Anish Kapoor: 'The government doesn't understand the importance of culture'

Louise Jury
Monday 14 October 2002 00:00 BST

When Anish Kapoor was a little boy in India, a street fortune-teller told his mother he would be very lucky.

The clairvoyant has been proved right. Now one of the most successful artists of his generation, he has represented Britain at the prestigious Venice Biennale, won the Turner prize and become a financially secure and critically acclaimed pillar of the contemporary arts establishment.

His latest work, the enormous blood-red sculpture called Marsyas, was unveiled in the cavernous Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in London last week and immediately lured streams of visitors, many of whom clearly felt the sense of "Wow" he hoped they would.

Yet he was lazy at school and presumed he would become an engineer, the sensible profession that every Indian boy expects to pursue. Only when he gave it all up for art college in London did he discover motivation. "I became a different person overnight," he says.

Art, in a very real sense, transformed his life. He confesses this, as he discusses everything to do with the detail of his success, modestly, wary of sounding pompous or ridiculous. "The biggest danger for an artist is that they believe their own myth," he says, a danger particularly great when your works can change hands for £1m or more. But when he speaks of the significance of culture, he means it.

"The Government doesn't understand how important culture is," he says. "I don't think they get it – that in the deepest, deepest depths of human history, the cultural has always been a motivator of people."

That means the Government is missing out. "If they were able to bring it into their agenda at some level, it could and would transform society. It amazes me that politicians don't understand that."

Kapoor doesn't just jibe, he lobbies. He spent the four years to May enduring the bureaucracy of the Arts Council of England. At the request of Gerry Robinson, the chairman, he tried to help other artists by sitting on its governing council with the likes of the pianist Joanna MacGregor and the dancer Deborah Bull.

"I'm glad I did it. It was a great honour to be asked," he says. "We didn't achieve enough artistically, but we achieved a great deal in terms of restructuring the Arts Council and it is set up now to be able to achieve artistically. If it doesn't, I shall be disappointed."

His contribution was simple, but, for a quango, quite radical – to concentrate on individuals. "The Arts Council is a body that gives out money to organisations. It is consumed by its members. It has struggled to learn the lesson that true creativity comes from individuals. They ought to have the courage now to move forward and back the individual creators."

His role at the Arts Council reinforces the sense of Kapoor being part of the establishment. As does his attempt to create the memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales, even if that was a competition he eventually lost to the landscape artist Kathryn Gustafson.

"It was a shameful process," he says of the Diana memorial. "It had this peculiar British way of some parts of the process being up-front and all these interested parties who aren't declared. It's necessary that Diana's family is involved and the DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] and if Gordon Brown is paying for it, then him, too, but they were all undeclared. It's a quagmire and I'm glad not to be involved."

Yet even without this defeat, Kapoor's life is not that of a typical establishment figure. Nor is his success due to just luck.

He was born in 1954 in Bombay, one of three brothers in a family he describes as cosmo-politan. His father was a hydrographer who, despite his Hindu surname, was completely irreligious. His mother was an Iraqi Jew.

Although much has been made during his career of his Indianness – and he considers himself Indian, not British, despite holding a British passport – this mix made him distinctive even in Bombay.

"I'm used to being a foreigner," he says. "Indians are very conscious of family background, so I grew up in an atmosphere of not being a run-of-the-mill, straightforward Indian boy. I grew up very conscious of [my] Jewishness since my father was positively anti-Hindu. An atmosphere of being different was just part of what life was for us."

Although he was always making sculptures and paintings, he never thought art was a career option. "I thought I would be an engineer like every good Indian boy does – be a professional." So at the age of 16, he was dispatched to Israel with one of his brothers to continue their education, first in a kibbutz and then at university, part of a mass migration of Indian Jews to Israel at the time. "Amazingly, my brother stuck it out and did his engineering degree. I didn't. I had a very, very hard time emotionally – a serious breakdown. That's when I decided I was going to be an artist."

He hitchhiked across Europe to London where his father reluctantly agreed to support his studies, first at Hornsey, then at the Chelsea School of Art. "I became a different person almost overnight. I found I was interested in something. I loved art school," he says.

He found a role model in Paul Neagu, an artist who provided a meaning to what he was doing. "He identified that the purpose of being an artist was somehow not to make more-or-less-interesting objects, but that the language of the eye has psychological, physiological, philosophical, even metaphysical implications. That felt to me what I was looking for." More simply, he describes this as finding "visual equivalents for an emotional language".

Within two years of graduation, he mounted his first show in London and quickly established an international reputation, part of a new wave of British sculptors alongside Richard Deacon, Richard Long and Tony Cragg. He acknowledges his luck in being swept up and so eagerly promoted. Karen Wright, the editor of Modern Painters magazine, observes how in the early years Cragg seized the attention, while Kapoor beavered away to secure his success. But Kapoor is the one who has now caught the public imagination and he has worked hard to achieve this. "You can sit in the bath and have a nice idea, but an idea is worth nothing or very little. It's only practice that makes things happen," he says.

So he commutes from the home he shares in west London with his wife, Susanne, and two young children, to his studio in Camberwell, south London, where he works from around 8.30am to 7pm. While he does not regard himself as an immigrant, his background makes him work the harder, he admits. "There's a kind of anxiety about being an outsider, even if one can put a brave face on it. Immigrant societies do well because they have to deal with that sense of not belonging. I work harder, without a doubt, because I have more to prove. When I started out making sculpture, every single thing that was written about me was about being exotic, being Indian."

His fiercest critics claim that his works are nothing more than forms, which have impact purely by dint of their size or, sometimes, through their optical illusions. He sees them as spaces where people can achieve a kind of reverie. Many have found his works spiritual. He says he is no guru with a message, but admits to being a deeply religious man who has been a practising Buddhist for the past decade. This, like his early years in India, inevitably informs his work. "It's there, of course," he says. "Look at Picasso – he lived his whole life in France, but he was a Spanish painter."

And while he insists he has no "message", that does not imply his art has no meaning. "Why make a form unless it can speak?" he says. "But you have to learn to listen to how it speaks. If you go upstairs at Tate Modern, there is one of my great heroes, Barnett Newman, who's a great paradigm of sophistication and poetics. But his work isn't obvious. It demands of the viewer a certain indulgence. Once one makes that effort, the rewards are enormous. As in all things, we need to educate ourselves. It's hard to look."

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