Anish Kapoor thinks very big; everyone knows that. In 1999, there was the loud fanfare of Taratantara inside the brick shell that would become the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. The trumpet blare continued with the horn-shaped Marsyas at Tate Modern, then with the reflected glory of the Sky Mirror in New York and Cloud Gate, the giant polished bean shaped sculpture in Chicago's AT&T Plaza. The names of his current collaborators at the London National Theatre are also big. There he designed the stage for the dance theatre piece in-i, created and performed by star choreographer Akram Khan and French diva Juliette Binoche. Next comes the news that Kapoor is designing the world's largest ever public art project among the hills of the Tees Valley in the north of England, as well as a monument to the British victims of 9/11. There's no subject or space too big for him, one might think.
On the contrary, says Kapoor, revealing that he's next in line (after Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra and Christian Boltanski) to take on the Monumenta series of commissions to fill the giant atrium of the Grand Palais in Paris late next year. "That's the most terrifying space ever," he says. "It's too big to be indoors and not big enough to be outdoors – truly frightening." Also in 2011, Kapoor is preparing for a major show at the Royal Academy and will unveil the first of the five Tees Valley installations near Middlesborough, with the rest following within the decade. "I think they are incredibly courageous to take this on, and to take me on, but we'll get there," he says describing the first outdoor piece, a tube-like construction of steel netting called Temenos, which will be precariously strung between two enormous upright structures.
"I was asked who I wanted to work with me on these commissions and I chose Cecil Balmond, because given the scale I needed an engineer of his standing to tell me what's possible, but mainly because he and I have worked together a lot." Faced with the enormity of his ideas, Kapoor has often turned to Balmond's expertise as both deputy chairman of Ove Arup and director of Arup's experimental Advanced Geometry Unit for projects such as Marsyas. But the working relationship with Balmond (who, at the age of 65, has himself been credited with launching a new generation of "enginartists") goes beyond a merely advisory capacity. "It's really a collaboration between Cecil and myself," adds Kapoor.
With all these technical feats of colossal sculpture in the pipeline, it might be tempting to see Kapoor himself as some sort of hybrid between artist and architect. It may not even come as a shock to discover that Kapoor is having an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London. What will come as a surprise, however, is the scale of the show. Entitled Place/No Place, it's made up of miniaturized versions of Kapoor's grander pieces to date, as well as Balmond's mock-up of the as-yet unrealised Temenos or Memory, his commissioned work for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. They're not strictly sculptures, but architectural models or maquettes. Like Gulliver walking around his Lilliputian domain, the viewer is, for once, able to dwarf Kapoor's projects and inspect them from on high and from all angles.
"This is not architecture," pledges Kapoor of the projects covered by this retrospective selection of about 30 public pieces from the last 20 years, "but it is architectural, in scale at least. Since 1984, I've been deeply interested in this moment where sculpture creates another reading of space." With the increasing size and ambition of his work, doesn't Kapoor see any similarities between his and an architect's or engineer's practice? "God no, I'm very much studio-based. The studio is all. Every problem, every issue is here, you forget that at your peril. I can't solve them in my head or while sitting on a plane and I don't believe that an intellectual practice is enough."
Of course, he couldn't do it all alone, he admits, but his initial hand-sculpted maquettes are an essential part of preparing for a massive project. "Drawings alone just don't explain it. Sculpture takes a hell of a long time in which one keeps working on the same thing over and over. It's only after a long period of time that the repetition leads to innovation." Neither will Kapoor ever be content to churn out these smaller works, factory-style, from his South London studio. "The current hurry-hurry art world saddens me. There's a difference between making work for or about 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 looking for it. 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. We forget that deeper reality so easily."
Many of the scaled-down Kapoors, elegantly displayed on workaday trestle tables at RIBA, are co-credited to the architects or model makers that he worked with, including Future Systems and Atelier One; there is no sense that they are the work of a solitary genius. "In the studio, the object has one kind of life; outside it has another. If you like, the works in the studio have to nominate their own sense of place." In other words, the smaller sculptures and 3-D sketches are reliant on their relation to us within a confined space, but when put into the landscape they have to retain that sense of encounter, while entering a whole new, public dimension. One example of this is the quasi-architectural underground station he's working on in Naples, which he says is a continuation of his room at the 1992 documenta that was entitled Descent into Limbo. "There's a similar access point, with a big void in the floor that looks dark and dangerous. It could be a carpet or a non-object."
He's ambivalent about how his works are received in the outside world, "At one level there's no accounting for public perception – it either enters the psyche or becomes just one more thing in the world." In particular, he mentions the phenomenal, unexpected impact of Cloud Gate, which has become not simply a public landmark, but a popular symbol of Chicago – appearing in pop videos and magazines with the affectionate nickname, "The Bean". "In the art world we are very suspicious of popularity, so I would literally go there every day to see if it could maintain even a little bit of dignity or mystery. And, despite the thousands of people who visit and interact with the work – doing the tourist thing or even taking their wedding photographs in front of it – I felt that it had succeeded and that it does retain those qualities."
He's also unsure exactly how his latest major commission, Memory for the Deutsche Guggenheim, will turn out when it's unveiled at the end of November. "These projects are risky but also really interesting, as one doesn't know what's going to happen. I know about the practical realities already, but I don't know where the art will come from yet." He describes the monumental structure (still being constructed from bright orange, rusted Cor-Ten steel by Dutch shipbuilders), as though he were leading me around one of his table-top models: "You walk in the entrance and there's a big object that blocks off the space. It doesn't allow a full view of the form and you'll have to physically leave the building and walk around to another entrance to be able to see the other side. After this circumambulation, once again you'll have a longer version of what you’ve just seen but it will be frustrating as you can't see that much, the whole is still hidden."
Not only does the hulking object rely on our memory – "What you see first and second time around don't really marry together", he says – but there's an almost hidden, discreet third viewpoint, actually embedded in the sculpture's rusty casing. "There's a third room inside Memory that's seen through a carefully made square window, just below waist height. It's a tightly cropped view, set into the wall and looking in to the interior, but it's very dark and mysterious, and hopefully immaterial." Although Kapoor's work seems to be all about weight and volume, it's the paradoxical quality of nearly-not-thereness that really excites him. "This is the paradox of the piece – it's there physically and yet not there at all."
Most architects and engineers are engaged in building solid, sustainable structures for our living and working environments, so Kapoor's quest for weightlessness and immateriality marks him out as the anti-architect. The miniaturized models may be made from cardboard and plastic rather than steel and wire, but the forms speak for themselves and create the same sense of drama as their scaled-up cousins. Clearly when it comes to Kapoor, size isn't everything.
Place/No Place: Anish Kapoor in Architecture
October 15 - November 8, 2008
Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Tues 10am-9pm
RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London
Anish Kapoor: Memory
November 30, 2008 - February 1, 2009
Mon-Sun 10am-8pm, Thurs 10am-10pm
Deutsche Guggenheim, Unter den Linden 13/15, Berlin