The loud boom of a cannon reverberates through the baroque halls of the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, London. A pot of red wax is fired on the walls of the gallery at 80 kilometres an hour by a man dressed in military style overalls. The wax splatters on the surface, forming its own patterns. The floor looks like it is covered in congealed blood. Anish Kapoor is in action, smearing the walls of the 18th century building. And he says he has a lot more to give.
Kapoor, 55, one of Europes best known sculptors, has been given the rare honour of being the only living artist to have a retrospective in the main galleries of the Academy, the sort of space reserved for artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Rodin.
In another room, a colossal behemoth of red wax shaped like a train carriage is slowly making its way through the galleries, travelling silently on rails. As it squeezes through the arches, the wax rubs off on the walls, splaying down the sides. Called Svayambh, the Sanskrit word for self generating, the installation is the centrepiece of the exhibition. The train takes an hour and a half to travel through five rooms in the gallery and comes to rest at one end, stuck half way through the last arch.
Challenging narrow divisions between theatre, art, poetry and literature, Kapoor has arrived at this prestigious solo exhibition, determined to turn the world inside out. His creations seem to be crumbling, crashing and reshaping themselves in the spaces he is consuming, and the Academy is not big enough for him, even though they have given him all their rooms.
The train is almost menacing. It reminds me of the train to Pakistan — full of dead bodies — during the Partition, or the train to Auschwitz, that took the Jews to the concentration camp. I tell Kapoor this and he nods. Both of these realities could have influenced him. The son of a Punjabi father and a Jewish mother from Baghdad, his extended family may well have witnessed both these horrors of the 20th century.
We are sitting in a gallery sandwiched between the cannon firing display and the red train. Facing us on the opposite wall is another of Kapoors giant installations, a six metre by six metre piece called Yellow that resembles a giant cosmic sun. From the far end it looks like a painting, almost meditative in its warm glow, but as you approach it the installation takes on a different dimension, the funnel becoming a spiral, organic body that draws you into its vortex. A lady is standing in front of it as if hypnotised. It is the sort of effect Kapoors installations have on people.
With his salt and pepper hair and gentle demeanour, Kapoor does not look like the sort of person who has created these giant, terrifying sculptures. The Turner Prize-winning artist looks reflective as he watches people react to his installations.
Why this apocalyptic mood, I ask. I think Ive grown up a bit, he says with a smile. I think I can deal with ideas of a deconstructed world somewhere in my work.
In Kapoors deconstructed world, the colour of spices from an Indian market transform into objects with a darker meaning. Red is a colour he uses frequently. In his earlier works, these were pigments that made geometric designs. In the latest installations — Shooting from the Corner and Svayambh — the colour has taken on a more sinister tone.
Yes, the themes seem to be getting darker over the years, he says. I dont know why that is happening. I dont have an answer. But I have always used red. I think, in a way, red has a very interesting darkness. It is darker psychologically than the darkness of black or blue. It has a bodily, almost visceral effect.
Born in Mumbai in 1954, Anish Kapoor lived mainly there and then north India. His father, a naval officer, was transferred regularly, and the family moved between different cities. Young Kapoor studied at Doon School, where he enjoyed his art lessons but always thought he would grow up to be an engineer. In 1970, at the age of 16, he explored his Jewish roots (his maternal grandfather was the cantor in the synagogue at Pune), and travelled to Israel, spending time at a kibbutz and attending university. It was there that he decided to study art and in 1973 he moved to London to join the Hornsey College of Art, followed by a further stint at the Chelsea School of Art.
By 1982 he was representing Britain at the Paris Biennale and in 1990 at the Venice Biennale. The prestigious Turner Prize followed in 1991, Kapoor becoming the first Indian-born artist to bag the award.
The artist now lives in London with his wife Suzanne and their two children. In 2004 he built a two-floor family home in his own special style, bunkered below an apartment block in posh Chelsea. The architects used Kapoors favourite materials — polished steel and British stone — in the 50 metre by eight metre house which saddled two streets, beginning at one street and ending at the other, complete with a courtyard and a garden in between.
The Indian influence is strong in Kapoor, though he confesses that he did not realise it till a trip to India in 1979. Many of the sculptures he made were influenced by the Indian attitude to objects and the use of objects in rituals. Phallic symbols, the concept of void, the vermilion on temple floors, he says, all made their way into his collective consciousness. Im Indian all over, he says in a matter of fact way.
Though the polished surfaces were his trademark, by 2002, Kapoor had started experimenting with colossal structures. The Marsyas, a deep red, trumpet-like structure made of PVC mounted on steel rings, installed in the massive Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, brought out both the engineer and the artist in him.
I ask him about the immense engineering work that some of his structures involve. I am not too worried about the size of my sculptures. It is never big enough for me, he says, adding, I want them to be big enough to engulf you.
Given the scale of his sculptures, it is no surprise that Kapoors London studio consists of five large industrial units with a team of around 25 people employed in polishing and moulding his giant structures. In 2004, his Cloud Gate — a 110-tonne elliptical sculpture made of highly polished stainless steel plates — was unveiled in the Millennium Park in Chicago at a cost of £10 million, becoming the most expensive public art work in the world. Another sculpture — Sky Mirror — installed at Rockefeller Centre in New York in 2006, established Kapoor as a much sought-after artist across the Atlantic. His individual pieces can fetch anything between $15,000 and several million for the giant installations.
Apart from two pieces that travelled this August to Delhi for the Art Fair, Indians have not had the privilege of seeing Kapoors work yet. Would he like to have a major exhibition there, I ask. I have been discussing it for the last 10 years, said Kapoor in some despair. Nothing seems to have worked out!
I ask him how he feels about an artist like M.F. Husain having to live in exile in Dubai, and what it says about artistic freedom in India. His answer is immediate: It is tragic and ridiculous. We ought to have enough cultural confidence in ourselves. Artists are commentators of a certain kind. We cannot allow this to happen.
India has claimed many authors, musicians and scientists living abroad as their own. It is perhaps time now for the country to give Anish Kapoor the space he deserves.