Anish Kapoor: 'I don't want my work to be popular'

Kapoor's monumental success is matched by the scale of his ambition. Not bad for an artist who thought he'd end up 'a bloody art school teacher'
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The Independent Culture

"Filthy hands!" booms Anish Kapoor, poking his head around the door of the sleek, all-white office. Silvery hair sticking up, black-rimmed spectacles perched on top of his head, swaddled top-to-toe in white overalls, he looks a bit like a startled penguin. Two great big dirty, clay-coloured hand prints run down his thighs and, when he turns, across his backside. He ducks out again and re-emerges seconds later, Superman-style, in a slate-grey Nehru shirt and smart trousers, glasses on nose, clean hand outstretched. He throws open the door to another office – his own, an echoey rectangle, empty but for a long, white table. "Shall we?" Two white mugs of tea appear as if by magic.

There are, you see, two sides to Anish Kapoor. The artist and the businessman. The hugely popular public sculptor and the occasionally pretentious Royal Academician. His works veer from the playful to the profound, from the sublime to the shitty. There are glossy, glitzy mirrors and messy, blood-red gashes and gaping holes. There are giant trains made from wax and noisy, splurging cannons and there are modest piles of powder and quiet, barely-there slits and bulges in the wall. In other words, he is as mercurial as Cloud Gate, the 110-tonne silver blob he parachuted into Chicago's Millennium Park, and, at first glance, just as smooth. He's solicitous ("Another cup of tea? Are you sure?"), crushingly polite (following him around his studios involves a complex dance of door opening and meticulous ushering) and occasionally, judiciously sweary. With his un-pindownable accent, quiet zeal and habit of talking in exclamation marks he somehow recalls Tony Blair – but likeable. He's earnest but laughs a lot, and loudly, particularly when you ask him about anything personal. Certainly, he's no Tracey Emin, dismissing the idea that his art might reveal something of the artist's soul. "It's not really to do with my psychobiography. It's irrelevant. In as far as one can avoid it, it's not really about me." He's far happier talking about the work, eagerly unlocking warehouses and whipping dust sheets off mirrors – which means that there's always something shiny to deflect attention away from him. I think that, probably, he's rather shy.

Overall, though, the 56-year-old artist comes across as quite normal. Which is extraordinary, when you think about it; after all, his art is anything but. From his vast Sky Mirror reflecting the heavens in Rockefeller Plaza to Marsyas, the 150m-long PVC trumpet/orchid/vulva with which he filled Tate Modern's Turbine Hall and the slow-moving juggernaut of dirty red wax he sent ploughing through the Royal Academy, Kapoor's works strive for something way beyond the ordinary, something sublime and wondrous. Run through a checklist of his CV – the Venice Biennale, the Turner Prize, a Tate show seen by 1.85 million people, a CBE, the most successful exhibition ever staged by a living artist at the Royal Academy – and this normality becomes all the more extraordinary.

"I'm not ticking them off, people ask me to do them and I'm mad enough to say yes," he laughs. "I'm just so bloody busy with all these things I'm doing!" These "things", just so that we're clear, include four more Tees Valley Giants, which together with his recently unveiled 50m-high, £2.7 million windsock Temenos in Middlesbrough, make up the biggest public art project in the world, a commission to fill the cavernous 13,500 sq m Grand Palais in Paris and the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a tower for the London Olympic stadium which, at 120m or so, is set to become Britain's tallest public artwork in 2012. In terms of scale, at the very least, Anish Kapoor could well be our greatest living artist.

anyway, here we are at Anish Inc, a former shutter factory in a scruffy Camberwell side street in south London. Upstairs in the office it's all white Macs and rows of box files with labels like Clay, Stone, Plaster, Ceramic, Resin, etc, "Fabricators" and "Bahamas I, II, III". Bahamas? "We have a small house which is on the beach and it's very, very pleasant." Next door, in the boardroom, men in suits discuss Kapoor's plans for Paris. The man himself is at work downstairs in the studios which take up nearly the whole street, though he claims not to know how big they are: "30,000sq ft? My sculptures are big, so they're big. C'mon, let's go down."

Downstairs is the messy and beating heart of the        operation – a series of warehouses humming with industry, brawny men in overalls and face masks and a throat-catching fug of paint and varnish. There's a "polishing suite", a room for fibreglass sculptures and a lock-up housing the artist's latest toy – an eccentric cement-squeezing machine, of which more anon. We head for an airy hangar dotted with Kapoor trademarks – a giant wheel of wax stands in the middle, a red gash runs angrily down one wall and crimson-stained pots cram the tabletops. One wall is taken up with plans for the Olympic tower; another is filled with feverish sketches and the scrawled maxim "between shit and architecture". We step over something that looks like a crashed satellite. "I don't know what's going on here... no idea..."

Kapoor comes here every day from the Chelsea home he shares with his wife, Suzanne, and teenage children, Alba and Ishan, arriving around 8.30am, depending on whether he's on the school run. One imagines, though, that he could get in at midday and it would all continue running quite smoothly without him. He employs around 100 staff, scattered across the globe, from tech-savvy Californians producing his stainless-steel megaliths to mirror-makers in Madrid and metal-workers in Finland. In London, his team numbers 17; Kapoor is sweetly deferential to them, creeping gingerly around his own work. "Angus! I'm going to unwrap this AGAIN! Sorry!" "Angus! Can I do this? Is this all right?" We come across two men buffing a gorgeous peacock-blue dish, the final stages in an eight-month process. "That's really nice," says Kapoor, peering into it. "These guys are such bloody perfectionists!" Surely you're the perfectionist, Anish? He laughs and turns back to them, a benign dictator.

"You learn to see it, don't you? You learn to see the difference between good and really good. And it shows!" Sometimes work must arrive from the far reaches of his empire that isn't quite up to scratch – what happens then? "Send it back. Refuse to pay the bill."

It's a long way from the artist's solitary, humble beginnings. "I remember sweeping up the dust from the studio... I'm not joking!" In truth, though, Kapoor has never really been a struggling artist. He was born in Mumbai and attended Doon, "India's Eton", where Vikram Seth was in the year above. Though his parents (his father was a hydrographer in the Navy, his mother a Baghdad-born Jewish immigrant) were initially dubious about him foregoing an engineering career for art school, he was snapped up by the Lisson Gallery just four years after leaving Chelsea School of Art in 1977. His first sale was to the Tate, in 1983; they bought one of his pigment pieces, As if to Celebrate, I Discovered a Mountain Blooming with Red Flowers, for £1,500. These days he sells at auction for up to £2.5 million.

Does he really still get his hands dirty? "Absolutely! You saw them! I didn't stage that for you. I mean, I don't polish those," he says, waving at a wall of mirrors. "I can't be bothered. I don't know how to. It's too difficult." His f studios, he says, are "a place to experiment" rather than a factory; his creative process lies somewhere between art, architecture and alchemy. "One of the fantasies I have as an artist is that I don't have to make anything," he says. "That, somehow, things generate themselves."

For many years, starting out, he didn't dare to call himself an artist and was often surprised by what he managed to create. "I was always in wonder. I didn't know I had that in me. That's a wonderful sense of innocence. I long for it!" He's been obsessed with the manufacture of wonder ever since, flipping the world upside down in his mirrors, sucking people into his voids and mixing up visceral reds and deep, deep blues which are somehow darker than the blackest black. "If I don't have a sense of wonder, you won't have it. Can one make a work that causes the viewer to have a moment of arrest? Which really does make me speculate about what I am, why I'm here? I think that's worth doing," he says quietly. "I think that's worth a life's work."

His latest step on the quest for an "auto-generated object" is a Heath Robinson contraption made up of a computerised arm hooked up to a hopper full of cement which is squeezed out, layer upon layer, in a pre-programmed pattern. He showed some of the initial grey, wormy, fecal piles at the Royal Academy and has now moved on to cubicles, "shit-houses, really", constructed in the same way. "Architects have always dreamed of being able to print a building. This process is very close to that – we are actually able to print a building! We just need a slightly bigger machine..." He's also working on a series of earth models about "where things start". "What was the place where the bones of Lucy were found? What was the place where man or woman made the first pot? It's deeply sexual, about origins. At one level we're doing high technology but what I'm really interested in is the dirty stuff!" He cackles.

It's the high-tech, big stuff, though, for which he is increasingly known. If any artist is capable of creating the eighth wonder of the world, it's probably Kapoor. But is bigger always better? "We've got to get beyond size, they've got to do something else. Traditionally there was always a cultural space for objects outside – the square, the triumphant arch – we just don't have those any more. We only have earth and sky; the work has to somehow reinvent the outdoors."

His Olympic tower, 120m and £19.1 million-worth of red steel, aims to do just that. "I'm absolutely astounded they're doing it. It's odd, it's irrational," says Kapoor of his design, which has been described as a twisted Eiffel Tower, a wonky helter-skelter and, rather less kindly, "Meccano on crack". The tower, which will whisk some 700 visitors an hour up in lifts (or a steep walkway) to two bird's eye viewing platforms, beat off competition from Antony Gormley and the architects Caruso St John and is being brought to life by the structural engineer Cecil Balmond, who previously collaborated on Marsyas and Temenos. "I want it to be a real observatory. Not like going up on that wheel, whatever it's called. The London Eye. It's not just looking at the city. It'll be like being on the

inside of an instrument." Is he proud to have won the commission? "I don't know about proud. At one level, of course I'm honoured, on another level, I'm terrified. It's been a hassle, a hassle and a half, a huge hassle. Every little bit is negotiated with Health and Safety and legacy."

There are some who would say that building monumental, and monumentally expensive, works of public art on the shaky foundations of a recovering economy is barmy. "I do understand the argument that says, 'Do we really want to litter the countryside with all of these bloody objects?'," agrees Kapoor. "But I believe that there is something properly democratic, if it works, about public art. I know that's dangerous. I'm not interested in the lowest common denominator. That's horribly democratic, but bleurgh," he shudders.

This is interesting. Anish Kapoor, the public face of sculpture, who along with Banksy is one of the few artists who can cause roadblocks, is now worried about being too popular. When he brought C-Curve to the Brighton Festival last year, he stopped traffic. Meanwhile, his Royal Academy show attracted a record-breaking 280,000 visitors. "It's good and bad. If you went to the show on a particularly busy day, it was really hard to see anything. It gets in the way. And I hate queues." When he first installed Cloud Gate in Chicago he was dismayed by the crowds. "There were thousands of people every day. Still are. Doesn't anyone have any work to do?" he marvels. "I just wondered, 'What have I done?'." He hung around the work for a fortnight, watching and worrying. "I thought, 'Hmm, OK, so it's popular – but is it good?'. I don't want popular. I hate popular," he adds. "I'm sorry, I'm a terrible elitist, but it's quite frightening as a notion. Disney is not what it's about."

His new exhibition, in conjunction with the Royal Parks and the Serpentine Gallery, consists of a series of crowd-pleasing mirror works dotted around leafy Kensington Gardens. Runner-up in the competition to design the ill-fated Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, Kapoor has now colonised four prime spots in the park, including a red Sky Mirror floating among the swans on the palace pond. For all their playful potential, this is no fairground attraction. "No touching!" warns Kapoor. "There's someone guarding them. They're too difficult to make, it's too big a risk. You can touch them with your eyes." The works allow, literally, time and space to reflect. "Better not to have something to say," says Kapoor. "And to allow a certain space for the viewer which is emotive for them, rather than my emotive space."

Today Kapoor radiates calm – born of 20 years of psychotherapy (he had a breakdown in his late teens), an hour's meditation a day and regular time off with his family. "I'm incredibly fortunate. Shit, I didn't expect to be successful; I expected, like all artists who went to art school in the Seventies, to be a bloody art school teacher. So the fact that one can make a good living from one's work, even a fabulous living, is amazing." And he does make a fabulous living, to judge by that house in the Bahamas. "Money has always followed good artists. That's just a fact of life. I'm not shy about it and I don't see why one should be, frankly." Even so, I don't think that he's terribly interested in money. He could, if he wanted to, simply churn out gilded mirrors (he shows me one that is covered in 3kg of gold) for oligarchs' mansions and live comfortably ever after. "For five minutes, you might sit in the studio and think 'Ah, I'll make another one of those, that's worth a whole pile of dough'. But I think that's a very short-term, unwise strategy. You might get away with it for a second time but you won't for the third time. One has to see this as a long, long game. That's where I differ with Damien [Hirst]. I won't play that short game."

This long game includes his first major exhibitions in India – at the National Museum in Delhi and in a Mumbai film studio – that have been in gestation for over a decade. "I'm slightly emotional about it," he says. "At one level, I'm Indian, it's part of my psychic make-up. I've always, however, insisted that to read the work through Indian eyes or some perception of what people think is Indian is just wrong." After that, it's back to the artistic laboratory; retirement is most definitely not on the cards. "Without arrogance, what I do know is that I have a certain amount of creative energy and a real sense of what I do and why I'm doing it. It's bordering on certainty – that this is what needs to be done. Even though I go about it not at all knowing what I'm going to do. I want to be a young boy, basically. An adventurer!"

A few days later, we're in Kensington Gardens for the opening. It's the first morning of autumn and as chilly condensation builds up on the silvery interlopers, Kapoor appears across the park, a petite figure all in black, surrounded by a phalanx of gallerists, PRs and hangers-on. He wanders up to C-Curve, murmuring hellos, checking for infinitesimal imperfections, his reflection shrinking and growing until, suddenly, it disappears altogether. The artist swallowed up by his art. Just how he likes it.

'Anish Kapoor: Turning the World Upside Down' is on showat Kensington Gardens, London W2, until 13 March 2011 (