AAt 67, Anish Kapoor, knight, Turner Prize and retrospective at the Venice Biennale next year, seems determined to shed his own skin as an artist. Like Marsyas – the satyr flayed alive by Apollo, whose bloody fate Kapoor once commemorated in a sculpture 150m long and 10 stories high – the artist exhibits his insides. This is the only way to describe his latest works. One of the world’s most renowned sculptors is about to go public as a painter. Yet it is the content of the works that he is about to unveil that can be disconcerting. “They are very, very violent,” he admits. “And I’m just wondering what that has to do with what’s inside of me.” I can’t sit here and psychoanalyze them. I do not know how. But I admit it’s there.
The works, about to be exhibited at Modern Art Oxford, are beautifully painted but brutal: full of images of bloodshed, beheading and disemboweling. Kapoor seems to have learned to paint the human figure in order to desecrate it. In his London studio, there are piles of these blood-soaked canvases depicting huge pieces of injured bodies and purple organs splashed on the walls.
“Ouch,” he said. “I don’t do it intellectually. I just wanted to make an almost feminine, multi-breasted figure and see what happened. Could I unwrap her pristine exterior and stare at her problematic interior, full of blood and guts and breasts and lumps, and all that? Damn knows. Freud would have a day in the field.
Kapoor isn’t exactly an inhibited talker. We meet twice, in his gallery, then in his studio. The weekend in between, he gives a speech at Index on Censorship in which he warns against “self-censorship”. And the flow of images and ideas in our discussion is certainly a masterclass on how not to censor yourself. Throwing in provocations and theories, he tries to explain what he’s up to.
“I do what I have always done, which is to turn to a primitive ritual act. If one takes this to its logical conclusion, the primary ritual act must be murder or sacrifice. In Moïse et le monotheisme de Freud, he first talks about the fact that Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian – which I like – but from there it all revolves around the idea that Moses was murdered. Moses was sacrificed.
In case anyone misses the essential, the paintings are accompanied by sculptures of enigmatic doors and tiered buildings like Aztec pyramids, on large metal platters pouring large pictorial balls of red material. Human sacrifice has played a role in many cultures. For Kapoor, this is part of what religion is: “Its purpose must be to ask ridiculous questions like, ‘Where am I going after I die? Or, “Where was I before I was born? The public exposure of the victim, the public sacrifice, helps us in a way, even if it’s completely counterintuitive. We believe that the energy of civilization is in a different direction. But apparently not at all. “
These are unusual ideas and impulses to present to the public. In the gallery of his London merchant, we stop in front of a triptych of three large canvases that depict what at first glance looks like flowery and sensual flowers. Then you notice a headless neck soaked in blood, and the flowers turn out to be anatomies on display. What is happening? “The Diana of Ephesus who has 10,000 breasts… she is there. So I think what was on my mind was Diana’s sacrifice, the openness, the revelation, of what’s inside her body. You’ll find that the only lump left, of sorts, is her vagina. Everything else is open.
The vagina has become quite a theme for Kapoor. There was a dispute in France over his sculpture from Versailles, Dirty Corner, nicknamed “the queen’s vagina”. So what are vaginas? Kapoor responds, unexpectedly, in terms of Marxist anthropology. “There is an anthropologist who really interests me and who is weird,” he says. “A man by the name of Chris Knight who wrote a book called Blood Relations, in which he speculates that the first culture was created by women and that it came from menstruation. That women who lived together, especially in small groups, had their periods together, and that they used red ocher to cover their bodies to hide their periods. He speculates that the first acts of cultivation were linked to this act of solidarity.
The oldest known artistic material is indeed red ocher, which was used in the Blombos cave in South Africa up to 80,000 years ago. It produces a powerful red pigment – handprints and animal images in red ocher survive in rock art. Kapoor can’t get enough either. “I have an obsession with red. My favorite color of all, the one I use per ton, is Alizirin crimson. It is a very dark and bloody burgundy. What’s interesting about red is that it binds to black with incredible ease. The red makes a great darkness. And of course, you could say that red is an interior color in its own right.
So Kapoor’s paintings aren’t that far removed from his sculpture after all. Since the 1980s he has used color to liberate the cosmic and interiority – from the earliest works, in which he scattered raw pigments on small objects, to Descent into Limbo, a painted hole 2.5m deep. with a black so dark that the drop seems endless. (and in which a gallery owner has fallen). “Color is deeply illusionistic,” he says. “Deep space is something I am constantly in conversation with – the way color affects deep space, indescribably in words.”
In his studio, among the bloody canvases, is a black diamond on a white background, locked in a glass tank. He asks me what I think it is. One thing I’m sure – it’s flat. Then he makes me look sideways. It’s not at all flat: it swells in space, a solid diamond shape. The optical illusion is breathtaking. “So this is one of those new works made from the darkest material in the universe,” he says. “It’s in a briefcase because the material is highly toxic and it’s incredibly fragile, especially to saliva, so you can’t talk in front of it. It is a nanomaterial. And what happens is the light comes in and basically it gets trapped and doesn’t escape.
It traps 98.8% of the light – “darker than a black hole”. When Kapoor got the exclusive artistic rights to this material a few years ago, there was a bit of a hou-ha. You can even purchase a “blackest black” acrylic paint, created by self-proclaimed rival Stuart Semple, with the disclaimer that by ordering it, “you are confirming that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are not in any way. If affiliated with Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor.
The whole row is stupid, because Kapoor’s black nanomaterial is dangerous, difficult to use, and took years to turn into works of art. He shows me 19 more of these bizarre space illusions in an upper room of his studio. Next year, they will be unveiled at the Venice Academy show. They take the lifelong pursuit of color to a sublime extreme. Is it a cliché to ask if this fascination with color was influenced by his childhood in India? “I think part of my relationship with color has to be cultural. This propensity for red must have something of that. I think of Picasso and his relationship to his Spanish roots. They were always with him – the dark mythological forces were busy ”.
In fact, when I push him to explain how his bloody webs reflect his own psyche, as opposed to anthropological ideas, he pulls out a moving story about India, displacement and the healing power of ritual. “I grew up in India,” he says. “I stayed there until I was 17, 18. My mother was Jewish, so my brother and I went to Israel. And I had the most awful, the most terrible nervous breakdown. I could hardly walk. I had an aunt who lived in Israel and my mother came to visit me. And my aunt, who had some sort of shamanic predilection, said to my mother, ‘You have to go back to India and you have to bring earth and you have to put it under Anish’s bed.’ Sorry Jonathan, it makes me want to cry sometimes. But anyway, I’ll tell you. And so my mother, bless her, went to India and took some dirt and put it under my bed, and my aunt further said, ‘He might just be dreaming about this thing.’ Wow! You know it took me years to recognize the power of this thing. It gives me goosebumps. Sorry, but it gives me goosebumps.
Kapoor is an artist who takes you to the edge of the abyss. He can make you contemplate the bigger questions. His new paintings are not so much a departure as a key to everything he has ever done, trashing religion and myth to wonder why human beings have always been made to meditate on the mystery of being. “I’ve been practicing Buddhism for a long, long time,” he says. “Zen practice. It matters to me. I truly believe that we are religious beings. Where I come from ? Who am I? What am I? Where am I going? These are questions that intrigue us all. “