His unsunny passage to India

English cheer Kapoor poses beside Yellow, a fibreglass and pigment sculpture, at his 2009 Royal Academy exhibit in London
English cheer Kapoor poses beside Yellow, a fibreglass and pigment sculpture, at his 2009 Royal Academy exhibit in London
Photo: AFP

Legendary British sculptor Anish Kapoor is finally coming to India with his monumental works. Girish Shahane traces his decades of evolution and explains why Bombay, and not Delhi, will have the real show

ANISH KAPOOR’s sculptures have always tantalised. The Bombay-born Kapoor, who moved to Israel and then England while in his teens, first attracted attention at the end of the 1970s with dazzlingly bright artworks overtly influenced by his homeland: by the heaps of colour piled in shops near temples and in markets during festivals like Holi. Viewers were tempted to reach out and feel the powder pigment that coated the sculptures and was sprinkled on the floor around each form; but were prevented from acting on their desire by fear of disturbing the piece, and by prominent signs warning them not to touch the art.

In the 1980s, Kapoor’s output took a philosophical turn. He grew interested in the theme of the void, making hollows in stone and metal, and painting the insides of these cavities a dark monochrome, frequently a shade of blue associated with the French artist Yves Klein. The pieces appeared to contain infinite depth, and evoked emotions like awe and fear associated with staring into an abyss. In interviews given at this time, he underplayed his Indian background, fearing it restricted interpretations of his art. He represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and won the Turner Prize in 1991 at the age of 37, cementing his status as one of the UK’s leading sculptors.

In the 1980s, Kapoor underplayed his Indian background in interviews, fearing it restricted interpretations of his art

The year that Kapoor received the Turner, a 26-year-old artist named Damien Hirst suspended a shark in formaldehyde, titling the work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living. Hirst had previously impressed the collector Charles Saatchi by exhibiting a rotting cow’s head, its flesh being devoured by maggots. Visceral and controversial, Hirst and his Saatchi-backed contemporaries, labelled the YBAs (Young British Artists), dominated coverage of British art for the next few years. Kapoor’s meditative pieces seemed a bit traditionalist, even old hat, in comparison. Why address issues of life and death by painting a concave surface deep blue when you could do it by cutting up animals?

Standing tall Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye, unveiled in the Royal Academy courtyard last year, is a 15 m high arrangement of 76 steel spheres and inspired
Standing tall Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye, unveiled in the Royal Academy courtyard last year, is a 15 m high arrangement of 76 steel spheres and inspired by the German poet Rilke
Photo: Getty Images

While the sensationalism of Hirst and company excited the media, Kapoor transited to a third stage of development, shifting from deeply coloured matte surfaces to highly polished ones, turning his sculptures into sites of a different sort of reflection. The process led to a series of public commissions that allowed him to emerge from the shadow of the YBAs as a truly international figure. His most well-known and beloved public sculpture is Cloud Gate, better known as The Bean. The 100 ton mass of stainless steel stands like an arched droplet of mercury in Chicago’s Millennium Park, allowing visitors to walk under and around while gazing at warped versions of the city’s high rises, the sky and themselves. In works like Cloud Gate, Kapoor discovered a winning combination of simple yet exciting forms crafted using highly sophisticated technology.

With his reputation having transcended all possibility of ethnic slotting, and with India’s economic and cultural importance growing each year, he began thinking of exhibiting in the nation of his birth. He first arrived to scout for potential locations in December 2001 but couldn’t find anything that suited his purpose. As his work grew ever more ambitious in scale, the likelihood of finding an appropriate exhibition space in India, and funds to cover transport and insurance, diminished considerably. After a gap of eight years, Kapoor selected a sound stage at Mehboob Studio in Bombay as the venue for a wide ranging survey of his practice. The exhibition, which opens at the end of November, is supported by the British Council and Kapoor’s London gallery Lisson, with the luxury goods maker Louis Vuitton acting as chief sponsor.

Somewhere along the way, a bureaucrat in Delhi realised that one of the world’s foremost artists was planning a show in Bombay, and decided that Delhi deserved precedence. A parallel show in the capital was mooted, to be mounted at the National Gallery of Modern Art’s new exhibition hall. This hall, though completed very recently, is based on a design passed by the relevant committee in the 1970s. The revolution in museum architecture of the 1990s, which allowed monumental sculptural works and installations to be accommodated indoors, has passed NGMA by. As a result, Delhi will get a selection of relatively small works, mostly the kind that look great in office lobbies and living rooms. Bombay, meanwhile, will see more installations of the kind that enthralled over 2,75,000 visitors to London’s Royal Academy last year.

After Damien Hirst, Kapoor seemed a little old hat. Why be meditative about life and death when you could cut up animals instead?

MY PERSONAL favourite was Svayambh, a giant block of red wax that moved on rails across five rooms of the Academy, smearing door jambs and walls as it went. Some saw it as a reference to trains that transported European Jews to Nazi death camps, an interpretation connecting with Kapoor’s personal history of having a Jewish mother. The work’s title, though, suggests an Indian link, specifically to svayambhu lingams. And indeed, the block of wax shaped by the Academy’s arched gateways was unmistakably like a lingam. Considering the adversarial attitude of British art historians to Hindu sculpture in the neo-classical period, Svayambh could be read as a form of postcolonial revenge, all the more delicious for having been produced by an avowedly apolitical artist. Beyond its historical references, the piece also reinvented what is possible in sculpture, by including the dimension of time. As children ran from one room to another to catch it from different angles, adults clustered at the end of the tracks to witness the journey’s conclusion. In a culture suffering from attention deficit disorder, the act of keeping spectators looking on for 20 minutes was an achievement, the very slowness of the wax block’s progress highlighting and interrogating the frenetic pace of life today. With works like Svayambh, Kapoor demonstrated there are more ways of producing radical art than by skinning a cat.

Shahane is a columnist and former editor of Art India



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