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Last Updated Tuesday March 20 2018 11:18 PM IST
Other Stories in Biennale 2014

Man and the maelstrom

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Man and the maelstrom Kapoor at the pier at Aspinwall House, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale's primary venue. Photo: Robert Vinod

The sky is dark and low, and it dyes the water so. Anish Kapoor kicks off his black slip-ons and sits on the crumbling wall of the pier. Behind him, the tidewater races between storied headlands—Fort Kochi and Vypeen—taking with it rafts of dying water hyacinths. The pier at Aspinwall House pokes right into Cochin Gut, the 1km-wide gateway to the port. To the left of the pier, the Laccadive Sea stretches in its wide, wild splendour.

The wind toys with the sculptor's silvery mane. Dressed in blue shorts and in a shirt with green and beige checks, Kapoor looks at the skyline through the eyes of the boy who explored Fort Kochi decades ago. How many decades? “Five!” says the 60-year-old, grinning. “The naval dockyards are just round the corner, aren't they? What has stayed with me is that feeling of Kochi being a small community. The skyline has completely changed, has it not?” Yes, it just went from flat to phallic.

Aspinwall House has been the primary venue of both editions of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. And, Kapoor is here with ‘Descension', his first site-specific installation in India. His last art outing to the country was in 2010; a retrospective split between Mehboob Studios, Mumbai, and the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. It was inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi, no less.

Kapoor's father, Rear Admiral D.C. Kapoor, was chief hydrographer to the Government of India. Hence, the Kochi connection. In 1972, Kapoor Sr became the first Indian to join the board of directors of the International Hydrographic Bureau in Monte Carlo; he held the appointment for a decade. Travel writer Hugh Gantzer, a retired commander of the Indian Navy, served under Kapoor Sr on the INS Jamuna.

Kapoor has, perhaps, another diasporic connect with Kochi. His mother was a Baghdadi Jew; daughter of a former cantor of the Pune synagogue. Kochi is home to the Malabar Jews, India's oldest Jewish community.

The current edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is themed ‘Whorled Explorations'. And, in the high-ceilinged room that opens on to the pier, the hydrographer's son has put a whorl, a whirl, a vortex of angry, foam-flecked water spinning down into a dark void.

In the 2012 Biennale, the same space exhibited ‘Stopover' by Sheela Gowda and Christopher Storz. Grindstones then filled the room and spilled out on to the pier. For me, ‘Descension' was journey in contrast. 2012: something cast in silent stone. 2014: a burbling liquid that changed shape every second and said ‘come hither' and ‘go away' in the same breath. Isn't it the same thing that ports and tides do? Pull you in; push you out.

The Biennale's artistic director Jitish Kallat says, “Whorled Explorations is conceived as a temporary observation deck hoisted at Kochi.” He says the exhibits are all pointers from the “legendary maritime gateway” that Kochi is. All sorts of pointers: “sensory, conceptual, history, geography, cosmology, time, space, dreams and myths.” How many of these pointers describe ‘Descension'? Most of them; maybe all. For example, history and geography. Kochi was born in a mass of swirling water in 1341. A flood that boiled down the river Periyar washed away sandbars and opened shipping channels. The same flood dumped silt at the ancient port of Muziris, closing it for good.

Anish Kapoor Anish Kapoor, seen here with his work ’Grace’ at the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul. (Photo Reuters)

“I do not want to make a work of art,” says Kapoor. “I want to make a phenomenon. If this whirlpool thing has to be believed, it has to be believable. Artists tell lies in order to tell the truth. And, I am not the first to say that. That's Picasso. But, I do like the idea that to look for something real and true and meaningful, you can only do it through an illusion, or an allusion. If we are making a vortex, we need to make it feel like it is going to the centre of the earth. If we cannot make it feel so, it is boring.”

Kapoor then pointed to the end of the pier where eddies form when the tide comes in. He spotted them when he visited the site first, and, thus, chose ‘Descension'. It is also a geometry that he has played with before. In the Venice Biennale 2011, Kapoor's ‘Ascension'—a twisting column of smoke—was exhibited at the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore. The 17th century basilica opened its doors to a contemporary artist for the first time.

Kapoor left a kibbutz and dropped out of engineering school to study art. But, it is almost like he has been a lifelong student of engineering. According to fluid dynamics, eddies are formed when fluid meets an obstacle. Often, the eddy is seen; the obstacle is not. Hence, an eddy is an allusion. It alludes to something beneath the surface. Something obstructing the natural flow of events.

As we sit on the pier, a white Coast Guard cutter motors out on patrol duty. Wavelets go slap, slap, slap, and there is the clink of metal on stone. Two men in lungis use a crowbar to move a chunk of broken wall from the pier. “Look at that,” Kapoor says reflectively. “The negative space beneath that chunk is as important as the piece itself, isn't it?”

When I first went to see ‘Descension', the work was just a huge black cylinder set flush into the floor of the room and a brass propellor set into the centre of its base. Was it going to be red? “No, no,” Kapoor says. “It will be as real as possible.” But, why is red the colour that defines him? ‘As if to Celebrate, I Discovered a Mountain Blooming with Red Flowers' (1981) is predominantly red; ‘Taratantara' (2000) is red; ‘My Red Homeland' (2003) is, well, red; parts of the ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit' (2012) in London are red....

“We Indians look at red in a particular way,” he says. “So, there is that. That's very powerful. We are red. Our bodies are red. They say art is all about light. Well, it is also about darkness. Maybe, it is more about darkness than it is about light. And, red has a particular kind of darkness that is fascinating. Maybe it is because we have very deep human associations with red.”

Is it true that he had the Orbit repainted because it was done in RAL 3002 and not RAL 3003, which is his shade of red? He shakes his head in mock exasperation: “No, I never had the Orbit repainted. I did carefully choose the colour, but I did not have it repainted.” In case photoshop geeks are wondering how RAL 3003 translates into RGB, it is 155-017-030. Ruby red.

Though famously reclusive, Kapoor has had many collaborations: ‘Blood Relations' (with writer Salman Rushdie), ‘Music Boxes' (with composer Brian Elias) and the Orbit and other works with architect Cecil Balmond. Do collaborations intrude on his space? “They can, yes,” he says. “But it can also be a way of coming across somebody else's sense of how the world works. And, about their narrative processes.” Interestingly, Rushdie and Elias are Bombay-born British citizens, like Kapoor.

A Dosco, Kapoor has never waxed nostalgic about his school days like most alumni from The Doon School do. Perhaps, Doon is the only school to have had two alumni in the Absolut art series—Absolut Kapoor and Absolut Seth. Writer Vikram Seth (Class of 1969) was Kapoor's senior by a year. Other artists who have been part of the Absolut series are also showing in the Kochi Biennale—Francesco Clemente and Bharti Kher.

As much as Kapoor loves to speak about his art, he clams up about the personal. He is dad to Alba, 19, and Ishan, 17. ‘Here for Alba' (2008) is named after her, and ‘Ishi's Light' (2003) after him. Kapoor separated from their mother, art historian Susanne Spicale, in 2013; they were married for 18 years. If the London papers are to be believed, Kapoor's current muse is Sophie Walker, 28, a garden designer and a former sculptor's assistant to Kapoor.

As the interview winds down, I stumble to my feet from the floor of the pier and dust the sand off the seat of my jeans. Pins and needles! The affliction of cubicle rats. “You okay?” asks Kapoor, ever polite. Surprising, for a man who was worth £45 million in 2010, according to The Sunday Times Rich List. Most of the profits were from his primary company, White Dark Ltd.

Has money changed the art world? Kapoor reflects before answering. “The art world is absolutely crazy today,” he says. “There is more money in the art world than ever. But, of course, it is a very difficult thing for artists to negotiate. How do we deal with being able to sell everything? Where there is good art, there always has been money. And, most good artists instinctively know how to deal with it. Michelangelo was never poor. Andy Warhol was never poor.”

In December, when Jay Z and Beyonce met Prince William and Kate Middleton at a New York NBA game, it made news. In October, the rapper and the crooner had paid a quiet visit to what used to be a factory making shutters—Kapoor's studio in Camberwell, London. “Art is basically mythological,” says Kapoor. “A mythological proposition to the world. And, money is part of the mythology. You see a Picasso on the wall and admire it. You also look at the price tag and say, ‘Oh my God, that's $30 million'. That price is part of the mythology of the painting.”

Economics seems to run in the clan. Kapoor is as much at home with theories by Russian art theoretician Kazimir Malevich as with the philosophy of Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. Kapoor's brother Ilan Kapoor wrote Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity (Routledge, 2013). He is a professor with the faculty of environmental studies at York University, Canada. In the book, he critiques charities run by the “unaccountable elite”; read: Angelina Jolie, Bill Gates, Bob Geldof, Bono.... In the publisher's words, the book argues that “celebrity humanitarianism legitimates, and indeed promotes, neoliberal capitalism and global inequality”.

Kapoor, too, is concerned about the need for accessible art. Events like the Biennale, he says, put art within the reach of the public. Kapoor has said that he makes almost no profit from public commissions, like the celebrated Cloud Gate in Chicago. “The great art in India, for example, the temples, were made by the rich for the rest of the society,” he says. “But everyone contributed somehow. Now, only the rich take part. Culturally, we need to believe. We need to have cultural confidence.”

A man with as many critics as fans, Kapoor had made his reservations about Prime Minister Narendra Modi public during the Lok Sabha polls. Modi's London fans then called him a “scrap metal merchant”. Kapoor couldn't care less.

There are Kapoor projects that have not taken off. Like the memorial for the 67 British victims of 9/11, planned in New York's Hanover Square. “Nobody ever found the money to build it,” he says, laughing it off. “It's OK. I am publishing a book of unrealised projects. So, that's one more page of the book. You don't have to build everything. A drawing will suffice sometimes.”

One of his drawings is becoming a subway station—the Monte St Angelo Station in Naples, Italy. Designed in collaboration with Amanda Levete Architects, London, the station looks almost vaginal. On an online forum where the design was being discussed, a wit posted: “God knows there are enough phallic buildings, hence, he sent Anish Kapoor.”

(Courtesy: The Week)

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