the end of a process and I was at a state when I needed to go the other direction – be empty!
In any case, is it truly my role as an artist to say something, to express, to be expressive? I think it's my role as an artist to bring to expression; it's not my role to be expressive. I've got nothing particular to say, I don't have any message to give to any one. But it's my role to bring to expression, let's say, to define means that allow phenomenological and other perceptions which one might use, one might work with, and then move toward poetic existence.
I'm talking about process here. I'm talking about the content of the work. If you like the truth that artist looks for comes from the interaction between the process of making and the meanings that arrive out of that process. One has to listen to them.
Then there's something may be to work with.
Until then there's only one's psycobiography.
I want to make
Something imagined, not recalled?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
– Robert Lowell
Contemporary art seems to include every one and every way of doing things. In fact, it's a really closed world that requires prior knowledge. Without it, there's no way of understanding the language that it functions in. In the meanwhile, I think Indian art has two very clear directions. One of them is phenomenological: to do with scale, to do with presence, to do with material. And the other is to do with telling a story. The narrative tradition, especially in the 19th century, is very important but it seems to me that the most contemporary Indian art is only dealing with the narrative tradition.
I'm not interested in the narrative tradition. Storytelling is not for me. It's the other side of it that I'm interested in. This relates to my ideas of abstraction. The other side of the story is experience, the phenomenological. Arriving at something that isn't telling a story but is allowing you to experience your own story.
I'm trying to make my work available to that kind of experience; that is a big difference.
Indian artists of my generation, perhaps through their much more rigorous engagement with what it means to be Indian, are beginning to deal with things that are not superficially Indian, are not to do with the telling of logical stories, but are to do with the real Indian-ness, which is as vague as smell and light and colour. The other side of it is philosophical, metaphysical whatever – I think that must be a definition of abstract art, too – it doesn't narrate, but it allows for experience.
This is an idea of art-making: the physical process being related to some internal process. The notion of the material that one's working with – stone – and colour or whatever else, coming to be a home for one's psychological material, one's psychological matter. In the end, what one is working with is oneself and one's chemistry with internal and external time. The mystical truth of art is time. Every piece of sculpture, every drawing, every painting is a kind of chemistry. It's like alchemy. What the alchemists did was to allow various substances they were playing with to be the darkness of death, the brightness of the sun, and all these were, in the final analysis, the forces of the interior. By playing around with them, they were trying to arrive at gold. The gold was a spiritual one, the transformation of the matter was an internal one. I'm sure this is the reason why art costs a lot of money. In the process of creating spirit-gold, ordinary stuff is transformed into a painting or whatever, the painting testifies to the transformation that took place in order to arrive at that gold, and therefore, it's worth a lot of money. It's bizarre but it makes sense.
3 I am not Indian
Et c'est l'heure, O Poete, de dÈcliner ton nom, ta naissance, et ta race
– St John Perse, Exil
The poem demands the demise of the poet who writes it and the birth of the poet who reads it.
– Octavio Paz: Alternating Currents
Our mélange, our mixture is continually redefining Indian-ness. 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 I'm in a kind of odd position of neither accepting that particular condition or this one and I don't impose my condition necessarily upon the priorities and the prerogatives of Indian artists and critics working in India.
However, what is more graphically obvious in my milieu of mélange is the making of art, or the work of culture is a form of survival. 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. Renegotiation in psychoanalytical term is precisely the right area, because it holds as anchors certain affirmed realities that are continually refraining 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; I think that is an attitude which I need to define because of my own indeterminate condition.
For me, being an Indian artist is not important. What is interesting is that there've been a significant number, since the mid-19th century – everyone from Van Gogh to Picasso – of European artists who have been able to look East. Van Gogh was hugely influenced by Japanese prints. Evidently, Matisse was as well, and Picasso by African art. They've been able to look to the other world and make that a part of the Western tradition. It's never happened the other way around. Not significantly, other than Tagore, who I think as one shining example, but, it's almost never happened. I think there's actually a prejudice there. I don't think it's allowed to happen, which is why it doesn't happen. Every time there is some move by an Eastern artist, or a non-European artist making something which uses some kind of Western idiom or some combination of the two, it's always been seen as influenced. This is a way of putting things down. It's only recently, really recently, that Salman Rushdie and others now are beginning to deal with something which allows for a real opening up of both the traditions.
Traditional art, Eastern or Western can't happen any more. What got to happen is something else.
Folk art really only happens in very closed societies, like the work of Tibetan monks, folk art or tribal art, in India or in Africa, in closed circumstances.
It's something I'm trying to do myself, in making my work more than stones with holes in them. How does one bring in all sorts of other things which aren't represented by the matter that's there? The decision about making a hole on the stone is somewhat physical and psychic; they are excavated in the subconscious in exactly the same way as they are excavated in the subject– the process of making that decision about where, about how deep, is the process of internalization which brings together the psychological and the physical.
I made a work 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 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, too figurative, not real enough, too much to do with narrative and not enough with its psychological potentiality.
No one is a poet unless he has felt the temptation to destroy language or create another one, unless he has experienced the fascination of non-meaning and the no less terrifying fascination of meaning that is inexpressible.
– Isidore Ducasse
The only escape was drama.
– V S Naipaul
Some people describe my work as erotic. No, my work is not erotic. It's to do with origin. That's the abiding theme of everything. And origin is necessarily sexual. The metaphor of the other place, passing through, is also sexual. So it comes in there, too. There's a difference between the way I think about it now and the way that I thought about it in the earlier work. In the earlier work the notions of origin were very figurative. The imagery was much more direct than it is now. What is always around is the idea of not being able to function, not being able to make any more work.
In that way, being an artist is much more about death. It's obvious that there's a very clear sexual parallel in that. It connects with fear, with fear of death, in a way with fear of arrival too. But, the really terrifying fear must be the fear or terror you bring yourself and made to re-encounter it as something that you already know and the telling and re-telling of something we already know but don't realize we know. Back to the proto-experience which is always surprising, always new.
I think one has to somehow engage with fear, in particular, in the work, in these dark spaces of the recesses of our psycho-geography. They're spaces of wonder but they're also featureless, also, in a sense, nonexistent – I'm thinking of my work Descent into Limbo – the reality here is one of fear.
Standing on the edge, somewhere between a hole and a plane, with a diameter and a depth more than big enough to completely lose oneself in, both physically and psychologically.
In limbo, in between.
The non-subjective void.
The space that is between subject and non-object, between recognition and chaos.
We are messing with the in-between. It is easier to define in-betweens in terms of what is not.
The whole of the tradition of sculpture concentrates on positive form. The negative in sculpture has relied on a symbiotic relationship with the positive.
In the last few years I have been working to try and leave behind form and deal with non-form.
There is also something else that I'm interested in pursuing a little further, something that makes me a little uncomfortable. While I affirm in-between-ness I also wish to say that there is nothing in-between about this at all. In-between-ness is a statement of cultural certainty and not one of cultural ambiguity. if we are to speak of the void as in-between then it is not in-between two pre-defined 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.
Also, I'm constantly dictated by the idea of making a sculpture that is actually no sculpture, just a hole in the space, that's a non-object, a non-physical thing. It's also futile, because it's not possible. Grappling continually with this impossible thing seems to me to be a direct parallel to any idea about God. It's totally intangible. One can't illustrate it, make it, or have it to be.
There are all these kinds of way in which being a sculptor and making visual art isn't like being a writer or a musician. Somehow, in the work of a writer in the form of the novel or the short story, there is a conclusion. The fact that it's a narrative, it begins and must come to, however tenuous, a conclusion. Visual art is – at least, it's a necessary part of it – that, there's no conclusion. Every work is only a little way along and it still doesn't come to a conclusion. If anything, there are some elegant questions, but there are no answers. It's an ongoing investigation. In a sense, this is a contradiction, because one of the things I'm about is absolute. And what I'm saying is that there is no absolute. But, that's a contradiction I feel quite comfortable with.
Anyway, like I was saying in the beginning, for me the notion of origin is very important. So, I have made a number of works which have titles rather similar to this idea: A Virgin as a Void; A Thousand Names. It's trying to engage with the place from which I emerge as an artist, which I feel to be feminine. I feel that creativity itself is feminine. I think this is also very Eastern. One can speak of the Western tradition, certainly in modern art, being basically phallic. Western sculpture is a phallic art. My work seems to be the opposite. Well, some of my works are, obviously, upright, and in the sense, phallic, but, they're all empty, so it's an inversion of that phallic-ness. They're not towards the flat but towards the concave – they are hermaphrodites.
In talking about a post-Freudian culture, I'm obviously continually referring to synthesis: Seeing the human being as manifesting the same essences, the same truths, in various cultural forms. These are the themes which reoccur over and over again: hermaphrodite being one of them which is the joining of opposite things: Being and non-being.
Also, I made this very strange discovery that, by emptying out – which, again, seems to be about being and non-being – as the sculptures become more hallow, they have also become much more physical. The stones are very present and very physical. So, there's this curious dichotomy there. Sculpture has been about physical space: Three-dimensional, projecting.
The thing that I seem to be doing is the opposite – making sculpture non-three-dimensional.
The physicalness of the stone is about non-physicalness, about fear, non-being, about the other place, taking it in rather than giving out. This is not an experience of voiding one's fears into emptiness – it is, in fact, a conditioned experience of fear.
5 Fear of the void
That is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
– Robert Duncan
Ultimately, the void sculptures are for me a poetic and spiritual concept.
When I started working with the void, hollowness, emptiness became my main focus. I think, then, the work too, simply became less narrative and more psychological, the relationship with the spectator became more intimate. Void has many presences, but I was looking for a condition of emptiness, which, if it was empty enough, might return your gaze like a blind mirror. I was looking for a particular condition of emptiness, conditioned to fear. Its presence as fear is towards the loss of self, from a non-object to a non-self. The idea of somehow consumed by the object, or the non-object, in the body, in the womb, etc. I have always been drawn to a notion of fear, towards a sensation of vertigo, of falling, of being pulled inward. 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 darkness of which the eye is uncertain, towards which hand turns in hope of contact, and which only the imagination has the possibility to escape.
Though the void is part of the innards of the inter-subjective space, it needs to be real as well. It needs to have appeared in some self-evident way, which has everything to do with the way it's made but not necessarily how it's made. I'm saying real in a sculptural sense, I think a little too specifically. A real `real' is 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 the reality. Sometimes, the technical decisions are familiarly read as transcendental value, or teleological process – the physical and psychological means of production are lost in the aesthetic, epiphanic ends.
6 Colour, form, Space
Criticism must attack the form, never the content of your ideas, of your language. Settle it among yourselves.
– Isidore Ducasse
Space is also a temporal notion.
– Paul Klee
In the late 70's, when I first started making sculptures as a professional artist, I was making works out of colour pigments. They look more Indian than some of the things I'm doing now. What was interesting or problematic for me then was that they were referred to as exotic. The exotic is a tag that seems akin to the touristic, as if one was viewing the work from the outside. My job was to get a view from the inside and get beyond that seemingly decorative facade.
I think I understand something about space. I think the job of the sculptor is spatial as much as it is to do with form.
Brancusi's great adventure in form, it seems to me, is a proposition which is modern, which is about upwards, onwards, the rocket, the form that's phallic and forward.
Donald Judd's great adventure in form, it seems to me, was to close form, to enclose form, and to bring colour into space. I think, if I might be so bold as to dare to put myself in that lineage, I'm interested in the idea that form in a sense turns itself inside out, the inside and the outside are equivalent to each other, which we don't just enclose.
The form is continually in a warp, and continually turning itself inside out. If one took at the platonic model, one might say, my forms are the back of the cave, away from light towards darkness, anti-phallic, the opposite of Brancusi, inward, downward.
One of the phenomena that I've worked with over many years is darkness. Darkness is a fact that we all know about, the absence of light.
Very simple. What interests me, however, is the sense of the darkness that we carry within us, the darkness that's akin to one of the principle subjects of the sublime – terror.
A work will only have deep resonance if the kind of darkness that I can generate. Let's say a block of stone with a cavity in it can have a darkness, is resident in you already.
This is not a verbal connotation, but a bodily one.
That's why sculpture occupies the same space as your body.
And, red is a colour I feel very strongly about. May be red is a very Indian colour, may be it's one of those things that I grew up with and recognize at some other level. Of course, it's the colour of the interior of our bodies. Red is the centre. I have a feeling that the darkness that it reveals is a much deeper and darker darkness than that of blue or black.
Turner's idea about colour was that colour should be viewed in its relation to white, light always towards light. Everything I ever made, I think, goes the other way: from red to black. It's the way that red recedes into darkness. It's the way that blue becomes dark. That is mysterious.
I'm not interested in composition. I want to find absolute conditions. If I make something red it's not red in relation to something else. It's red in the same way that when you put your hand into water it is wet. I want the red as red as water is wet.
7 The end
The beginning is the negation of that which begins with it.
– FWJ Schelling
Claiming that any theoretical statement has a poetic nature is equivalent to breaking down the borders and hierarchies between levels of discourse. Here we have come to our starting point.
– Jacques Ranciere
I make art for myself.
- Anish Kapoor in conversation with Heidi Reitmaier
- Anish Kapoor in conversation with Marcello Dantas
- Anish Kapoor in conversation with John Tusa
- Anish Kapoor in conversation with Homi K. Bhabha
- Anish Kapoor in conversation with Hanif Kureishi
- Anish Kapoor in conversation with Ameena Meer
Cavils of the Captious
To quote a text means to interrupt its context.
– Walter Benjamin
After attending the last India Art Summit in January, when I was leaving Delhi for Kolkata, a piece of news gripped my attention. An Indian contemporary artist's bronze sculpture of Mona Lisa, sporting a moustache and a goatee, would be installed at a public site in London. Mona Lisa with moustache and goatee? Again? Why repeat what Marcel Duchamp already construed in his famous 'L.H.O.O.Q' piece way back in 1919 that spoofed Leonardo da Vinci's muse by qualifying her as 'having heat on her bum' (to translate what the above initials, if uttered in French, would sound) and adding facial hair to the icon?
Taking cue from Benjamin's statement above, can we reach towards a sly admission to the game of appropriation in terms of intertextual poaching? Why do some of the contemporary Indian artists -- those who strive to reach out to the hallowed precincts of international art platforms -- lag behind without original ideas or show tardy, neon-light response while someone else has already lit-up that path? There seems to prevail a sense of anxiety of artistic failure to remain original. Or cook the idea's meat in haste, before it is well marinated, to meet up deadlines. This has often led to wanton negligence towards being conscious of the organic link between one's hidden roots and the manifest branches so that the flowers that blossom celebrate that link. In this game of inter-textual poaching, however, these Indian artists are far behind their brothers from China who do not produce Chinese art but art 'made in China', much like those fabricated Chinese products in the consumer market, which are outright renunciation of the tradition of Chinese art. On the other hand, China has had a sumptuous state investment in artistic infrastructure such as museums that India or other South Asian countries are comparatively denied with.
A complete contrast to this phenomenon of artistic appropriation is the work of Anish Kapoor who was the blue-eyed boy at the India Art Summit. Along with his presence, a few of his lacquered stainless steel works were displayed at the stall of Lisson Gallery from London. Moreover, there were also two simultaneous grand scale exhibitions going on at National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and at Mehboob Studio in Mumbai. However, as always, Kapoor refused to make any statements through which we can contextualize his art. In a discussion between him and the cultural theorist Homi Bhabha that I attended at the Summit, the latter ended up characterizing Kapoor's art as emerging from 'self-born' aesthetic. We know that Kapoor has rarely been interested in anything other than abstraction. His studio, as he explained once, '[I]s a place of a certain kind of practice. And there things occur that hopefully have deep quotidian recall - but are not directed by the quotidian world.' He has made Duchamp's declaration of 'all objects in the world being art' stand on its head by viewing 'all objects in the world are symbolic'. So far so good. But self-born? Does this ideological approach not hide the process of his grand creative design? Or does it not decontextualise his numerous invisible collaborators who 'produce' his works and give final shape to them, under his overarching supervision notwithstanding? In the rumpus of this Summit's commercial success, in which the total sales figures amounted to around three times that of last year's Rs 260 million ($6.5 million), such cavils from this captious critic may be relegated as irrelevant. But Kapoor had the last laugh. He made Delhi's glitterati see their own distorted mirror images in his glossy-steely concave sculptures.