Anish Kapoor and Richard Serra: interview
Time Out quizzes sculpture’s big guns, Anish Kapoor and Richard Serra, on why experience counts and whether size matters
Their names are associated with public works of enormo-sculpture; art that’s too large to look at, the kind that needs to be walked round or through. Richard Serra is best known for his totemic steel slabs, some of which he recently lined up for ‘Promenade’ at the Grand Palais in Paris, as well as for his rusty, torqued steel environments such as the mazelike ‘Open Ended’, which features in his first major show in London for more than 15 years. Anish Kapoor is more familiar to audiences here, having filled the Turbine Hall with his red PVC double-trumpet behemoth ‘Marsyas’ in 2003, although his latest exhibition deals with his relationship to architecture through much-reduced scale models. He’s also preparing for a major show at the Royal Academy and will be following Serra in the ‘Monumenta’ series of Grand Palais commissions in 2011.
Beyond sheer size, both artists’ skills lie in exploring the form, volume or weight of a given material as well as its relationship to our bodily space, which often involves enveloping, disorienting and overwhelming the viewer. Here, we compare their thoughts on where sculpture stops and experience begins.
How would you describe your main concerns as a sculptor?Richard Serra ‘A lot of my work is about the duration of bodily movement through space and how one understands those sensations and experiences. The location for each piece drives this movement, so I look at how I can deal with the space in the most singular way I can. You can hang a lot of different images on old structures, but I’m interested in the invention of form.’
Anish Kapoor ‘I’m always returning to a similar set of problems about our body’s relation with things in space, but the challenge of the work is that it needs to confound expectations. It also has to do with the sense that an object is only of real significance when it has an immaterial counterpoint, so it’s the materiality and beyond.’
Your work is essentially abstract but also about the body. How do you reconcile the two?RS ‘The subject matter and the content of my work is you. Is the experience of walking through “Open Ended” abstract? No, because after a point you lose the room. Then you have to deal with where you are in relation to your own psychological subjectivity, and duration is key, because time is one of the most defining things about our individuality. How each of us deals with our own time has a lot to do with the moment and context we were born into.’
AK ‘Sculpture isn’t simply an object in space. It lives through the processional or returning view. In a normal scale object – a Rodin or Donald Judd for example, the living process is the walking around its three-dimensionality. We’re used to the mise en scène, in which the first view is the whole view, but you have to keep reviewing sculpture, just as you do with Rodin, because the front of [his statue of] Balzac is not the same as the back. Instinctively I don’t want a narrative but it’s an essential part of knowing the world, which is also 3D and temporal.’
Is size ever important in art?RS ‘Robert Smithson was one of my closest friends but I was never into making land art, as most of it was shot from the air and so was essentially graphic. If I deal with landscape at all, it’s in elevation and bodily movement. People call my works monumental but I don’t know of any abstract monuments. They’re always representational or even have a specific iconography, like: if it’s a statue of a horse with two legs up in the air it means you died in battle, if it’s only one leg then you were just wounded and so on…’
AK ‘At some levels scale has a bad name in sculpture, but it’s an integral tool when dealing with space. My work is not architecture, but can be architectural in scale. The models [currently on show at RIBA] are of 40 quasi-architectural projects since 1984 and I’ve been deeply interested in this moment where sculpture creates another reading of space for the past 20 years.’
How do you approach enormous commissions like the ‘Monumenta’ series at the Grand Palais?RS ‘If you really want to get that space you have to see it in its entirety. Everybody has their own way, but I walked it for three days just to get the measure of the place, before coming up with the idea for “Promenade”. I didn’t know if we’d be able to build it, as there was no way to mock it up beforehand.’
AK ‘That’s the most terrifying space ever. It’s too big to be indoors and not big enough to be outdoors – truly frightening. These major projects are risky but also really interesting, as one doesn’t know what’s going to happen. I can figure out the practical realities now but I’m not sure about where the art will come from yet.’
Is there a danger of your practice becoming more like an architect’s or engineer’s?RS ‘No, man, I’m a little cottage modelmaker, I use a hammer and nails! There’s myself and one guy in a small room, then my wife and a secretary. We try to get the pieces built and moved but we’re not into big merchandising. The works themselves are not computer dependent or generated, although sometimes they evolve or change if the computer tells me they’ll have tendencies to overturn, for example.’
AK ‘God, no, I’m very much studio-based. I employ a few people, because you can’t do it all yourself, but the studio is all; every problem, every issue is here. I can’t solve them in a plane or in my head and I don’t believe that an intellectual practice is enough. Maquettes are an essential tool, because drawings alone just don’t explain it.’
When you started sculpting, did you know where it was going?RS ‘The first thing I did was completely idiotic; I ordered 35 feet of lead in a roll and then Philip Glass [Serra’s assistant in the ’60s] and I unrolled it and then rolled it back up. We looked at each other and said, what do we have here? Something or nothing? We didn’t know. If it’s steel slab, it’s a steel slab. If it’s a sculpture, it’s a sculpture. I made art – not because I wanted money or even to make art – but for an alternative life, I wanted to study myself.’
AK ‘When I started out in art school in the 1970s I did it just to exist, there wasn’t a hope in hell of making a living from it. The current hurry-hurry art world saddens me, because there’s a difference between making work for the market and just saying to yourself that hopefully this is a growing voyage of discovery. I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m still looking for it.’
Do you have a sense of what your career contribution might be?RS ‘I don’t see myself from the outside like that, but I suppose I took the procedures of steelmaking and brought them into the subtext of art in the same way that Warhol manipulated the interface between art and commercial design. I admire a lot of people who have had long stands, and it seems like particular cultures don’t want to give artists their second, third or fourth acts. Your life’s a nanosecond; if you have a contribution to make, then make it. Don’t bitch about it, just do it.’
AK 'Sculpture takes a hell of a long time. One keeps doing the same thing, it’s only over a period of time that the repetition leads to innovation. A work has one kind of life inside the studio and another outside. Of course, there’s no accounting for the public’s perception – it either enters the psyche or becomes just one more thing in the world.’
Richard Serra: Sculpture continues at Gagosian Britannia St until Dec 20 and Anish Kapoor is at RIBA until Nov 8.
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