Alchemy is the art of turning stone into gold. Anish Kapoor is an alchemist, turning chunks of granite into metaphorical caves, their hollow blue centers echoing with the black secrets of the unconscious. Ten years ago, he was a priest spreading piles of scarlet or yellow or blue pigment on the wall or floor, through which massive cement vegetables thrust into the room like vivid deities. His work reverberates with his own strange juxtapositions. His parents are both Indian, his father Hindu and his mother a Bombay Jew. He spent his childhood in Bombay, his adolescence in Israel, and had his art training in England, where he now lives. In 1990, Kapoor’s work will represent the United Kingdom in the Venice Biennale.
Ameena Meer Some of your early works are called A Thousand Names. What does that mean?
Anish Kapoor I’ve always felt that my work had to be about something else and that’s what saved it, what made it be of any interest. I began to evolve a reasoning, which had to do with things being partially revealed. While making the pigment pieces, it occurred to me that they all form themselves out of each other. So I decided to give them a generic title, A Thousand Names, implying infinity, a thousand being a symbolic number. The powder works sat on the floor or projected from the wall. The powder on the floor defines the surface of the floor and the objects appear to be partially submerged, like icebergs. That seems to fit inside the idea of something being partially there. Now that’s actually taken another turn. They’re all about another place. They’re all about something here, which is something inside, something not here. That process seems to happen with emptying things out, making things voided. That seems to actually fill them up. Emptying them out is just filling them up. And that’s somewhere else. I don’t know how else to say it.
AM Filling them up with what?
AK I suppose something inevitable. Something unspeakable, unknowable, unmeetable. Filling them up with fear. Fear in that they’re all dark. Fear, I guess, is death. (laughter) That didn’t take long.
AM We’re not talking about death yet. The other title you used was Part of the Red?
AK I began to evolve a color symbolism for myself. Although I don’t think very much about colors now, I still feel strongly about it. So things came to be about parts. In this thinking about colors, yellow is the passionate part of red, and blue is the godly part of red. But red is a very physical color. It’s very much about earth, it’s blood, obviously. It’s very here. That’s how I understood yellow to be something passionate, next to the red. It also has to do with form. A flat red isn’t the same as a round red or square red. If the context is controlled, if the context is a given one.
AM The context being what?
AK I’m thinking, of course, about the way of making art. Right now, I’m trying to make something white. And once you start doing it in white, there are many different whites. And what is white? I think what I’m trying to find is so white that it’s whiter than white. I don’t know what that is or how I go about it. It’s actually white in relation to something that’s less white.
AM In some places, like India, or parts of Africa, white represents death. In certain African tribes, they smear themselves with white ashes to represent dead people. And in India, widows wear white.
AK This work is actually called, I think, anyway, A Virgin Is a Void. White meaning virginity, in the sense that I understand it here.
AM Because then the virgin is a void, and the virgin can be death as well.
AK Ah ha (laughter) exactly. But there you go.
AM We’re getting back to sex and death again.
AK Why not? It’s a good subject.
AM I want to go back to the whole, to the work being part of a whole. What’s the whole?
AK The whole is me. Me and not me, that’s it. A relationship with some deeper me. That’s a complicated subject because the whole doesn’t just refer to the whole of the body of work. The “whole” refers to something bigger—religious ideas, which are unknowable.
AM That’s back to what you were saying about truth. Your work expresses some truth, that’s not being made by you, but coming through you.
AK Yes, I mean, the artist as a dynamic vehicle and not an expressor of interesting thoughts.
AM Or subjective thoughts.
AK Well, inevitably, everything is subjective and subjectivity is vital, because that’s the only way there is of reaching anything. Subjectivity is everything.
AM Subjective meaning your art, individual opinion.
AK It must be. It must be. But I think there’s a moment when individual opinion is not individual any longer. When it’s something that you understand, that I understand, that somebody else understands. Actually, we live in a post-psychoanalytic era—or let’s say a post-Freudian era. Whereas the surrealists, let’s say, lived in the Freudian era. At that time, there was a very direct relationship with the personal psyche. Now, this is very difficult to define, there’s some need to not deal with the personal self. In a way, there’s nothing else I can do, but through it, to deal with something much more absolute. Something like truth. Something like that which is not just mine. It’s also a very difficult topic because of our time. It must have something to do with being able to have worldwide communication, having the atomic bomb. Having this huge quantity of literature. Things, ideas are available to us from all over the world, cross-cultural. Does this make sense?
AK Do you agree?
AM Do I agree? I don’t know, but probably that’s because I don’t believe in truth. But I don’t have to agree with what you’re saying.
AK No, that’s true. It’s an interesting idea, though. I’m not sure I believe in truth as a fixed reality. I think it’s always changing and, in our everyday world, it’s certainly relative. But one of the things you’re able to do as an artist is to suspend the everyday world. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I’m an artist, to suspend the everyday world and define it wholly in terms of what you make.
AM Perhaps that’s only the case with abstract art.
AK I don’t think it is. I don’t think it is. I think the relationship between abstract art and figurative art is much more—there’s no such thing as abstract art.
AM Well, as opposed to representational art.
AK But I think abstract art is representational art, at least mine is.
AM Why do you think there’s no such thing as abstract art?
AK In the end, I’m talking about myself. And thinking about making nothing, which I see as a void. But then that’s something, even though it really is nothing. Who can you think of who’s made abstract art?
AM Who’s made abstract art? Well, how about Mark Rothko?
AK I don’t think that’s abstract art at all. I think that it’s deeply spiritual. But there already, it’s something.
AM But it’s not a picture of something.
AK It’s not a picture of a thing. It’s the cause of it. That’s not abstract. I understand abstract in absolute terms. Anyway, it’s a silly argument.
AM We’re not arguing, you’re talking and I’m asking questions.
AK In a sense, this idea about something partial is also there in the relationship between the viewer and the work. The work doesn’t exist without the viewer, without somebody looking at it. To a large extent, all work is incomplete. It’s completed by the person who is looking at it. That relationship is what makes it whole. All of creation is set about by the relation of Shiva and Parvati—how does it go? It’s all like that.
AM How much of your work is influenced by what you have seen in India? The pigment pieces made me think of piles of Holi colors, and the hollow stones remind me of temples.
AK I think there’s an aspect of the Indian psyche which is about the other place. That’s important to me. But then, it seems to have been a focus of Indian thought and Indian art from the beginning. The colors—I mean a color’s a color. I suppose I supply a sensibility to it which is Indian because I’m Indian.
AM I think colors belong to places. You walk down the street in London and everything is gray and everyone is wearing gray. Whereas if you walk into the desert in Rajasthan, everything is brown and gray, but everyone is wearing pink or purple or yellow.
AK I think light has a lot to do with this. Generally, even London gets brighter in the summer, I mean the way people dress. I find that that’s something innate, one of those things you carry with you—light. It’s very important, actually.
AM Sometimes when I’m coming back from India, wearing all these clothes I bought there, I’m on the plane and somewhere over the Atlantic ocean, I’d think, “Oh my God, what am I wearing? How am I going to get off the plane wearing this stuff?” Suddenly all the colors I was attracted to there look totally bizarre.
AM I wonder how much of that is light and how much is the context.
AK I think it’s much more to do with what the color’s about. Actually I’m a painter working as a sculptor. Color is a feature of that. Again, the works that I was making before the last couple of years, were all about radiation and giving out. The works that I’m making now are the opposite. They’re all about absorption, taking in. Consequently, the colors from being bright become dark and gloomy.
AM Why is that?
AK Well, there are a huge number of reasons. On one level, I don’t know—the early work was all about relationships between objects, between things. A number of different objects make it work. They define a ritual space. That was also about the relationship between the colors and the objects. Now, that space has moved inside the sculpture, inside the objects and consequently, they’re not about relationships in the same way. The relationship is probably much more self-contained within one thing. And the relationship is between the viewer and the thing, much more intently.
AM Are you going to paint them from outside?
AK The stones? No.
AM They’re painted black on the inside?
AK They’re blue.
AM One of the things you’d said about Indian art, was that you thought modern Indian art was taking from the narrative tradition as opposed to the spiritual—
AK 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 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. This relates to my ideas about 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 aren’t superficially Indian. Aren’t to do with the telling of logical stories, but are to do with the real Indianness, which is as vague as smell and light and color. 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. This notion of the material that one’s working with—stone—and, color, whatever else, coming to be a home for one’s psychological material, one’s psychological matter. In the end, what one’s working with is oneself. Every piece of sculpture, every drawing, every painting is a kind of chemistry. It’s like an alchemy. What the alchemists did was to allow the 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 that ordinary stuff is transformed into a painting or whatever, that kind of gold, and therefore, it’s worth a lot of money. It’s a bizarre way around it but it makes sense.
AM One of my professors at University in Delhi said that the difference between Eastern art and Western art, meaning literature as well, was that the Indian artist, in following a tradition, was making work for the audience, to please his audience. Whereas Western art was an expression of an individual experience.
AK I don’t think that’s true at all. Because there are good artists and bad artists, or not-so-good artists. This kind of East-West stuff is rubbish. I mean, for me, being an Indian artist is not important. What is interesting is that there have 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, and Picasso by African art. They’ve been able to look to the other world and make that part of the Western tradition. It’s never happened the other way around. Not significantly, other than Tagore, who we think of 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 seen as influenced. This is a way of putting things down. It’s only recently, really recently, Salman Rushdie and others now, are beginning to deal with something which allows for a real opening up of both traditions. Traditional art, Eastern or Western, can’t happen any more. What’s 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. I think that’s a battle that really has to be fought hard.
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?
AM This is going to sound very stupid, but for the logistics, if somebody buys one of your pieces—they buy this big rock—could they put it in their living room?
AK If they want to. They could.
AM And if one buys one of these pigment pieces, where the powdered pigment is heaped on the piece—they put it in their living room and spread all this pigment around—or do you come and set it up?
AK Do I come and set it up? Sometimes.
AM And then they can never vacuum again.
AK They can vacuum—you see, I think people are mad and amazingly courageous to have those things in their homes. It’s marvelous, it’s wonderful that they do it. And surprisingly enough, they do. It’s a great vote of confidence.
AM Do you put them in your own house?
AK I have a lot of work of mine that I live with, but at the moment, no sculpture. Just paintings and drawings. I mean having a studio like this, I’m with it all day. I’m not sure that I also want to live with it. Actually, I think it’s really important to get away from it.
AM To me, it would be like constantly rereading my own work. I don’t think I could do that.
AK I don’t mind doing that. I have many works that I keep, that I won’t let go of. There are some, in terms of what we were talking about before, in which that internal journey, is quite significantly struck and if I can keep those, I do.
AM We’re back. Let’s talk about sex, then death. Some people described your work as being erotic. I don’t think it’s erotic, but it is definitely sexual.
AK No, it’s 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. And it’s an aspect of life that’s very real. It’s part of our internal stuff, sex is a huge part of that.
AM And in talking about being and non-being, sex is both. Here and not-here.
AK 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 this 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.
AM You know that in French an orgasm is called, “la petite mort?”
AK Yes. 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. There are all these kinds of ways 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 within the form of the novel or the short story, there is—there’s a conclusion. It begins and then it finishes. Visual art is—it’s a necessary part of it, that there’s no conclusion. If anything, there are some elegant questions, but there are no answers.
AM I don’t think a piece of writing begins and ends.
AK You don’t. But the form, certainly the form of the novel has a beginning and end. It seems to me that only poetry has this kind of form. This continuing.
AM I don’t know. In terms of my writing, it’s more of a thought, an idea. A novel or a piece of writing is more of a passing thought and one jumps on to it, and it doesn’t necessarily end where one jumps off. One stops writing there. It’s doesn’t necessarily try to conclude. It’s almost an arbitrary decision where to stop.
AK But the form doesn’t allow you to be arbitrary, does it?
AM It does. At least, the modern form does. I don’t know if people write novels anymore—if they really consciously did—according to rising action, climax, falling action, denouement anymore than people write classic sonnets.
AK No. But what I’m trying to say is that by the fact that it’s a narrative, it must come to, however tenuous, a conclusion. One of the things about abstract art is that it doesn’t come to a conclusion. Every work is only a little way along and it still doesn’t come to a conclusion. It’s an ongoing investigation.
AM It’s still a finished piece.
AK With no beginning or end though.
AM Beginning from the time you start making it to the time you think it’s finished, or the time someone starts looking at it, to the time they leave it to look at something else.
AK Yes, but physically, not metaphorically.
AM Then you could say the same thing about a novel.
AK Okay, I’ll accept that.
AM It could be physically ended but not metaphorically. The big questions might still not be answered. Otherwise, how could you continue writing? I can’t speak for everybody—but now I’ve interrupted you and contradicted you. Please—so your work doesn’t conclude, it doesn’t have an ending. Where does it go?
AK It goes to the next piece.
AM And eventually you’ll be finished.
AK No. That’s the whole point. I mean that’s exactly where we started, isn’t it? That’s back to A Thousand Names, that’s back to never completing it, never being finished. 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.
AM Back to what you were saying about expressing truth. If truth is relative, then your expression of truth is different from someone else’s expression.
AM Well then, how do you know that yours is the truth?
AK It’s only true to me and I think if it’s true enough for me, then it’s true enough for you. Or for somebody else.
AM In which case, truth is truth. One doesn’t need your background, or any background to see and understand the truth.
AK Of course you do, as usual. It’s all got to do with the media. Contemporary art seems to include everyone and every way of doing things. In fact, it’s a very closed world that requires prior knowledge. Without it, there’s no way of understanding the language that it functions in. But that’s true of physics and it’s true of everything.
AM But do you think the truth in art is an absolute truth, relative only in the sense that you need a certain background to understand it? If you take E=MC², obviously, one needs a certain background to understand it, but it is true, no matter what the context.
AK It’s also true in art. A good work is a good work. Whether it’s in Africa, Latin America or New York.
AM Let’s go back to A Virgin As A Void.
AK To me, the notion of origin is very important, so I’ve made a number of works which have titles rather similar to that. It’s trying to engage with the place from which I emerge as an artist, which I feel to be feminine. I feel my creative self to be feminine. I feel that creativity itself is feminine. I think this is also very Eastern. One can speak of Western tradition, certainly in modern art, being basically phallic. Western sculpture is a phallic art. My work seems to be the opposite. All the works I have here in the studio, they’re all upright, and in that 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. That’s very important for me.
AM Then they’re hermaphrodites.
AK It seems to me that that condition is desirable. It seems to be truth.
AM What is truth?
AK Your word, hermaphrodite. In talking about a post-Freudian culture, I’m obviously continually referring to union culture, which is less theoretical and much more cultural—more to do with global culture. Seeing the human being as manifesting the same things, the same truths, in various cultural forms. But the same truths. That’s a steady constant. These are themes which reoccur over and over again. Hermaphrodite being one of them. The joining of opposite things.
AM Which you see as being opposed to making phallic things.
AK No, I think that was in a special context. In terms of modern art, in my peculiar view of it. It’s another theme that’s been around a lot for me: opposition. Opposite things coming together.
AM With A Virgin Is A Void, the idea of death in terms of black or white—death being black and nothingness and then sex being white and everything, or the other way around.
AK Potentially, they’re both everything and they’re both nothing. It’s too vague to talk about death in these large terms. I think one has to somehow engage with it in particular—we’re going to, each one of us—but specifically in the work, in these dark spaces. They are spaces of wonder but they’re also featureless, also, in a sense, nonexistent. It’s the idea of making a sculpture that is actually not sculpture, just a hole in 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 for any ideas about God. It’s totally intangible. One can’t illustrate it, make it, or have it be. One can only remotely refer to it. I think that’s worthy. That’s the stuff, for me, art ought to be made of. And that’s why it will always be incomplete. It’s impossible to complete.
AM So art is about being and not-being.
AK Exactly, exactly.
AM Is that the truth?
AK I made this very strange discovery, that by emptying out—it seems to be about being and non-being—as the works become more hollow, they also have 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: here, three-dimensional, projecting. The thing that I seem to be doing is the opposite. Making sculpture un-three-dimensional. The physicalness of the stone is about non-physicalness. About fear, about the other place, taking in rather than giving out.
—Ameena Meer is writing a novel about a Bombay pop idol in Paris.