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All & nothing: Anish Kapoor's massive works absorb both their environment and the viewing public. Martin Gayford talks to the sculptor about sexuality, spirituality and capturing emptiness.

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Anish Kapoor is very interested in nothing. He has, in fact, made a considerable number of empty spaces over the years. As we roamed round his enormous studio in south London, he described one not very well known category of his works as 'a collection of bubbles'. These consist of large, rectangular, grandly sculptural blocks with an empty space in the middle (examples include Resin, Air, Space; 1998; Fig. 7). 'All I've done,' he explains, 'is find a way of getting the bubble into the centre of the block. A bubble is the moment when space becomes an object, it is a kind of proto-universe.' That transition between the inchoate and a shaped thing obviously fascinates him. A fairly recent group of works consist of large blocks of red wax--like coagulated blood or raspberry ice-cream--in the process of formation into simple solids. Svayambh, shown last year at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, was actually carved by the building itself asa 30-ton block of wax was squeezed through an enfilade of doors on rails (Fig. 6).

Giving form to the formless is what a lot of physics and biology is about, and what God was up to at the beginning of Genesis. So, to put the question another way, you could say that Kapoor is interested in nothing and everything. The two are of course connected. They come to together in, for example, Cloud Gate, the massive sculpture installed in Millennium Park, Chicago, in 2004 (Fig. 1). This work--33 feet high, 66 feet long, 42 feet wide, weighing 110 tons and with a cost of over $20m--is not precisely nothing. But, in a way, it isn't all that much: a big smooth dollop of mirrored surface, locally nicknamed 'The Bean', with a low arch in the centre through which the public can walk. It looks like a large drop of mercury, wobbling in the centre of the Plaza. But Cloud Gate has the power to scoop up everything--the sky, the sun, the office buildings, the crowds, the viewer--and reflect it all back transformed. Like many of Kapoor's works, it has the quality--unexpected in a medium so chunkily three-dimensional as sculpture--of making both itself and the solid flesh of the Chicagoan spectators seem to tremble in the air and melt away.

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I'm interested', Kapoor says, 'in that moment when a thing dematerialises, when it isn't just an object. That's a common theme in my work. If the history of sculpture is the history of stuff--material--I keep coming up against the sense that there is something beyond stuff.' That sounds like dangerously New Age territory, and yet--as Kapoor can fairly point out--virtually all the art of the past is concerned in one way or another with there being more in the universe than just matter. You could say that is a perennial theme of most epochs and cultures.

Kapoor himself had a fruitfully complex cultural background. He was born 56 years ago in Bombay, his father of Indian background, his mother Jewish-Iraqi. He was brought up partly in Canada and went to art school in London. In so far as he belongs to a group, it is the British sculptors who came to prominence in the 80s, including Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg and Antony Gormley. These were at least as important a generation as the Britartists of the 1990s and closer to being a homogenous movement.

Kapoor's art, however, on closer inspection, stands a little apart from that of the others. He has understandably been nettled at the assumption that this difference is to do with his Indian ancestry. And indeed, one of the most obvious reference points for his work is not Asian but American minimalism of the 1950s and 60s. One of his formative encounters as a student was with Barnett Newman's huge Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51) in the Museum of Modern Art, New York: 'When you stand in front of this huge work, it is as though it ceases to be a picture. It completely surrounds and engulfs you. It astounded me that art could step out of narrative so completely; that art could seem to have nothing to say, and yet engage all the truly important things that there are to say. Of course', he added, 'In talking about Newman I'm talking about myself.'

Indeed, that point where minimalism meets mysticism is precisely the border zone that fascinates Kapoor. He points out that Dan Flavin can be seen in terms of Catholicism and spiritual light, Newman as connected with Cabbalistic Judaism. But as far as he's concerned, the point is to stop just on that edge, and not tip over into blatant symbolism. 'To see Barnett Newman in terms of Jewish mysticism for a moment is great--for a moment, then you've got to let it go and let the work do what the work does.' What Kapoor's work does is to find mystery in simplicity. It does so in a number of different ways, which are interconnected, so that his work falls, as he puts it, into various 'families'. One of these are the bubbles; another the voids--black, unfathomable spaces in solid lumps of stone or the floor or the ground.

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A further subsection consists of the mirrored works, some with silvery surfaces some with coloured gloss paint surfaces. 'I think', Kapoor remarks, 'that these propose a new kind of space. If the traditional space of picture-painting is beyond the picture plane, these are definitely in front of it. It's hanging there.' Gazing at these is a physically disconcerting experience, just on the edge of alarming, as if the reassuring physical stability of things had become unglued. It is vertigo, a form of artistic experience that Kapoor welcomes. He connects it with the terror of the European sublime which led travellers, painters and poets to peer into the void from the peaks of mountains, like figures in paintings by Caspar David Friedrich (another Kapoor favourite).

A trip through one of the three ex-factories that Kapoor's workshops occupy rubs in a more practical point: all this mysterious simplicity requires a very high degree of craftsmanship. Cloud Gate, for example, is constructed of 168 polished stainless steel plates, the junctions between which must be invisible. 'An object like that is not good enough unless it's really, really good', Kapoor explains, 'because the eye is so quick to pick up any little blemish. It takes many months of work, weeks of sanding and polishing. There are 15 people working here, and they are unbelievably skilled. Without them I couldn't do any of this.'

The crucial part of many Kapoor works is--literally--superficial. 'It's just those few microns on the surface,' Kapoor points out, 'that give ah object readability.' What connects the mirrored pieces with the objects made out of solid colour such as the wax pieces and also the sculptures, such as Marsyas, which filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2002-03 (Fig. 3), is that--as he points out, and that title implies--'They are all about skin.'

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There, of course, he touches on a further area of interest. Kapoor is concerned with everything, nothing--and bodies. The red which is a recurring--even dominant--hue in his work is the colour of the inside of people. A formative experience in Kapoor's life--just as much as Iris Indian/Jewish/Western heritage, one might suspect--is the long period he spent in psychoanalysis. His works can be very sexual. It is probably going too far to say, as a newspaper interviewer put it to him, that everything he paints of makes seems in one way of another like a vagina. But it is hard to avoid that thought when looking at the entrance to an underground station he has designed for Naples--now under construction--an example of the way his work is currently exploring the boundary not only between something and nothing, but also between sculpture and architecture.

The Neapolitans will be descending by escalator, it seems--and perhaps quite suitably, in a city so devoted to the Madonna--into a huge subterranean womb. 'Umm, yes,' Kapoor agrees, 'it's very vulva-like. The tradition of the Paris or Moscow metro is of palaces of light, underground. I wanted to do exactly the opposite--to acknowledge that we ate going underground. So it's dark, and what I've done is bring the tunnel up and roll it over asa form like a sock.' And not only, as is very clear, like a sock.

But sexuality and spirituality are connected, and not only in the Indian tradition. A very similar form to the underground entrance was on show in Kapoor's 1990 Venice Biennale exhibition: a crimson slit in the wall, like a wound in the structure revealing flesh within (Fig. 4). It was called The Healing of St Thomas so again, almost nothing: a red hole in the plaster of the British Pavilion, but a dense metaphor--Christian, Freudian, corporeal, abstract, simple, complex, 'The hovering between readability and non-readability,' Kapoor concludes, 'that's what I'm interested in. I suppose ir comes down to whether one can make truly abstract art. The step towards various kinds of narrative is very, very small.'
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Title Annotation:ARTIST IN VIEW
Author:Gayford, Martin
Publication:Apollo
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:1532
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