Anish Kapoor: Smooth operator

Few artists can move so happily between grubby studios and glitzy soirées as the acclaimed sculptor Anish Kapoor. But, he tells Matthew Sweet, it's taken a long time to find his place in Britain
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The Independent Online

Anish Kapoor declares that "artists are irrelevant" a little too emphatically, perhaps, for a world-renowned sculptor accustomed to giddy acclaim, flashbulbs exploding in his face and million-pound price tags attached to his work. "They sometimes do things that are amazing, but they themselves are irrelevant. A lot of us behave like pop stars, but we're not pop stars. It's a lot of bullshit," he says. "Many years ago I learnt the lesson that you can't afford to believe what other people say about you. Especially when it's good. Believe that stuff and you're half dead." Next year, when they float his giant stainless steel bagel down the Panama Canal, he may have to stick his fingers in his ears.

Sculptors are not customarily considered to be glamorous figures - American Vogue has never snooped around Louise Bourgeois and Antony Gormley is rarely seen pausing on the red carpet for the paparazzi. This year's Turner prize nominees (including sculptors Grayson Perry and the Chapman brothers) are almost anti-glamour in their headline-grabbing crudeness. Kapoor, however, has managed to combine a kind of chi-chi international existence that has aspirational types wiping the saliva from their lapels (holidays in Martha's Vineyard, weekends at the Mercer Hotel in Manhattan, weekdays in his Notting Hill town house) with the production of work that is celebrated by critics and punters alike for its sense-bending, spiritual qualities.

Kapoor's principal work-space is housed in the carcass of a former roller-blind factory just off Camberwell New Road, London. When I arrive, he's on the phone, so I pass the time by trying out his collection of armchairs and scanning his bookshelves for volumes that might reveal something of his personality. Just as I've settled on three good choices - a paperback edition of The Upanishads, a Christie's catalogue from a sale of wax anatomical models, and a New Yorker special themed on the subject of money - he skitters into the room in a pair of reassuringly paint-smeared jogging bottoms and leads me into the studio to introduce me to its population of contoured, organic forms.

"Having this studio is a massive luxury," he says. "But it's one that I afford myself in order to be able to explore this one thing: to be creative in as many ways as possible. That seems to me to be a lifetime's work." The evidence is before me: a giant block of Evian-clear perspex in which an amoeboid creature seems to have been frozen in the act of exhaling a flush of tiny bubbles; long arc-like structures formed from claret-coloured resin; great smooth ovoid forms like pterodactyl eggs, which may form part of an installation for the refurbished Broadcasting House; and three blue plastic barrels, filled with a mysterious tallow-like substance, perched on a wooden pallet. "What is this?" I enquire. "Vaseline." And Kapoor shows me the maquette for the piece, demonstrating how massive quantities of this gunge, coloured with purple pigment, would be plopped into place on a gallery floor and churned into a landscape of greasy peaks. "Do you think people will be able to resist throwing themselves into it?" I ask. "I hope so," he replies. "I don't think they'd enjoy it. It'd ruin their clothes."

At the beginning of 2002, Kapoor was best known for Sky Mirror, a polished concave surface that draws down the sun and clouds outside the Nottingham Playhouse. But when he used a piece entitled Marsyas to fill the monstrous span of Tate Modern's turbine hall, it put all his other achievements - including the 1991 Turner prize, a one-man show at the Hayward, representing Britain at the 1990 Venice Biennale - in the shade. He dedicated the work, a swooping construction in blood-coloured PVC, to his young sons, Ishan and Alba. They weren't that impressed. Nearly two million viewers, however, turned up to see it.

This summer, he designed the set for the Glyndebourne production of Idomeneo: a dark space surrounded by folds of red cloth, which, according to one member of the chorus, gave the impression that Mozart's opera was taking place "inside a woman's you-know". His latest exhibition, My Red Homeland, has been packing them in at the Austrian Kunsthaus Bregenz, a spanking new gallery overlooking Lake Constance.

After that, the city of Chicago will be taking delivery of an enormous silver bagel it asked him to provide for a site on Michigan Avenue. The sculpture, 22 metres long, 14 metres wide and 10 metres high, will be forged in California and shipped up the Panama Canal before being installed next to the Institute of Art. "It's the kind of work," he says, running his fingers along the polished surface of the model, "that can only be made with 21st-century technology."

Kapoor's life appears to be an exciting confluence of cultural and religious influences. Now 49, he has been a Buddhist for 10 years - he meditates for an hour each evening, then further unwinds by watching Newsnight. His father, Kap, a hydrographer from northern India, was raised in the Hindu faith; his mother, Hilda, is from Bombay's small Jewish community, born to Iraqi parents who fled persecution in Baghdad in the 1920s. "It's not something that you can choose for yourself," he reflects, "but it happens to be quite a modern condition. It's an interesting fact about Europe that 50 million of its people are of non-European origin. As far as I can tell, that's a good thing. When I first came to London you had to go to a specialist shop to buy olive oil. Now curry is part of the British national diet."

Although Kapoor's grandfather was the rabbi at a nearby synagogue, his upbringing was entirely secular. His parents argued more about the uncertain course of his education than their religious views. They sent him to Doon - the subcontinental equivalent of Eton, and a school that implants staggering self-confidence in its students - where he did as little work as possible, perfected a line in insolent backchat and made an extracurricular study of bomb-making ("as," he explains, "boys do").

His first artistic work was facilitated by his mother, an amateur painter who rarely finished the pieces she began. As a child, he would fill in the blank spaces and be congratulated for his efforts. But when he announced that he wanted to go to art college, his parents were deeply unenthusiastic. Instead, Kapoor was persuaded to enrol on an electronics course, through which he spat and grumbled until 1973, when his moment of escape arrived. His parents decamped to Monaco, where his father had been offered a job, and 19-year-old Anish defected to Hornsey art college. London, however, was not the answer to his dreams.

"I found it very disorientating, very difficult," he reflects, recalling his wanderings through a wasteland of power cuts and Spry Crisp'n'Dry. "But I think that's an old story, being in a foreign place where one has to re-evaluate one's sense of belonging. It took me 20 years to have that sense in London. It wasn't until my children were born that I felt that way. And that's largely because they have a strong sense of belonging here. London's that kind of place. It's had a long history of taking people in: the Bangla-deshis, the Jews. But my sense of not belonging was less to do with London and more to do with me. My own particular story, even when I was growing up, was always one of being slightly outside. There aren't that many Jews in India, and there were none at all at my school. I always felt slightly outside the main social framework."

It's been a long journey. In 1978, a few months after leaving art school, he was deeply unhappy with his life and with his art. He found the solution in a recuperative return trip to India, and in a decade-long course of psychoanalysis. During this therapy - if I understand him correctly - he learned to unburden his art of these internal struggles. "My background," he says, "is absolutely part of my vision of the world. But the responsibility of an artist today is not to act out one's neurosis or psychosis, or to make work out of it. That's of no interest to anybody. There's a chance that the work you make in this world might reveal some of its deeper mysteries. But it doesn't have anything to do with my psycho-biography."

If you think that sounds like the Buddhist in him talking, be warned that he is as squeamish about the idea of his religion being legible in his work as he is about being regarded as an "Indian artist". "I don't want to make Buddhist art," he protests. "You can't set out to make spiritual art. What a joke! It's either there or it's not there. You can't make it happen. I don't have an agenda for the work. It would just get in the way."

He and his wife Susanne, a medieval art historian, have been married for nine years. ("We met at the opening of one of my shows in Cologne," her husband confesses, with a grimace that suggests he knows this is a terrible cliché.) The couple and their young sons share a cube of Californian-style neo-Modernism cloaked behind high steel gates just off the Portobello Road. The neighbours are Lord and Lady Wolfson of Sunningdale, the furniture is Japanese and hand-crafted, the art on the walls is sparse and not what you'd expect from an artist whose own work is the embodiment of spare, sleek minimalism. He collects the work of Giulio Paolini, Alighiero Boetti and other alumni of the Italian Arte Povera school of the 1960s: artists best known for employing materials such as silk, coal and living plants. His own pieces, which he tries to retain in the studio for six months ("just so I can watch them from the corner of my eye") have only occasionally made it past his own front door.

Which brings us to the question of money. Does he feel uncomfortable that his work - celebrated for its purity and simplicity - is associated with the movement of vast sums of cash, and with his personal marketability? "One of the great dangers and great realities of the art world," he argues, "is that the economics of the situation are so much part of the scene. I would dare to say that three-quarters of the people who collect art don't collect with their eyes, but collect it with their ears. They buy what other people buy because they hear it's the thing to buy. It's always been like that and always will be like that. When the stock market doesn't perform so well, when all the traditional institutional economic venues don't perform as they did, art suddenly becomes a really good investment." I look for traces of sheepishness in his smile, but can't detect any. "It is the way it is," he breezes. "One shouldn't be surprised by it. I don't think it's entirely healthy; but hey, I'm not going to complain."