Any ‘homecoming’ for any India-born person who’s achieved fame and respect worldwide is bound to come with heavy baggage. At least, that’s what the popular perception is. And popular perception does hold true in the case of artist Anish Kapoor. Except for one thing. His baggage is more literal than metaphorical. For his first ever exhibition in India (and his biggest ever exhibition outside Britain) at Mehboob Studio in Mumbai, and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi, UK-based Kapoor has brought massive pieces made of fibreglass, steel, glass, cement, wax and other material, some weighing more than four tons.
His reception here has been equally weighty. Kapoor’s display at the NGMA Delhi was inaugurated by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and the art community in India has high expectations of him, some hoping he’ll address art seminars, others eager to have him address the issue of the abysmal quality of Indian public art. Then there’s the buzz that he may be asked to create installations for Parliament House. Heavy stuff for an artist most of us in India have barely heard of.
Change of art
But the rumour about Parliament House has Kapoor neither panicking nor preening. Only thinking. “I have to access things in a real way and see what space is offered to me if it is offered at all,” he says. “I want to make an assessment of what the right thing to do is, what the right context is – it’s very hard in the abstract. I want to do something which is properly open and not with a political agenda. I want to somehow take it on for what it is.”
What it will be can be left to speculation since there is no offer as yet. But whatever it may be, it will be stunning. Because that has been the continuing effect of Kapoor’s two best known works – the outdoor installations Sky Mirror at Nottingham Playhouse in England, and Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
Both Sky Mirror and Cloud Gate are immense structures that are ever-changing because they reflect the sky – and the people around them. Fascinated viewers are known to spend hours looking at the images on the polished surfaces. Some even wait patiently for a bird to fly by. “I love Cloud Gate for the way it has been used as a mirror and not as a reflector,” says Mumbai-based artist Bose Krishnamachari. “We have a lot to learn from Anish – he makes his works do the talking. Look at the kind and number of spaces, galleries and opportunities he has secured to display his works. It’s all through immense hard work and dedication.”
Krishnamachari is entirely correct. Mumbai-born Kapoor, the son of a Punjabi father and Iraqi Jewish mother, was brought up with the usual Indian middle class values. After finishing at Doon School, he went to Israel to study – what else! – engineering. “Just like all good Indian boys,” he grins.
But at the age of 17, he decided he’d rather do art. This was rather a jolt to his family, but they supported him. “My parents were absolutely cosmopolitan,” says Kapoor. “So I went to art school in the UK, which was a huge liberation. An art school gives you the most open education – about life, about culture, about how you think of aesthetic problems, aesthetic questions.”Kapoor studied at Hornsey College of Art and Chelsea School of Art and Design in the 1970s, and later settled in London. He built up his reputation through the ’80s, but the Venice Biennale got him recognition. Though his works are tremendously complicated – for a while, Cloud Gate seemed structurally impossible to build – for viewers they are often very simply engaged with.
It is this quality in his work that has made Kapoor popular. His recent repertoire, worked in wax, produces awe and a subtle element of shock. But it’s the size of his works that baffles people. His most talked about work for size is Marsyas – a 3,400 square foot tubular sprawling work displayed at the Tate Modern, London. Today, Kapoor has architectural and sculptural marvels displayed at major cities around the world, including Naples, Chicago, New York, London, Jerusalem and Berlin.
Kapoor is known for pigments as well – especially red. “I am really interested in colour and I feel it more and more,” he says. “Colour can take you to darkness – to a very deep kind of darkness. And red does it better than any other colour, because, in a way, we know red internally. We know it as a kind of an internal condition.” Dealing with highly polished metals, he loves rust – as a colour and a texture. “I have made some rusty works,” he says. “But I am really looking for a condition of objects where I am looking for the non object – objects which are present in space, but also things which are not quite present. I tend to use materials that lend to that project. Mirror does that well, and rust well.”
His works here make you think. They are his most “introspective”, he says. In Delhi, you can see the glossy Iris, pulling us visually into a void transposed on a vertical wall. Then there is Shelter – Zen-like, a truly serene product from the practicing Buddhist that Kapoor is. There is the vibrant, voluptuous blue of Your Body is My Body. The-S Curve (in Mumbai), Vertigo and Here for Alba invite viewers to ‘align’ themselves with the sculptures. And in Mumbai, there is the highly disturbing Shooting into the Corner, a work that consists of an air-powered cannon that shoots blood-red wax pellets into a corner, leaving massive gobs on the wall.
None of the works here are ‘commissioned’ works – assignments conceived after ‘briefs’. Instead, these are products of his mind, delivered out of thoughts and aesthetics that are Indian and western in form and spirit. But Kapoor has a massive commissioned work coming up – the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a tower in London’s Olympic Park. As of now, it is drawing flak – the Orbit is being referred to as a “chaotic tower”, people are scoffing at the idea of accepting it as the “Eiffel of London”, and Kapoor is being called “Mr Messy”. But he doesn’t let the criticism get him down.
“Orbit is for the Olympics,” he says. “There is a whole lot of concern; there is a corporate agenda. There are all sorts of things that one has to certainly find one’s way through and yet not compromise on the artistic intent. That is the bottom line. I won’t compromise on what I have to do aesthetically.”
Yet, commissioned works do call for some compromises, especially if they’re public works. “I try to make sure I don’t treat commissioned work in a different way. But it’s hard,” says Kapoor. “The truth is that there is a difference. For instance, Orbit has a very strong ‘public brief’. There has to be safety because people are walking up here, there are toilets, and all other crap really, and I try very hard to make those works in such a way that they are not intruded upon by the agenda. It’s a difficult one.”
Illusions about Kapoor fade quicker than the illusions in his works. “Being an artist is a complicated job,” he says. “I am really interested in knowing how I need to grow. I am interested in knowing how to be free as a person, as an artist. Of course one is full of prejudice and full of ‘this I can do and that I can’t do.’ You have to be free of yourself to be really doing anything properly. Do anything, really. That’s the only way to keep alive creatively.”
His fastidiousness for “aesthetics” is baffling. At the NGMA, he compliments a lady for her ‘gorgeous’ temple border sari. A visitor gifts him a music CD that consists of pieces contributed by santoor maestro Pandit Bhajan Sopori and his son Abhay Sopori. It’s a memento from the platinum jubilee celebrations of the Doon School, his alma mater. Kapoor is as thrilled as a boy.
He tells you of his great love of classical Indian and western music, and reveals that he’s a diehard Dhrupad fan. He does not walk around with bare feet, M F Husain style. Yet, there is something serendipitous about his unpolished shoes. He knowingly or unknowingly wears darned trousers, making you wonder whether you are meeting the same person whose Cloud Gate, in the middle of Chicago, had sent the property rates soaring.
Kapoor’s fingers and nails aren’t smeared with paint, nor do they smell of chemicals. Yet, the passionate way he talks about monochromes makes you feel he has his hands and his soul stoically dabbed in yellow or blue or red.
“I am deeply interested in monochrome – the single uniform areas of colour,” he muses. “Monochrome really does very curious things. I am not really interested in ‘composition’. Colour mostly is used in a composition – like, say, a bit of yellow next to red, and a blot of blue next to yellow. You bounce them all. I don’t really understand that. What I want is a unitary absolute condition. I want a thing to be red, or yellow or blue in the same way as water is wet. When colour is in that stage, it can become very dreamy.”
But there’s nothing dreamy about his studio, which Kapoor refers to as a “factory”. There’s heavy machinery and equipment designed to produce the unthinkable. There are assistants wearing safety gear and masks, spraying pigment over the tricky – and toxic – fibreglass. It’s a studio, yes, but a workshop too.
What makes Anish Kapoor so great? Why does he succeed so quickly in inviting you to participate in his work? Artist Shukla Sawant from the School for Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, offers some answers.
“The size of his works invites the mind,” she says. “Then, his area of work is very broad. At one end he makes works that would deteriorate – like his wax works in Svayambhav. On the other hand, there are works sturdy and ‘insured’, like the interactive steel works. He uses pigment keeping international sensibilities in mind. He takes interest in what interests the world. He uses material in the most sophisticated way. This is why his installations embrace you from all sides.”