“Finally, the art world’s most theatrical exponent is coming home – Return of the Prodigal”. “An artist returns to his roots”. “Anish comes home”.
With these headlines Anish Kapoor, probably the world’s most famous (and richest) modern sculptor, has been welcomed back to India where he was born 56 years ago. He has lived in the UK since 1973 and is now a British subject. That mix, and his international fame, led Jawhar Sircar, India’s secretary for culture, to address him aptly at the opening of an incredible exhibition of his works in Delhi on Saturday as “Son of India, pride of Britain and wonder of the world of art”.
Sonia Gandhi, leader of India’s governing coalition, opened the show – a rare accolade – and a dinner was hosted in the evening by Sir Richard Stagg, the British high commissioner. So both countries happily staked a claim, and Sir Richard expansively said the exhibition was probably Britain’s most important cultural event in India since independence in 1947.
Mrs Gandhi’s speech was significant not just for praise she levied on Anish Kapoor, saying that few artists had so successfully “captured the imagination of the world”. His works “explored illusion and reality, darkness and light …and simultaneously capture the mystery of artistic creation and the mystery of being”.
She also highlighted a current debate among India’s artistic fraternity about the need to make art more accessible to people. That would partly include commissioning public art, which is sadly lacking in India apart from distinguished old (and some new) monuments and statues. “It is a matter of regret that our public spaces have so little public art of any real distinction,” Mrs Gandhi said to spontaneous applause, adding she hoped that “we may one day see Anish Kapoor’s installation in one of our cities”, as well works by leading Indian artists.
Mrs Gandhi’s “hopes” often lead to action, and talks are in fact already under way about Mr Kapoor producing a major sculpture for a prominent site in India, maybe a city centre or possibly an airport.
He has mentioned this in media interviews, but his works are costly – a curiously tangled 370ft high steel structure, The Orbit (right) that he is building for the London 2012 Olympics will cost £19m ($30m, Rs1.35bn, Rs135 crore). Indian-born Lakshmi Mittal, who lives in London, is donating £16m and will be rewarded by the work being officially called Arcelor Mittal Orbit after the world’s largest steel company that he runs.
So will an Indian-based company produce funds for a work in its home country? Other Indian businessmen based abroad – Anil Agarwal and his currently notorious London-based Vedanta metals group for example, or the Hinduja family – might not be so acceptable as Mr Mittal. Corporate backing for the current Kapoor exhibitions, which are being staged simultaneously at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) and a Mumbai Bollywood film studio, came from Louis Vuitton and the Tata group, but neither of them seems a likely candidate.
Mr Kapoor was listed in The Times of London’s Rich List last January with wealth of £20m. The Times said his company, White Dark, showed an operating profit of £17.2m in 2008, up from £8.4m the previous year, and that he has homes in London’s Chelsea (a “glass, stone and shimmering stainless steel” structure says The Times), the Bahamas, and elsewhere.
One of his most famous works is Cloud Gate, a £14.3m, 100-ton sculpture in Chicago (below)which is said to be the most visited public art work in the world. It is a rounded bean-like stainless steel structure that reflects its surroundings, passers-by, buildings and the sky, and has a ground-level arch to walk through.
Possibly his most important exhibition was at London’s Royal Academy (RA) last year. He was the first artist to be given all the galleries to display his works that ranged – as do those now in India – from smallish shimmering and reflective glass and steel shapes, through piles of pigments (below and on show in Delhi), to large symbolic mounds of muddy-looking dark red wax.
Inevitably the question that Mr Kapoor is asked most is what influence India has had on his work. In London last year at the time of the RA show, I heard that he was not very proud of being Indian, indeed that he played it down, preferring the life and accents of the UK.
But that, I discover, is not correct – even though, when I asked him walking around the NGMA on Saturday to explain “the Indianness” in his work, he replied “that is the one question I shall avoid answering”. Later at dinner in the high commissioner’s garden, he was more expansive, explaining that he didn’t want to tackle the question because it was “a struggle as a non-western artist not to be labelled” with one’s country of origin. “I’m Indian, My sensibility is Indian. And I welcome that, rejoice in that, but the great battle nowadays is to occupy an aesthetic territory that isn’t linked to nationality,” he told an Indian tv channel recently.
He is however clearly very conscious of his roots – being born in Mumbai to an Indian (Punjabi) Hindu father and a Baghdadi Jewish mother, educated at India’s ultra-elite Doon school, and working on an Israeli kibbutz, before going to art school in London UK. He is now a Buddhist.
He said on Saturday that he has ‘internalised and mythologised” India, and undoubtedly the richness of India is reflected in the bright basic reds, blues and yellows of much of his work. “Red is a colour I’ve felt very strongly about,” he said in a 2003 BBC interview . “Maybe red is a very Indian colour, maybe it’s one of those things that I grew up with and recognise at some other level. Of course, it is the colour of the interior of our bodies. Red is the centre.”
The important point in all his sculptures, Mr Kapoor told me, is not whether there is “Indianness”, but what he and others see ”looking in”. In an excellent BBC film that is being shown at the NGMA, he says his work is “always about human relationships” within the space that he creates or modifies. That comes out most eloquently I think at the NGMA with pictures and models of landscapes and city scapes that he has transformed with massive sculptures – like a huge red trumpet-like funnel on a hill overlooking the New Zealand coast.
Shooting into the Corner, where an iron canon (left) shoots sticky splodges of red wax across a room repetitively every 20 minutes, also illustrates the “looking in” point. Mr Kapoor has dismissed this in the past as “almost a cliché – the artist just throws a bag of paint at a canvas and there it is”. When I watched it with an Indian friend and a crowd of other visitors at the RA last year, we were bemused, not quite seeing the point.
But now the cannon is firing in Mumbai, just after the second anniversary of the city’s devastating 2008 terrorist attacks, and it is being seen as symbolic of repetitive shooting and horrors of terrorism. On an Indian tv channel yesterday, Mr Kapoor toughened up his interpretation and said that the red colour was “full of darkness and danger”. He admitted it was “truly political” but with “no agenda”, adding that “art could take on the context of the bigger world”.
Similarly, visitors did not understand a massive tracked train-like block of blood-red wax, weighing more than 20 tons, that squeezed and oozed its way through doorways linking RA galleries. But the Jewish Chronicle last year, saw “references to blood and railways” that “must surely have a link to Holocaust” trains that carried Jews to death camps.
All this must please Mr Kapoor, and we will now wait to see what he produces for India, once corporate benefactors have been signed up. Meanwhile one can ponder the Arcelor Mittal Orbit at the London Olympics. I reckon it’s a steel Tower of Babel, with all the peoples of the world tangled up in knots, but coming together for the mega sporting event – there will no doubt be other interpretations.