Art that speaks for itself
Bronze dog sculpture "Larry La Trobe" by Pamela Irving, Melbourne City Square. Photo: John Woudstra
Anish Kapoor is so angry he has to apologise. ''Excuse my language, but Britain is f---ed,'' he says. ''Seriously, I mean it. Britain is f---ed. The two things that work, that really work, are education and the arts, and it screws them both in the worst way instead of celebrating them.''
The acclaimed sculptor is certainly a shining example of Britain's outsized contribution to cultural life. A darling of the contemporary art world, his sculptures are renowned for their inscrutability, enormous size and overt sexual symbolism.
A lot of my work is very sexual, very bodily ... After all, that's all we have.
The mirrored, bean-shaped Cloud Gate, created in 2004 for the Millennium Park in Chicago, is reputed to be one of the city's most popular tourist attractions.
Not saying, creating ... Anish Kapoor refuses to explain his work. Photo: Peter Lindbergh
Anyone who watched this year's London Olympics will be familiar with his twisting, looping Orbit tower built to mark the event.
The Guardian's visual arts writer Jonathan Jones wrote: ''The tower seems a living being, full of blood, equipped with mysterious organic innards. It even has an arse, or at least a rusted steel horn that hangs below and fulfils the role of a dome, not on top of the building, but below it.''
An Olympic monument with a bum seems reason enough to stage a retrospective of Kapoor's work at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Sydney International Art Series.
So, too, are his various awards, which include representing Britain at the 1990 Venice Biennale, winning the 1991 Turner Prize, becoming a Royal Academician in 1999 and being made a Commander of the British Empire in 2003.
Kapoor's success can also be measured in monetary terms, with an estimated fortune of $62.7 million and a multimillion-dollar property portfolio, according to the Artinfo website.
But the 58-year-old Kapoor has more to get off his chest about Britain's malaise before turning to his first major Australian exhibition, labelling Britain's government a disaster.
His dislike for the country's Tory-led government is ironic given that he runs the sort of small business enterprise so beloved by the conservative side of politics. Housed in a former roller-blind factory in south London, Kapoor's white-walled studio is a hive of activity. He has about 20 employees divided between an upstairs book-lined office, where they are planning a video spoof of Psy's Gangnam Style to protest against the Chinese government's harassment of artist Ai Weiwei, and the factory floor, where they work on their employer's sculptural ideas.
In the past, journalists have expressed unease at seeing his sculptures massed in the studio, which stretches the length of the street and includes a large, sunlit gallery space. ''It makes one almost queasy sensing how many of them are concerned with feminine holes, clefts, entrances, slashes,'' wrote Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian.
''How dare they,'' Kapoor says, laughing. ''A lot of my work is very sexual, very bodily. I'm really interested in it because, after all, that's all we have.''
More worrying is the pungent chemical smell wafting through one of the workshops and the man dressed in what appears to be a spacesuit to protect himself in what is essentially a sculpture factory.
Kapoor places great emphasis on creating works over and over again. ''It does something psychically, something happens,'' he says. ''I'm a great believer in experimentation and I try to keep it as open as possible to materials, to process.''
One workshop is filled with tiny concrete turds piled high on wooden pallets - precursors, perhaps, to his Between Shit and Architecture, which was exhibited in Paris in 2011 but won't be making the trip to Sydney because the MCA would not be able to handle its immense weight.
Even with the gallery's $53 million new wing, opened in March, Kapoor says exhibiting his works in the MCA is a challenge, not least because of their monumental size.
The director of the MCA, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, agrees. ''We had to work out very carefully which works could be installed in which parts of the building as the floors have different loadings,'' she says. ''Some of the heaviest works are being craned directly into the new high-ceilinged galleries.''
The 24-tonne steel Memory, created for the Deutsche+Guggenheim museum in Berlin in 2008, will be squeezed into a gallery space like a ship into a bottle. The even weightier 25-tonne My Red Homeland, a circular sculpture of wax and vaseline constantly reshaped by a steel blade, will take up just as much space.
Macgregor says Memory is one of Kapoor's key works. ''This large … steel sculpture appears to be constricted by the gallery walls. The viewer has to circulate through the galleries to see the work from the other side. Indeed, the whole work is never revealed - it is the viewer's memory that constructs it.''
In contrast, the slow movement of the mechanical arm through the red wax in My Red Homeland creates an ever-changing object, Macgregor says. ''The viscous nature of the wax is in stark contrast to the hard and almost repellent quality of the … steel of Memory.''
Outside, Kapoor's Sky Mirror, a concave stainless-steel mirror 11 metres in diameter, which required a development application from the City of Sydney to be installed, will sit on the MCA's lawn. ''I'm very excited to show that in Sydney in that beautiful, beautiful setting,'' Kapoor says. ''This show is more retrospective than almost any other show I've done.''
The artist says he tends to keep away from retrospectives because he still enjoys creating new works. But he says: ''I feel that because I've never done a show in Australia before, and Liz Ann felt the same, I think that we needed to do something that looked back.''
Macgregor says Kapoor is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative and influential living artists, creating works that transcend the rarefied confines of the art world to engage the public's imagination.
''I first visited Anish's studio in the early 1980s and the impact of those early pigment works has never left me,'' she says.
The MCA's retrospective might be Kapoor's first major exhibition in Australia, but he is no stranger to these shores. He says he prefers Australia's arid interior to its beaches. This time, his teenage children, daughter Alba and son Ishan, will accompany him to Uluru for the first time. ''I feel very strongly about that,'' he says. ''It is like the centre of the universe, the centre of everything. It is the most deeply religious place I've ever been and a huge amount of work has come out of every visit I've ever made there.''
This might surprise art critics who often look to Kapoor's Indian origins to explain his enigmatic works. Yet he left India when he was 19 and, although he returns every year, he points out that he has lived in Britain for almost four decades.
''Sadly, I'm a foreigner there and I'm still a foreigner here,'' he says. ''But so what? That's OK. My Jewish blood tells me that's OK. I have to live with it.''
Kapoor refers to an ''Indian view of life'', with its sense of ritual, but dislikes the idea of affixing an ethnic tag to his name, although the practice is fashionable in art circles. ''You know you wouldn't do that to Picasso,'' he says. ''I think we have to be very wary as artists of non-European origin of the extent to which we allow a story that attributes too much to one's background culture.''
There's no shortage of books written about Kapoor's works, yet curators and critics often struggle to decipher their meaning. ''They have a strong visceral appeal that is difficult to capture in words,'' Macgregor says. ''Maybe that is what makes them so powerful - they have the ability to render us speechless.''
Kapoor makes no apology for his inscrutable creations. ''I don't believe that artists should directly reveal because what one is asking the viewer to do is participate in a dialogue with the work in which perhaps non-verbal memory is at least engaged, I hope,'' he says.
He stands by his claim that as an artist he has nothing to say, explaining that the process of creating a work is ''a kind of voyage in one's inner life''.
In his studio, Kapoor says: ''I have the right to be whatever - a hero, a woman, a child. It's in those processes of living out a kind of mythological reality or mythical unreality … that content emerges out of the process one is involved in. That's when there's something to say.''
Yet he is happy to explain his thinking behind Orbit, the tower he created with Cecil Balmond to commemorate the London Olympics. Kapoor set out to deconstruct the idea of towers, which he says have been ruled by symmetry since at least the construction of the Eiffel Tower in the late 19th century. ''It's very simple why,'' he says. ''Symmetry supports itself. It makes structural sense. It's only with advanced geometry and computer technology that one can do something asymmetrical.''
He admits the tower looks awkward. ''I don't pretend otherwise. I recognise that is part of its language.''
He is amazed the British government selected his design, yet it is more surprising that he submitted it in the first place, after telling The Guardian four years ago: ''I think we've gone totally public sculpture mad. I hate public sculpture.''
Describing public sculpture as complicated, he says works by British sculptor Henry Moore, while ''very, very good'', have come ''to be almost the turd on the lawn outside your iconic public building''.
''If you're going to make a public object, you need to engage public space,'' he says. ''It cannot just be an emblem on the lawn. It cannot just be a fat turd on the lawn.''
Anish Kapoor is at the Museum of Contemporary Art from December 20 until April 1, 2013.