Think of an artist’s studio and two images come to mind — the humble garret cluttered with canvases and the large, serene space filled with light. Anish Kappor’s studio is like neither of these. The 55-year-old Indian-born sculptor, who is considered one of the world’s greatest living artists, works in five huge industrial units in London, alongside a team of 20 or so assistants.
He recently invited me to visit his workplace ahead of the opening of his major new exhibiton at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Preparations were in full swing — in the largest of the units, massive fibre glass sculptures were being moulded, while next door polish was being applied to his popular mirror pieces — it can take up to a month to get them to the required sheen. Elsewhere, the finishing touches were being put to a series of works in cement. These are the pieces that will occupy all of the main-floor galleries at the Royal Academy when the exhibition opens this weekend. It is a huge coup for Kapoor — he is the first living artist to have the entire floor devoted to his work.
His enthusiasm for this new collection is obvious as he guides me around the studio. The exhibition will be his first showing in London for over 10 years, and he wants to stress that it is not a retrospective. “While I am alive and kicking, I should make a show that may look back in some ways, but should really take on what is happening in the work now,” he declares.
Exhibiting at the RA is a highpoint in a distinguished 36-year career that was kick-started by a visit to Israel. Kapoor had enjoyed art from an early age but thought that he would become an engineer, a sound choice for a good Indian-Jewish boy. In 1970, at the age of 16, he and one of his two brothers went to Israel, spending time first on a kibbutz and then studying at university. “I lived in Israel from 1970 to 1973,” he says. “It was where I decided that I was going to be an artist, and why, in 1973, I came to London to go to art school.”
Kapoor has lived in London ever since, a long way from his roots in Bombay. Born in India in 1954, his Jewishness stems from his mother’s side of the family. “They emigrated to India from Bagdhad in 1920,” he says. “My mother was then only a few months old. She had an Indian-Jewish upbringing. Her father, my grandfather, was the cantor in the synagogue in Pune. At the time, the Jewish community in Bombay was quite large, mostly consisting of Baghdadi Jews.”
He can trace his mother’s family back 15 generations. His father was from a Hindu background. “He was in the Indian navy and we therefore travelled around the country. My early years were in Bombay, and then in the north of India,” he says.
Was there any Jewish input in his upbringing? He is reluctant to answer, merely saying: “My parents were both cosmopolitan and modern.”
If he is uncomfortable discussing his family, he is far more forthcoming when it comes to his work. As we continue our tour of the studio, he reveals how, when he begins a work, he may not know exactly what will happen. “A studio is a place not just where things get made, but also where things get tried out. If there is anything that I deeply believe in, it is that an artist must learn to live with not knowing quite what is going on.”
Kapoor has a reputation for producing truly monumental works — an example was Marsyas, a trumpet-like piece that completely filled the massive Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2002. The RA exhibition will include Svayambh, a huge block of blood-red wax weighing more than 20 tons which will move on sunken rails through five galleries on the RA main floor. “The block is bigger than the doors and as it passes through them, they will mould the block — the work will be formed by the building,” he explains.
A piece which includes references to blood and railways must surely have a link to the Holocaust and it is interesting to discover it has been shown twice before, first at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, a museum founded by Hitler, and then in Nantes from where the Jewish population were taken on trains to the death camps. Indeed, the publicity material from Munich flagged up these links, stating: “This enormous red mass reminiscent of compacted blood evokes an almost apocalyptic image. Interestingly a red heifer or parah adumah — adom means red and dam means blood in Hebrew — is often associated with the Apocalypse in Judaism.”
More red wax is required for another major work in the exhibition called Shooting into the Corner. “It is a big steel cannon which shoots pellets of wax into a smaller room,” Kapoor explains. “It is almost a cliché — the artist just throws a bag of paint at a canvas and there it is. What we are doing is accumulating that. It is almost an insistence on the material, and more material and more material.” The cannon fires every 20 minutes — by the end of the exhibition in December, about 30 tons of wax will have built up.
Kapoor has spoken of his interest in the work of the celebrated Jewish abstract expressionist Barnett Newman who was well known for being influenced by the Kabbalah. Are there kabbalistic influences in Kapoor’s work? He does not answer directly, preferring instead to explain some of his artistic philosophy. “Barnett Newman is an artist who was at the vanguard of modernism, and yet somehow his work is infused with the philosophical. He made very large canvases and used the very simple device of a zip or space in the middle of the canvas that seemed to open to a space beyond. This language of deep abstraction seems to me to be a language of an inner world. I believe that is where art comes from and what art must speak about.”
An important Kapoor work can be seen without leaving north-west London. In 1996, he created a Holocaust memorial hewn from black stone for the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood. At the time, he revealed his nervousness about the commission: “What do I know about the Holocaust? I’m a different generation, a different kind of Jew but it is my history, and is my pain.” Thirteen years on, he reflects on the problems artists face when dealing with the Shoah. “To approach something as charged as the Holocaust is deeply humbling,” he says. “At best, one can draw upon a collective psyche and make a work of dignity and openness that allows memorialising to happen.”
Snapshot: Anish Kapoor
1954: Born in Bombay
1970-3: Studies in Israel
1973: Moves to London where he studies at Hornsey School of Art (1973-77) and Chelsea School of Art
1990: Represents Britain at the Venice Biennale where he is awarded the prestigious Premio Duemila prize
1991: Wins the Turner Prize
1996: Unveiling of Holocaust Memorial at Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London on anniversary of Kristallnacht
1999: Elected Royal Academician
2003: Awarded a CBE
2006: His sculpture Cloud Gate is unveiled in Chicago. Costing over £10 million to make, it is the most expensive public art work in the world
2009: Working on a number of major commissions including Tees Valley Giants, five monumental sculptures to be installed in towns in north-east England
Kapoor is married to German art historian Susanne Spicale. They have two children