Anish Kapoor: Making It Big

As former Bombay boy Anish Kapoor exhibits for the first time in India, we look back at his career and work

Published: Dec 9, 2010
Anish Kapoor: Making It Big
Image: Vikas Khot

Kapoor on ‘Shooting into the Corner’ In this particular situation, there is a relationship between all kinds of art, from Goya to Jackson Pollock, the cliché of throwing a bag of paint at the canvas. I made it originally back in Vienna [the home of Actionism]. Having made it, I realised that there’s a very strong relationship, created by the corner, with architecture. Without corners, there’s no architecture. That, in turn, relates to civilisation. Then of course, it’s very sexual. All these layers, the idea that a work’s simple gesture can stimulate, they interest me.

Ten years and six months ago, I was lost in London. I chanced upon Lisson Gallery and walked in to see an exhibition titled Blood. It was my first Anish Kapoor show.

Blood was a big deal, even if his name rang only muffled bells in my head.

It was his first major solo in London since 1998. He had already won the prestigious Premio 2000 prize at the 1990 Venice Biennale and the 1991 Turner Prize. His work was part of prestigious collections, earning multi-zeroed amounts in auctions; he was hailed as one of the most influential sculptors of his generation.

It’s not that Kapoor’s triumphs had not been reported in India. Although he was resoundingly clear about being British Asian rather than Indian, the fact that he’d been born in Mumbai and was a Doon School alumnus meant that India’s press claimed him as our own once he became successful. But his celebrity status was limited in India because his work doesn’t suffer being reduced to words or photographs kindly. And it’s difficult to describe how intensely experiential it is, especially when there isn’t an exhibition of his works for the reader to see.

Today, Blood may not be the most outstanding example of his skills but, at the time, it was very intriguing and has informed my view of Kapoor ever since. It’s made me notice his Tarantinoesque fascination with violence, articulated most obviously in recent times in ‘Svayambh’ (2007) and ‘Dismemberment of Jeanne d’Arc’ (2009). Both were massive and used red wax. The resemblance between clotted blood and the wax isn’t coincidental.

The sculptural works in Blood seem almost delicate in comparison to these newer creations. ‘Turning Water into Mirror, Blood into Sky’ was a contraption made of a steel vessel that had red liquid in it and a motor. Seeing the glistening, fake blood made me feel nauseous.

‘Blood Cinema’ was made of a large steel circle that had a circular sheet of red acrylic in it. The piece reminded me of a giant sieve, like the ones held up to the moon on Karva Chauth by god-fearing wives. You could walk around it, washing the space opposite you in red and creating an illusion, becoming part of the illusion for someone on the other side of the sheet. The transparency of the acrylic gave it a strange fragility despite the violence symbolised by the colour.   

The contrast between the clinical precision of his process and the dark turbulence at the emotional core of his works is something that struck me while I walked around Blood and I’ve seen it in different manifestations over the years.

“I’m deeply interested in violence but I don’t quite know how to get there,” he said when I spoke to him as he supervised the installation of his works in Mumbai’s
Mehboob Studios.

Rather than a narrative, he is interested in pure, pristine sensation, unhampered by storytelling and enriched with the context within which an artwork is seen. One of the ways he’s tried to achieve this in the past is through colour.

Red has appeared in Kapoor’s work in the 1980s. He had just settled into England at the time. (He left India at the age of 16 for Israel, with the intention of becoming an electrical engineer, but after a while decided he wanted to be an artist instead. He came to London in 1973 as a student of Hornsey College of Art. In 1977, he enrolled in Chelsea School of Art and Design, and by 1980 he’d made a quiet entry into London’s art scene.) Back then, he was working with pigments that were reminiscent of piles of rangoli colours. His colourful installations were pleasant to look at but few inspired the sense of wonder that would be an integral part of viewing an Anish Kapoor creation 20 years later. They did, however, milk the intensity of primary colours. Like a magician, he froze pigments into sculptural forms that would be poised between collapse and sculpture, offering a glimpse of his love for illusion and spectacle.

Anish Kapoor: Making It Big
Image: Jean-Baptiste Rabouan/Corbis

On the Mumbai Show The first time I saw [Mehboob Studios], it had a huge set in it with Aishwarya Rai acting. There was a three-storey house, built in the place. And I had to imagine a cannon here. It’s an amazing place and I’m very pleased to be working here. The important thing about a place like this is it being able to hold the scale.

In a way, there’s a certain Utopian point [to the works on display] here. There are those works that are pure Euclidean objects, very mathematical and absolute. Then there are the two other works [using red wax] that are the opposite. They’re violent, they’re disordered. The aesthetic, while it’s very carefully controlled, is also open to a whole range of metaphorical possibilities. I’m happy to have them live together. 

His fascination for colour came to the fore in the early 90s. The densely-blue ‘My Body is Your Body’ (1993) and the almost blinding ‘Yellow’ (1999) were large wall pieces with sunken centres that look like they could swallow you if you came too close. “Monochrome does some very strange things in the sense that it can be a singular condition,” he said. “I’m looking for a clear, even absolute, Utopian condition. And colour often offers that. When I make something yellow, I want to see it yellow enough to bathe in.”

The Delhi half of Kapoor’s India show, which he described as “more of a retrospective”, includes a few of his older colour pieces, including one pigment work.

In the late 90s, circles, funnel-like depressions and concave shapes began appearing regularly in his art. By this time, he was building up a mesmerising body of work that used geometric blocks and explored ideas of spatiality. The angles and planes of his three-dimensional forms encouraged mischievous illusions with dark undertones, like those glimpsed in his pigment-based sculptures. The ‘Resin, Air Space’ (1998) series was made up of translucent rectangles and squares made of resin that had objects embedded in them. It was like seeing something fossilised. The neat geometry of the blocks also toyed with the idea of the gallery being a white cube in which art is contained. ‘Turning the World Inside Out’ (1995) was a spherical, mirrored sculpture that offered warped reflections of its surroundings on its curves. Its alter ego was ‘Turning the World Inside Out II’ (1995) which was a mirrored, circular patch on the floor whose funnel-like centre seemed intent upon sucking in reflections. ‘Iris’ (1998) was a similar floor piece but, this time, it was convex; a single, silvery eyeball that didn’t blink, that one couldn’t evade.

Concave and convex forms have occupied a prominent place in his work since the late 90s. They enhanced the meditative feel of his art, which was, literally, growing. The immense sculptures seemed to stretch the white cube of the gallery to its limit. Not only were they becoming bigger, they demanded one spend time enveloped by them, feeling their colour and form all around.

‘Her Blood’ (1998) was made up of three, large reflective concave discs — two silver, one red — placed so that a viewer walking through saw the red disc stain the other two with just its reflection.

In Mehboob Studios, he has seven mirrored works, of which one is a concave disc with a twist: Instead of the usual smooth silvered surface, it is made up of fragments that make it look like an imploding disco ball. The shatter pattern shows an abstracted, almost Impressionist vision of the space it’s in. The reflection also turns the world upside down. Look closer, at a single mirror fragment, and you’ll see yourself the right way up.

Over the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kapoor invented and enriched his distinctive visual language. His works were often built in actual factories because the strange shapes and curious curves he imagined required industrial processes to be realised into sculpture.

The emphasis of his work, however, wasn’t on technical sophistication but rather on visual simplicity.

He was, and continues to be, interested in what he has described as “the unitary, geometric form”, apparently simple shapes that are actually very complex to fabricate and “seem to have a universal, human recall”. Tangible messages are of little importance: “One of the great things about art is that it’s totally useless, and meaningless,” he said during our interview.

Anish Kapoor: Making It Big
Image: Yin dongxun/Corbis

On Violence
I’m deeply interested in violence but I don’t quite know how to get there. And I want to go there, all the time. Somehow it’s too banal to say: Okay, I’m going to make something about death and I’ll do you a skull. That’s meaningless to me. To get there, it’s a much more complex, emotional equation and the linear ones never work to my eyes. How do you get there, almost in spite of the wish to write opera?

This philosophical attitude is charming enough but take a moment to consider the art of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The names sending chills down viewers’ and critics’ spines included Tracy Emin, Steve McQueen, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Cindy Sherman. Contemporary art had things to say and rant about, intent upon provoking reactions and forcing viewers to confront certain meanings and suggestions. Next to this pulsing energy, Kapoor’s works sometimes seemed gently directionless, their size being the headline feature rather than the concept.

Kapoor hasn’t swayed from his stand. “If you encumber a work or process with functionality, the big risk is that you lose that other much more subtle, gentle stuff.”

His spectacular public art projects have championed this philosophy most emphatically. These massive sculptures often come to life in a way that works don’t inside the confines of a gallery.

‘Sky Mirror’ (2001) was the first to show off his clever use of mirrored surfaces in an outdoor space. Commissioned originally by the Nottingham Playhouse, it is a six-metre-wide concave stainless steel dish angled towards the sky. It’s one of the most breathtaking pieces of public art, absorbing its environment and playing on ideas of illusion and reality. It cost approximately ₤900,000 and six years to make. Versions of this piece can be seen at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, and Kensington Gardens, London (till March 2011). A larger version was temporarily installed in New York’s Rockefeller Center in 2006.

While ‘Sky Mirror’ may have been dramatic in 2001, he repeatedly outdid himself with sculptures that were bigger, more dramatic, much more expensive and increasingly architectural. ‘Marsyas’ (2002) remains one of the most talked-about exhibits at London’s Tate Modern. Named after a satyr who was flayed alive by the Greek god Apollo because he played the flute better than the god, the 155-metre PVC work, with its trumpet-shaped extensions that looked eerily fleshy, recalled the myth of Marsyas while actually managing  to dwarf Turbine Hall. Cecil Balmond, the engineer who had the task of translating Kapoor’s drawings into PVC-based reality, described the sculpture as “the very edge of what is possible”.

Two years later, Kapoor unveiled ‘Cloud Gate’ (2004) in Chicago. Affectionately known as ‘the Bean’ to locals, it looks like a huge globule of mercury hovering in the middle of a park, reflecting the city and its people on its silvery surface. From all angles — technical, artistic, conceptual and experiential — it is spectacular. It’s also among the most expensive pieces of public art in the world with a price tag of $23 million.

Earlier this year, he unveiled ‘Temenos’ in the English town of Middlesbrough. A massive and yet delicate sculpture that resembles elongated butterfly nets, it is the biggest public artwork in the world.

Kapoor has repeatedly insisted that scale and cost shouldn’t define his work; he maintains that they are as big as the idea behind them and the poetry of the form need them to be. However, there also seems to be an adherence to the classical belief that grand scale is an example of an artist’s proficiency.

As his confidence in his work and his fabricators has grown, so has the scale of his creations. Making and installing costs are simply a part of the process of creation, as far as he is concerned, although he does appreciate how price adds value to art.

Anish Kapoor: Making It Big
Image: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

On Art and Architecture One of the great things about art is that it’s totally useless, and meaningless. Therefore it occupies a very odd and profound space culturally, one that allows for poetry, the sublime, love maybe, or something like it. It works the way our inner self works, between chaos and order, understanding and not understanding, poetry and meaningless. If you encumber a work or process with functionality, the big risk is that you lose that other much more subtle, gentle stuff. I don’t think I want to build a building that has a purpose to it. That’s the stuff that architects have to deal with. At the moment I’m making [ArcelorMittal] Orbit and that does have a lot of architectural crap in it, like toilets and cafés. It’s a nightmare. Absolutely tiresome. The architects can take that side of it.

When you look at art that’s worth millions, what you’re doing in a way is attributing a certain set of values that are not just monetary,” he said. “I don’t think one has to be shy about it. In a way, the more a work sells for, the deeper that part of its mythological component. Can it be vulgar? Yes, of course. But if the work is good, no it won’t be vulgar.”

Last year, he became the first living artist to be given a solo show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He showed some fantastic new work, like ‘Shooting in the Corner’ (a cannon blasting red wax at a wall, which is on display in Mumbai). The show should silence those whose complaint is that his works are only spectacular. Layers of meaning were pressed into them. ‘Svayambh’ had a 30-tonne chunk of crimson wax, shaped like a train, running on tracks through the five galleries of the Royal Academy. As it travelled through the arches, bits of the “train” would stick to the walls, sculpting it into a more defined shape.

To Western critics, the blood colour and the trains inspired associations with the Jews during the Holocaust. South Asians may think of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. I was reminded that naturally-formed Shiva lingams are called ‘swayambhu.’

If you look for connections in his career, as well as between yourself and the art you’re viewing, an Anish Kapoor show can be emotionally intense and visually fascinating. Despite their size, his sculptures are often remarkably introverted, refusing to reveal anything more than your own reflection at best. To understand them, you must view them through your own kaleidoscopic vision.

Perhaps because Blood was my first experience of Kapoor, I’ve noticed how red has been used, the way mirrors have underlined the importance of perspective, and how the circle has shape-shifted to reappear as a ceiling, a blob, the rim of a net, the heart of a hive, the mouth of a cannon. I’ve watched how violence and gore have become more and more pronounced.

Whether you enter to see why this is one of the most expensive art exhibitions ever organised in India (the two-city show is costing upwards of $2 million) or because you’ve been following how motifs shape-shift, you’ll have had your very own, unique Anish Kapoor experience.

And by doing so, you’ll have completed the work of art that Kapoor began.


The Anish Kapoor exhibition has been organised by the Ministry of Culture and the British Council with Lisson Gallery, Louis Vuitton and Tata Group. (Free entry, booking required: anishkapoorindia.com or call +91 22 40203660/ 61/ 62/ 63.)

(This story appears in the 17 December, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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