For the catalogue of the exhibition The Last Supper After Leonardo at Fondatione Stilline in Milan, curated by Demetrio Paparoni, February 2019
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1490s
Marta Gnyp: We’ve got this very difficult task, or better to call it a challenging task, to speak about your connection to Leonardo da Vinci.
Anish Kapoor: It’s a really a difficult task because in many ways anything and everything that needs to be said about Leonardo has been said endlessly for centuries.
MG: It is especially challenging since your work centers around sculpture, while Leonardo’s works that we know are his paintings and his drawings, – although two weeks ago an art historian attributed one sculpture from Victoria and Albert Museum to him, but this doesn’t change a lot. What is important is that Leonardo described himself as engineer, as man of science and as an artist so I was wondering how would you describe yourself?
AK: He may describe himself as that and then we love that narrative, but I think that’s a contemporary fiction. What I see in the drawings but not just there, is a particular quality to Leonardo: he removes the skin and he is looking at the inside. I’m not just talking about the anatomical drawings. Removing of the skin is something that Leonardo does.
MG: You mean showing the deeper inner self.
AK: If you look at The Last Supper it is in a way a set piece with all kinds of observations made about the particularities of all the individual characters. Fine – personally, of little interest for me. I’m more interested in that side of Leonardo which says that being isn’t described by how a thing looks. It’s described by something else. That inquiry – the real deep inquiry –is of the modern mind. I think that’s the key question.
MG: Well said. Let’s continue with the concept of the skin. For the exhibition you have chosen two works that are all about the skin.
AK: Exactly. It’s an interior. That’s intentional because what am I going to say about The Last Supper? (chuckles)
MG: These silicone skins, which refer also to the process of flaying as we can read in one of the titles, look almost like a drapery, which was by the way a hallmark of Leonardo.
AK: In art history we learn that there was one great Renaissance idea, perspective. The more I hear about it the less convinced I am that it’s actually a Renaissance idea; it was probably an Arabic idea or something much older than that. I’m no Renaissance expert, I know nothing – but there is, it seems to me, another idea which is just as important for the Renaissance, which is, as you just rightly said, about cloth or the fold. Now what is the fold? The fold, of course, is the body. Cloth is being itself. All that fabric tells us about being. So, these are the two things, the deep distance and embodied being – the skin, in other words describes a presence, a kind of essential question about living, breathing and feeling. I think it’s a terribly important idea; in a way a much more important idea than perspective. Perspective is more a formal device. This is a question about presence.
MG: Perspective proved to be more than a formal device; it gave a scientific flavor to art. But I’m interested how do you see the skin as the instrument of presence.
AK: An object – it doesn’t really matter what the object is – an object is always described in the world by its skin. My dear colleague Richard Serra says that the surface of an object doesn’t matter. Well, I think he’s wrong. It’s the surface that actually puts the object in the world. ‘It’s the surface that is that little bridge between the inner reality, and the object-hood of the sculpture. And it is that curious relationship between inside and outside, that barrier in-between that I am interested in.
MG: There is also this curious connection between two mediums in your works in the exhibition because they are sculptures and paintings at the same time.
AK: It is an object and a surface; it sits between the two. It’s a very curious relationship that I think needs investigation. It is essentially how we define ourselves. If I think of myself, I’m not at all described by just this physical thing that is me. I close my eyes. I have a vast space inside myself. And I think that of me, but I think that of you too. We all know it.
MG: Do you try to disconnect the physical from the inside experiences?
AK: No not a disconnect. The inside is bigger. That’s what Leonardo seems to be pointing at even in the so-called ‘biological studies’. That wonderful drawing of a copulating couple is not just about the biology. There is a whole other interiority spoken and unspoken. It is the beginning of an investigation of the modern mind, that asks absolutely essential questions.
Tong Memory, 2015
MG: This interest in the inside seems to be explored in your work from the very beginning through the concept of the void and nothingness. You said in one of your interviews that in this experience of nothingness there is also self-knowledge (self-knowledge seems to be one of this driving forces in the Leonardo works as well). How could this experience of nothingness help us acquire self-knowledge?
AK: Well, as we know from Kant the sublime can be described in its most benign form as vast space. The proposition that I’m toying with, is that this vast space is dark because we don’t know it. It’s dark and yet it’s pregnant; it is not a nothingness. Horror vacui is something that we carry within us, but we do not contain negative space, we are full. I think it is the mystery of this fullness that is hugely potent.
It is of course linked to Freud. It links to the idea that we carry subject matter and we can’t help but bring it to ourselves. We all experience these things as phenomena, we carry it both individually and collectively; the dark terrain of the repressed, that emerges in ways that are often mysterious to us.
MG: I spoke coincidentally last week with one of the top physicists who investigates the black material and black holes. He said to me that he thinks that the ideas of time and space as we use them are actually only instruments that we humans have invented to navigate through our lives, but it doesn’t really matter in the universe which is to me a horrifying abstract idea. I had to think about it reading about your fascinations with void and seeing your works.
AK: One of the ideas in Buddhism is that there is no self; there is no constant ‘I’. From my perspective as an artist I’m interested in this proposition partly because one of the things that scientists aren’t good at yet is consciousness. Science does lots of wonderful things, but consciousness itself is not something that there is much advance on. What is my sense of self? Where do ‘I’ come from?
MG: You think that artists have a sixth sense to understand what is not yet understandable?
AK: As artists we can speculate on consciousness. We can speculate on the beginning. It’s not for nothing that many Barnett Newman’s works, which tend to deal with this question, are entitled, Day one, The Origin or The Beginning, in other words – consciousness. Where do I come from? Where do I go to? I believe actually Leonardo is not asking questions that are too different from that.
MG: You give art a very important role in exploring territories like consciousness where science is not sufficient (yet)?
AK: It’s essential. We are not making aesthetic propositions. Who gives a shit, to be honest? There are fundamental questions, and we as artists have to dare to ask big questions, and not care whether they are stupid.
Cloud Gate, 2004, Chicago
MG: Asking these big stupid questions brings us back to Leonardo who used his own observations as one of the key instruments to investigate the world. In his notes you will find questions like ‘Why is the sky blue?’, which sounds seemingly childish and stupid but it is actually the right question.
AK: It is.
MG: There’s also another connection between you and Leonardo. Leonardo was born out of wedlock, which was not unusual at that time but made his position in the society special since some functions like his father‘s notary job was excluded for him. You were born in a slightly complicated cultural situation in the Hindu and Jewish environment, which is also not unusual but special. Has this simultaneously being and not being part of a group influenced your thinking about art and society at large?
AK: Well, these are just the facts of psychic biography. We see around us that this is an increasing reality: more and more people are in all sort of ways in-between: culturally in-between, in-between nations; postcolonialism’s dreadful legacy leaves a lot of us in-between but it’s not just that.
MG: But is it bad? Could this in-betweenness sometimes be an advantage?
AK: No, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s bad. But we find ourselves at this point in a retrograde, in a backward-looking moment of supranationalism, everywhere you look. I don’t want to talk about that particularly but there was a time until recently when this ‘in-between’ was seen as a hugely progressive step. I think it’s a space that you can occupy biologically but you can also occupy it – and we all occupy it – metaphorically, culturally. Just because someone’s born to two English parents doesn’t mean they are not in-between themselves. Today everything is kind of mixed up in a pot that we hope makes it more interesting. What we don’t want is that it becomes dilute. It becomes less interesting or less powerful when it loses its deep, deep historical and psychological roots. Those are the dangers of in-betweenness.
As If to celebrate I discovered a mountain blooming with red flowers, 1981
MG: What about you specifically? Was being culturally mixed an advantage for you?
AK: No question about it. I have no doubt about it for me. But then I can only speak for me.
MG: Going back to Leonardo another question I would like to ask you is about the process of learning. Leonardo advised in his Treatise on Painting that you have to copy the great artists to develop your own skills. Does it also apply to you? Did you look at great artists from the past or present to learn?
AK: It’s a tough one. We seem to have moved away in our understanding from skill. Now skill is a real question; it isn’t enough. Modern or postmodern thinking seems to say that craft is not in itself a practice. We can see in most art schools and most places of training that actually this is not something that is practiced very much anymore – if at all.
MG: What did you replace skill with?
AK: The really, really hard work. Because making art must have to do with the ability to practice. I can’t do something because I think it. What I know is of no interest to anybody – or me. It’s what I don’t know that really matters. To even touch the beginning of what I don’t know I have to have a practice, which means that I go to the studio every day and work. Make garbage if that’s what it is, make what I can use and work with in order to excavate something. That’s a psychological method rather than an academic method.
MG: Are you looking at art of other artists as well? Leonardo considered ancient art more interesting than modern art of his time. What about you?
AK: All of it. Old and new – whatever volume can be had. Always with that question: ‘Does it have psychic reality?’ I mean that’s the way we all look at art, isn’t it?
MG: What is for you an ultimate good work?
AK: The most difficult thing for an artist to do – that Leonardo did, which is probably why he’s really great, is to make something mysterious. Mysterious meaning enduringly mysterious. How can you look at a work as much as you like and never understand what it is? One thinks of Mona Lisa, but there are one or two other Leonardo works that have this mysterious quality. If we really look, deeply look, into the artifacts of the world – it doesn’t matter from what time – there are very few that are truly, deeply mysterious.
MG: What is your most mysterious work?
AK: Off the top of my head … I’ve got to say Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass.
MG: Great it is, but I mean a work that you made.
AK: Oh, my work. Oh, don’t ask me. That’s not fair.
AK: Probably I would say Descent into Limbo that I first showed at Documenta in ’92 and I’ve shown it several times since. What do I know? (chuckles)
Descent to the Limbo
MG: In 1992 you participate at Documenta; 1989 you made the exhibition Void Field, in 1990 you did the British Pavilion at the Venice biennale, in 1991 you won the Turner Prize. This sounds like a miraculous outburst of recognition. Why do you think the response to your works was so huge at that time?
AK: Oh dear, I don’t know. The most important question I hope my work brings up, and I believe it is the only real question: What is this thing? – What is it? Why is it? Is it understandable? Is it not understandable? You can’t seek out meaning. Just as you can’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Today I’m going to do something spiritual.
MG: I know. Could it be that you have touched, if we speak about this worn-out term, the spirit of the time?
AK: Well, it’s very, very hard. You cannot pursue the zeitgeist, it can only come out of practice. That’s why I believe practice is everything, because it’s daily application. The question is to keep at it, allow something to emerge and watch it. Much like in the process of psychoanalysis, which until recently I was in for thirty years.
MG: Really? Why did you do that?
AK: Because I had to. You don’t do these things for fun.
MG: Your studio practice was not enough to replace the psychoanalysis?
AK: Well, no. I don’t see it like that. I see it as a parallel. What happens in psychoanalysis is that you go and lie down on a couch and then you say whatever needs to be said, content emerges, and then you work with the stuff that you notice. Some things are painful, some things are difficult. Well, isn’t being in the studio exactly the same? I go to the studio and I do something – it doesn’t really matter what. As they say in Zen ‘First idea – best idea’. Don’t think. Just do it. That process is really important, it’s a process that deposits material. Then you get a problem, oh god, another problem. How am I going to resolve the problem in this work? I think that’s when the real work of an artist starts. I won’t go there with Leonardo because I don’t think that was the practice of his age.
MG: Leonardo apparently had left many works unfinished when he lost his interest in making them. Do you recognize it?
AK: My studio is absolutely full of half-solved problems and I go around it every day asking myself what am I going to do? How do I take this forward?’ I mean it is a necessary and powerful part of the process that I have to work with. Lots of half-solved problems. I mean it is a necessary powerful process of the method I have to work with. Lots of half-solved problems.
MG: A fascination that you seem to share with Leonardo is technology and engineering. A lot of your works are executed in a technologically highly sophisticated way, if you think about Cloud Gate, Sky Mirror or even your concave mirrors. But we cannot speak about you and technology without talking about the nano-tube pigment you have called ‘blackest black’. This is a technological invention that you are participating in. Why is it so important for you to have these excursions outside of your art?
AK: I’ve had a long pre-occupation with emptying out the object, with the space of the void, for the reasons we have talked about. One day about five years ago now, I read in the newspaper an article about a guy who claimed to have discovered the blackest black in the universe. I wrote him a letter and asked if he thought we could work together. His response was that it had no aesthetic application, that it was a material made for the defense industry. But after some persistence on my part we eventually met and we talked, and he understood that it actually does.
MG: How does it work?
AK It is a material that’s put on a surface. It then has to go into a reactor that turns nanoparticles into receptors that absorb light. The material that we are working with absorbs 99.8% of all light. That’s to say that only .2% of the light is reflected back at us. The methodology limits the size so we can only make works about thirty by thirty centimeters at present. It’s been a complicated process, for example we’ve had to sign an official secret agreement in order not to divulge this material because it’s made for the defense industry. It’s tedious but very necessary, and I think it’s quite funny as well. I think that I am probably not so far away from showing the first works.
MG: How does it work conceptually for you?
AK: There is a great deal of work being done on the fold. Various philosophical treaties, French mostly addressed this concept. If the fold is a sign of being, what has been claimed, then this black material makes the fold literally disappear. If the fold is a sign of ‘being’ then this black material is ‘beyond being’.
MG: You touch on the essence of existence.
AK: Well, that’s the proposition. You don’t have to believe me.
MG: Seeing is believing, can’t wait! Something more prosaic, what about the conflict around your exclusive license for this product?
AK: We created the license between us for only one reason: to develop this project. It is technology, it’s complicated, and sadly you can’t do it unless you really spend enough money. We didn’t know where we were going, and we were exploring it together. It was necessary for that.
MG: Let’s speak about your relation to politics which is something that Leonardo was not really involved in although he was likely smuggling politically charged heretical messages (at least thats what we think) in his works. You’re an artist who makes political statements but no political art, aren’t you?
AK: Correct. I really believe that agitprop – art that has overt political messages – has a short life and I’m not a great believer in it as a method. It just doesn’t make good art. But I’m a quotidian being and our world we live in today is beyond disgusting on so many levels that we have to speak. I think it’s a power that we have as citizens: You and I and all our brothers and sisters.
Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei during a protest walk in solidarity with refugees, 2015
MG: Do you think that this is the role of the artist, to be socially present and to try at least to change the world for as much as possible?
AK: Yes, it’s very hard though. There is little point in us making more or less interesting aesthetic propositions. In the end it looks shit. I keep coming back to that. We have to deal with some kind of psychic reality. We live in an art world that in the last 15 years has been only interested in commodities and in the market. The market kills everything. Once the thing goes to the market it is consumed by it. How can it have power once it’s consumed?
MG: What do you mean by that?
AK: The only way that we can work with the market is to say that money is mythological. I truly believe that artists don’t make objects, we make mythologies. If you look at a Picasso and within its context it’s worth 150 million – that’s part of the mythology of the work because money becomes unreal at those levels. We have to be aware as artists that this is what keeps us alive and allows us to work but at the same time it’s also what robs the work of its inner life. How do we balance these things? These are problems for all of us. that, I won’t play the market game. I don’t believe it’s the right thing to do.
MG: Last week I was at an art fair in Los Angeles and of course I saw also your works hanging there and was thinking about it. How your conceptually very strong works function in this market sphere. They inevitably become the object of decoration of the wealthy, which is how it is. Which brings us again back to Leonardo – also he was serving the power. You cannot avoid it probably.
AK: Exactly –we have to be daft, clever and agile enough to see and avoid self-evident problems. Leonardo was wealthy enough to have a fancy house in Florence, to run a sophisticated studio with lots of assistants. By the standards of his age he was hugely wealthy. Now, money and art have always gone together. Nothing new here. But what we as artists have to do, is to not to be seduced by what the market offers, to make sure that we don’t make work for the market. It is bloody difficult to put it simply.
Red to Blue, 2016
MG: It is. The last question – the older Leonardo became the more he also questioned his own thinking. Does this apply to you as well? I’m by no means saying that you’re old by the way, I’m speaking about getting older which we all do.
AK: Well, I’m almost 65, so I am.
MG: Do you question your own models that you’ve taken for granted for a very long time?
AK: I used to have written on my studio wall a little phrase that said, ‘never be a worker in your own factory’, and I think about it often. Because one can set up a practice that delivers a certain result and, well, it’s fine, but that’s not what being an artist is. I think that’s why I keep coming back to this really difficult problem: what I know is of no interest, it’s what I don’t know that I’m interested in. I don’t know how to get there even. I don’t even know what I’m talking about. But I think that is the problem, has to be the problem and has to remain the problem.
It’s this questioning part of the work that is to me what it means to be alive, to be an artist, to do the work. Otherwise you’ll just work in your factory.