Anish Kapoor, center, at the 40th anniversary gala for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Liz Gorman

A discussion with the artist behind Chicago’s famous “Bean” sculpture, including a preview of a piece that will “suspend you in total nothingness.”

Cloud Gate, one of the most spectacular public artworks of the 21st century and Chicago’s favorite new landmark, turns 10 years old this spring. Its creator, the sculptor Anish Kapoor, may outrank any other artist working in the public sphere today. Kapoor has also put his mark on London—where he lives and works—with the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a tower built for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

While he has transformed two cities through his public sculptures, that’s only part of his practice. Late in November, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opened “Anish Kapoor and Rembrandt,” an installation pairing new paintings by Kapoor with works by the Old Master. Earlier in November, he delivered the prestigious James T. Demetrion Lecture at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. And just before that, he was one of 40 artists fêted by the Hirshhorn for the museum’s 40th anniversary gala at 4 World Trade Center in New York.

CityLab spoke with Kapoor at the New York party and by phone from his studio in London about how public art works, the darkest substance on the planet, China’s copycat “Bean” sculpture, and his ongoing dispute with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, captured in 2013 during a snowstorm. (Jim Young/Reuters)

CityLab: I’d like to ask you about Cloud Gate first. Tell me about the relationship between the sculpture and the city?
Anish Kapoor: From what perspective? In a vertical city I felt the right thing to do in [Millennium Park] was to make a horizontal object.

Were you working with the Millennium Park architects and planners?
No. No architects, no planners. There’s the people who are trying to get the park together, and they asked me to propose something. I propose something, then we work it through—to understand how big it is, what’s the cost, what are the implications. I employ engineers and so on and so forth. And we do it on a fairly practical and straightforward basis.

You work at several scales with your objects. Do you prefer to work at this larger scale, ideally?
Most of what I make is here in the studio and is more or less human scale. Art scale, gallery scale. That of course is something that shifts, but it’s more or less human scale. And then, I make some small things, and then occasionally, there is a project at a big scale. I think scale is an essential tool of sculpture. It’s something I’m drawn to. When it’s right, it’s deeply mysterious. Deeply profoundly mysterious. The big thing is, scale doesn’t translate. You can kind of get an idea from a model. Scale is, as I say, poetic and mysterious. Looking for that moment when a thing does something else.

How as an artist do you anticipate that moment?
A bit like a composer. You might ask a composer, “Where does that sound come from?” One speculates on the possibility. A composer teaches himself to see as a composer. A composer teaches himself to hear the sound. It comes to be—it’s a curious, introspective process. My general rule is, if it works for me, it will work for everyone else. Almost everyone else.

It seems to work for Chicago.
I rather like the idea that the work’s come to have a colloquial name—“The Bean.” That seems to say that the work’s entered a certain level of public consciousness. I like that. You can’t account for it, and you can’t plan for it. Those things happen, it’s serendipity. Those things happen or don’t happen.

When you’re in Chicago, do you go see Cloud Gate? Do you snap a selfie?
Yes! Yes, I do, every time I’m there.

Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012), seen with London’s Olympic Stadium. (Peter Cziborra/Reuters)

You’ve acquired some of the Vantablack substance produced by Surrey NanoSystems. Have you done any experimenting with it? What’s it like?
Yes! It’s so black, OK. Technically it absorbs 98.8 percent of all light.
[Ed.: Vantablack is reported to absorb
99.965 percent of light.] It’s the blackest material in the universe, after a black hole. I have a piece of it that’s about this big [about one square foot]. It’s truly wondrous. We’re working on getting more.

What are you going to do with it?
I’m about to make a space, which you go into, that suspends you in total nothingness. It’s rather terrifying.

Where will it go?
I can’t tell you.

What did you learn about Rembrandt while you were preparing your show at the Rijskmuseum?
I’ve loved and admired Rembrandt for a long time, as one of the great, great artists. One has to ask oneself why. I’m pretty sure it’s because there’s a fragility, a tenderness, even, I’d go so far to say a compassion in Rembrandt, that’s still as alive as it was 350 years ago when the pictures were painted.

Installation view of Anish Kapoor’s Internal Object in Three Parts (2015) at the Rijksmuseum, seen with Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642). (René den Engelsman/Rijksmuseum)

Turning back to public artworks, I’m curious to know: Do you wait for the commission to come along to start thinking at the scale of the ArcelorMittal Orbit?
One part of my studio is given over to models. I like models a lot. So I’m thinking often in terms of objects at scale. Models are a very good way of making a small thing represent a very big thing. It’s almost like thinking out loud, doing a drawing in space, with a model. That’s part of my process. Then, when something comes along—of course it depends on the site, sometimes the site is so specific one has to go to its requirements, and other times it’s an idea that might take another form in relation to whatever project’s at hand.

Since the success of “The Bean” in Chicago, how many commissions have you turned down?
Lots. I’ve had lots of offers to make other Beans. I’ve always felt that, if I were going to do it, I’d make different work. The truth is, public commissions are very, very difficult. For every 10 proposals, one comes off. First of all, they are not a financial proposition. One doesn’t do it to make money. You can’t make money from public commissions. That doesn’t work.

They cost a lot. To do them right is an expensive business. People don’t go into them lightly. It’s a complicated business to get them right. It’s really, really difficult. It’s hard, hard work. One’s not talking here just about making a more-or-less interesting, more-or-less beautiful object. I’m not interested in that. If one’s going to engage public space, then there is a need to somehow engage something else.

Now, of course, at one level one can’t fully predict that. But I think that there’s a lot that can be done in terms of engaging real public space. For the most part, all the symbolic values that we’ve given public squares, objects in public squares, etc. etc.—all those things are gone. We no longer have the triumphant arch. There’s not much of public life in that sense that has this outward form. So therefore one has to find other things. What are those other things that we can share publicly? I think there are some. But they’re hard work. One has to look somewhere else for those deeper communal values.

Anish Kapoor’s Leviathan (2011), as it appeared at the Grand Palais in Paris.

How could cities make it easier for artists to explore that kind of idea formally in public work?
I think it’s terribly important. I think it’s terribly important. Public art, like most public activity, is experimental. It has to be. Experimental in the sense that that’s how we move forward culturally. We move forward through this public experimentation. It may be public theater. Or public reading. We don’t do those things any more. But they are part of a process of cultural innovation, experimentation, whatever one wants to call it. Sculpture plays a role in that. Sculpture plays a whole role in the whole process of us saying, “What is our communal space?” Cities generally speaking are planned to death. They don’t allow room! They don’t allow even the smallest room for this kind of innovative, open-ended process that looks at, “What does it mean to properly participate?” It’s complicated. But I think those things have to be opened up to.

Do you think it’s more or less stifling to work in China than in the U.S.?
I don’t know anything about China. You’re asking me about Cloud Gate being copied, aren’t you? I couldn’t possibly speak about China. I can say: what a shame. I’m looking into the legal side of all this. I have no doubt I will pursue it. Plagiarism is plagiarism, there’s not much discussion to be had about that.

What is a shame is that Rahm Emanuel, to whom I’ve written an open letter to say, “Come on, join me in this”—has made a silly statement saying, “Oh well, we should be flattered.”

You think Rahm Emanuel could do more on this score.
If it was technology being stolen, if it was, dare I say, military equipment—whatever else—the U.S. government and Rahm Emanuel and many others would jump on them. But, oh, because it’s some aesthetic object… . ... By the way, it brings a great deal to Chicago. Property values in that area have gone up, I don’t dare to guess how many fold, but many fold. I say: How dare he, frankly. How dare he. It’s the cheap take. It makes me furious.

(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

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