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May 19 2013

Kapoor in Berlin / Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin / Interview with Anish Kapoor

Kapoor in Berlin is the first comprehensive exhibition of Anish Kapoor in Berlin. The Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor is known for his spectacular sculptures and installations, such as the Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, Chicago. For his exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau he uses the whole ground floor of the building, including the atrium. In this video, Anish Kapoor talks about the concept of the show and specific works, such as the huge kinetic installation in the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Kapoor in Berlin. Anish Kapoor solo exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin (Germany). Interview with Anish Kapoor. Berlin, Germany, May 17, 2013. Video by Frantisek Zachoval.

PS: For more videos on Anish Kapoor, visit our archive.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.
> On YouTube:

Kapoor in Berlin is currently the most comprehensive exhibition of one of the world’s most important contemporary artist. At the Martin-Gropius-Bau art lovers can see more than 70 works from the 1980s to the present. The exhibition mainly presents works that have been shown in major exhibitions such as Documenta and La Biennale di Venezia. For Kapoor in Berlin, the artist has produced a new version of his work Descent into Limbo (1992),which was one of the highlights of documenta IX. The viewer can also see Kapoor’s gleaming high-grade steel mirrors. The central installation of the show is the piece Symphony for a Beloved Sun.

In this interview, Anish Kapoor explains how he worked with the exhibition space with its specific architectural style and its own history. He talks about the importance of the original installation of the Leviathan, which was created for the Grand Palais in Paris in 2011, and the monumental installation in the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau: Symphony for a Beloved Sun.



Selected solo exhibitions of Anish Kapoor include: ‘Objects’, Seoul: Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (2012); ‘Anish Kapoor: Flashback’, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester (2011); ‘Monumenta’, Grand Palais, Paris (2011); ‘Anish Kapoor’, Fabbrica del Vapore, Milan (2011); ‘Anish Kapoor: Delhi / Mumbai’, National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi and Mehboob Studios, Mumbai (2010); ‘Turning the World Upside Down’, Kensington Gardens, London (2010); ‘Anish Kapoor’, Museo Guggenheim de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo, Bilbao (2010); ‘Anish Kapoor’, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, MIMA, Middlesbrough (2010); ‘Turning the World Upside Down’, Kensington Gardens, London (2010); ‘Anish Kapoor: Shooting into the Corner’, MAK Museum, Vienna (2010); ‘Drawings’, Regen Projects, Los Angeles (2009); ‘Memory’ Guggenheim, New York (2009); ‘Place/No Place: Anish Kapoor in Architecture’, Royal Institute of British Architects, London (2008); ‘Anish Kapoor’, Haus der Kunst, Munich (2007); ‘Anish Kapoor, Sky Mirror’ Rockefeller Centre, New York (2006); ‘Anish Kapoor Japanese Mirrors’, Scai The Bathhouse, Tokyo (2005); ‘My Red Homeland’, KUB, Kunsthaus Bregenz (2003); ‘Marsyas’, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London (2002-03); Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv (1993); Mala Galerija, Moderna Galerija Ljubljana, Museum of Modern Art, Slovenia (1994); ‘Anish Kapoor, XLIV Biennale di Venezia’, British Pavilion, Venice (1990).

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June 22 2012

Anish Kapoor's house in London occupied by protesters

Bread and Circuses group to hold arts event in house owned by artist who designed ArcelorMittal Orbit tower for Olympics

In the first of what could be a summer of protest linked to the Olympics, a group connected to the Occupy movement has taken over an empty Georgian house owned by the Olympic park sculptor Anish Kapoor for a one-day arts event.

The group, calling itself Bread and Circuses, a reference to its argument that the Olympics are a means of distracting people from pressing economic and social issues, said it had "liberated" the part-derelict five-storey house on Lincoln's Inn Fields, one of central London's most picturesque and expensive garden squares and the scene of a rough sleepers' "tent city" in the 1980s.

The group says the house has been left empty since the artist – whose ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, a 115-metre tall sculpture and observation platform, dominates the skyline of the Olympic Park in east London – bought it in 2009. Kapoor is listed as director of a company called 1-2 Lincoln's Inn Fields Ltd, the address of the property, which was formed in 2009. The bulk of the £22.7m cost of the steel sculpture was met by the steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal.

The building is five stories high with an enormous iron door and covered windows. Inside, there are several enormous rooms on the ground floor with a staircase climbing through the centre. The wallpaper is peeling and wires hang threateningly from the ceiling. It contains no furniture except for a pair of supermarket trolleys.

"This is not about being against the Olympics," said one protester. "This is about what the government is using the Olympics for."

The small group of protesters say they have been in the property for a week.

One said they wanted to find a creative use for what they regard as wasted space. "Just look at it," he said. "We want to use all this empty space."

A homeless man who has joined the group in the property said: "How can someone do this? How can you own a place like this and not even use it when there are people sleeping in the streets?"

From 4pm on Friday the house will host art exhibits, talks and film screenings, with live music after 9pm, the group said. Among those billed to appear are John Hilary, director of the charity War on Want, one of the organisers of the Counter Olympics Network, which seeks to challenge the corporate nature of the event, and Trenton Oldfield, who swam into the path of April's university boat race in a protest against "elitism".

The group sent a statement from a member, Jeniffer Taylor, who described the Olympics as "a smokescreen to take our minds off austerity measures, the global economic crisis and the commodification and privatisation of everything, even art".

In keeping with the media-savvy nature of events connected to the Occupy movement, the one-day protest already has its own Facebook page and Twitter feed. The group sent a message to supporters that read: "New Holborn squatt will b [sic] evicted in saturday. Big event this friday against london politics! BREAD AND CIRCUSES: speaches, music, art, performance, rave and more surprises!"

The wider Occupy movement has not announced plans to disrupt the Olympics with protests, but it seems inevitable that it or other similar groups will use the global attention on London during the event to publicise their causes. This is particularly the case as, given the loosely collective nature of Occupy, more or less anyone can begin a protest under their banner.


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May 19 2012

The Olympic Park

The Velodrome, the Copper Box, the Energy Centre: some fine buildings will grace London 2012. But tawdry compromise is never far away…

Here's the thing about the Olympics. It's a magnificent event, engaging, as it does, most of the planet in the innocent idea of playing games extremely well, and if it avoids disasters it can make the host nation feel good about itself. But it is also insanely expensive in both money and risk, thanks in part to the tyrannical demands of the International Olympic Committee, and profoundly unsustainable, as it requires an immense amount of construction for a 17-day event plus 12 for the Paralympics.

The numbers don't add up, so the Games are sold to citizens on the basis of promises that turn out to be false. They will increase participation in sport and reduce obesity – they don't. They will boost tourism – actually Olympic cities usually experience a decline in visitors. They will be sustainable, but only in the sense that a space rocket powered by biofuel would be sustainable. They will cost the government £2.37bn, or, rather, £9.3bn; or, if all associated costs are included, even more. So to make the Games work, circles have to be squared, compromises made and deals done. Sponsors become gods, because without them there would be no Games, and the branding police enforce their will. Demands of surveillance and security become boundless. Everything has to be on-message.

The contradictions of the Olympics are ingrained in the built fabric of London 2012, which is now essentially finished, awaiting little more than for the meadow flowers seeded in the site's gardens to flourish in synchrony with the big event, and for the completion of the stadium wrapper sponsored by Dow Chemical. It's an urban effort of a scale and ambition that this country has not managed for a long time. It has so far been smoothly delivered, without the baleful stories of near-disaster that accompanied the construction of the Athens Olympics, or the reports of multiple deaths on the Beijing stadium site.

There are intelligent strategies for dealing with at least some of the problems that usually afflict the Games. There are several well designed structures and not much that is downright terrible. During the recent test events in the Olympic Park there was some sense of community, arising from shared experience among many people, of a kind that was supposedly going out of fashion.

All of which is truly admirable, but it's an achievement that comes with conditions and compromises. The stadium, like all its predecessors, struggles to find a viable future use. The sense of community is for Visa cardholders only and sustained by batteries of Rapier missiles. There is a weird alternation of the profligate and the miserly: to hold the Games at all is absurdly extravagant, and the security budget grows at will, but places such as the athletes' village – where thousands will live in the future – are squeezed hard by time and money, such that they are less wonderful than they might otherwise be. The event is held in the name of the public but its portal is a private shopping mall.

Part of what is good about the Olympics is captured by buildings such as the wood-clad, wavy-roofed Velodrome by Hopkins Architects, a structure beautifully attuned to its purpose, spare in construction, which sits on a little hill with elegant festivity. Also by relatively unsung structures such as the temporary venues for basketball and water polo, which are stylish but relatively straightforward ways of getting the job done. Or the Copper Box, a plain but effective container for handball, which is one of the best works of its architects Make. Or the electrical substation, a handsome brick structure by the Glaswegian practice Nord, and the rust-coloured Energy Centre by John McAslan and Partners. Like Olympic sports, these embody the focused pursuit of the good to exceptional in a precise if limited field.

A lot of what is worst about the Olympics is captured by the Orbit: the grandstanding, the gesture-making, the unholy alliance of politicians and corporations in making expensive but empty statements that miss out any real connection with the human race. The Orbit, by the artist Anish Kapoor and the engineer Cecil Balmond, seems to be something to do with art, as expressed by its red squiggly form, and something to do with access, evidenced by the stairs rising up it, but the two don't seem very happily combined.

The official blather is that it is "very aspirational, in a very appropriately Olympic way": alternatively, you could listen to a man I overhead trying to explain it to his family – "It's what they call sculpture. It's just there to make you ask, 'What is it?' "

It gobbles steel, which ruins the justified boast of the stadium that it was efficient in its use of this high-energy metal, and occupies land in a way that complicates the planning of this bit of the site for the post-Olympic legacy. It makes little attempt at harmony with, or even acknowledgement of, its neighbours, the stadium and the Aquatics Centre. And it will cost £15 to go up to the top. I suggest that residents of nearby council tower blocks charge £14.95 to visit their flats. The view will be just as good and visitors would gain a richer understanding of London and of humanity.

The stadium itself is nicely lean and taut, at least until the arrival of its Dow Chemical-sponsored-don't-mention-Bhopal wrapper. It is not encrusted, as most modern arenas are, with the flummery of franchises and corporate hospitality, much of which is housed in separate pavilions at ground level. It is the perfect model of an austere structure for austere times, or would be if it hadn't come with the un-austere price tag of £486m, with further public subsidy required to support a future use for it. It is also designed to be demountable, which is sensible, except that when Tottenham Hotspur proposed to demount it to build a viable (if hideous) football ground there, Lord Coe screamed blue murder and had it kept.

There is Zaha Hadid's £269m Aquatics Centre, majestic if compromised by gawky temporary extensions to house the seating needed for the Games. There is the athletes' village, where the dogmatic belief that the ideal form for cities is a grid of regular 10-storey blocks concurred with developers' desires to build large, repetitive structures. The result is a robotic approximation of urbanity, in which curves and oblique lines are barely admitted, like a portrait drawn with an Etch A Sketch.

And there is the Westfield shopping centre, which is not strictly an Olympic project and would have happened in due course without the Games, but the 2012 organisers are keen to take credit for it and use it as evidence for their theories about regeneration. This is now a throbbing citadel of retail through which most Olympic visitors will be funnelled, but one that doesn't bother much about the faces, or backsides, it presents to its surroundings.

Between these dollops of construction is green stuff and air: it is the park that has to make everything cohere and smooth the abrupt transitions between the lumps of building. Designed by the American landscape architect George Hargreaves, it does a remarkably good job, starting with the fact that it pays some attention, unlike most things Olympic, to what was already there. This is a watery place, criss-crossed with bits of the river Lea and associated channels, with multiple changes of level and fragments of its industrial past. As Iain Sinclair has pointed out, much was expunged to make way for the Games, but Hargreaves has the sense to use and improve what's left, creating a closeness to water, a wandering, intricate tissue of overlapping layers and loose, shaggy planting.

In places the vegetation is dominated by the expanses of hard surface necessary to cope with Olympic crowds and by the temporary paraphernalia of the Games. At times it resembles rather small pieces of parsley on the large lumps of meat that are the sporting venues. But it's vastly preferable to the arid plazas that usually serve the Olympics, and there is something wonderful about a rustic waterway that winds close to the side of the stadium. After the Games the hard surfaces will shrink, as will the many bridges over the water, and the green will increase.

There is intelligence, investment, talent and hard work in the Olympic park and buildings, albeit not always organised in the most useful way. No one could call the progression on to the site, through the razzle of Westfield towards the blank flank of the Aquatics Centre's temporary seating, a well-considered entry to the greatest show on earth. What's more, the good quality design and planning stop abruptly at the boundaries of the park: you don't have to go very far before the stardust fades into the junkheap of Stratford town centre, where worn but serviceable old buildings are overlain by some of the most grotesque public art known to man and overlooked by exploitative apartment towers of developers' tat.

During the Games, intense effort is put into throwing metal balls and sharp sticks or cycling in circles, and we are invited to admire not the thing itself but the way it is done. The 2012 constructional effort has a little more purpose – in that it creates a park, thousands of homes and a few other things – but it raises similar questions. As with throwing balls and sticks it shows good technique and fantastic delivery, as well as amazing levels of funding. But could they not be applied more directly to places where people actually live, including those a few hundred yards away? These are the kinds of things usually lacking in new schools, hospitals, housing and public space: why should they be found only within the sacred enclosure of the Games?


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May 05 2012

Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower: the mother of all helter-skelters

Finally, after two years of planning wrangles, Britain's largest public sculpture towers over the Olympic park

Time-lapse film: constructing Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower

As planning applications go, it would be fair to say that case #10/90250/FULODA, submitted to the London boroughs of Newham and Waltham Forest planning committees in May 2010, stood out somewhat. In among the loft conversions and Victorian conservatories that mark the staple fare of the weekly planning agenda in this part of east London, this particular file put the sober case for a 115m steel tower in the form of a vast, deconstructed spiral, painted bright red, lit up at night and visible from 10km away. Did the neighbours mind?

By the time it reached the application stage, the creators of the ArcelorMittal Orbit on the Olympic site (or "Boris's Folly", as it was generally known on the blog sites) had already invited as many neighbours as possible to comment. The Big Opportunity, a conglomeration of interest groups in the vicinity, with 56 members ranging from the East London Inventors Club to the Ladies' Wing of the Followers of His [Hindu] Holiness Swaminarayan Mandir, had been consulted. Responses had been invited from interested individuals from the Orbit's "region", which stretched as far as Milton Keynes, Brighton, Canterbury and Southampton. From all this reaching out, 118 comments had been received and noted by the time of the full planning application: 39% wrote in favour of a design variously described as "beautiful", "fragile" and "feminine". The rest argued in forceful terms that it was "ugly" and "not symmetrical" and objected in no particular order to the fact that it was red, pointless, expensive and an advert for Arcelor Mittal (and quite a cheap one at that).

At an open planning meeting, one of the tower's creators, the engineer Cecil Balmond, who is responsible for some of the world's most inspired and innovative structures, recalls how he thought they had lost it. "From the floor, people just seemed to be lining up with complaints, one after the other," he recalls. "It looked pretty bad at one point. We don't want this and what is the point of that? But then after a while came the counter-arguments: Britain needs something different and new, we can't bury our heads in the sand, all that. I just stood back and listened."

By the time of that public debate, Balmond and his fellow Orbit-creator, the artist Anish Kapoor, had become rather used to explaining their ideas to committees and taking feedback. They had (mostly calmly) addressed the concerns of critics, conservationists, health and safety officers and legacy deliverers one by one. Rather than calling it a tower, they liked to refer to the Orbit as "the tallest sculpture in the UK". In response to a suggestion that this sculpture had no relevance for London or the Olympics, it was argued that "the Orbit will take on a relevance of its own" after the Games had ended. As detractors had correctly observed, the colour red was chosen "intentionally for it not to blend with its surroundings". Charged with asymmetry, they argued that it was "meant to look unstable or fluid". Those who were standing up for the beleaguered bat colonies in the area had little cause for concern either: the low levels of light on the Orbit "would have no discernible effect on the bat assemblage over the Olympic site" or, indeed, on human assemblages in the neighbouring streets.

Last week, in advance of the tower's opening, I went to talk to Balmond and Kapoor at their respective studios about how they managed to stay sane and see this strange project through. In a way, they are typical Londoners. Balmond was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Kapoor in Mumbai, India. They both came to England as students and never left. Balmond has his hi-tech base, all 3D printers and biomorphic structures, on the edge of Hackney, a mile or two from the Olympic park; Kapoor's studio is a linked complex of factory spaces that stretches all the way down a road in Camberwell, south of the river (as his fame and ambition have spread so has his workshop; it now has the feel of a kind of aerospace lab manned by medieval guildsmen). In each man's office, scale models of the Orbit have pride of place. And despite what has been a gruelling process, both Kapoor and Balmond retain a sense of boyish excitement – or perhaps simple relief.

Kapoor started out in his teens with ambitions to be an engineer and this project has more than satisfied any remaining vestiges of those dreams: "I hope," he says, "I always will have a fascination with that archaic, elemental need to feel like an ant in an ant colony. To climb up the pyramids and just feel awe at man-made structures. That was the attraction of this for me."

For a role model in that enthusiasm, Kapoor needed to look no further than the project's driving force. Boris Johnson was almost lost for superlatives when announcing that work was starting on his great scarlet tower in 2010: "It would have boggled the minds of the Romans," the mayor declaimed. "It would have dwarfed the aspirations of Gustave Eiffel, and it will certainly be worthy of the best show on Earth, in the greatest city on Earth."

That was certainly the idea to begin with. The story goes that Johnson, keen to make his mark on the Olympic site that had become the fiefdom of the Tory peer Lord Coe, bumped into Britain's richest man, Lakshmi Mittal in the lavatories at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009. Grasping his opportunity with both hands, the mayor buttonholed the steel magnate about the possibility of funding a lasting symbol of London 2012, boggling the minds of Romans etc. Mittal himself confirms to me that "Boris might have even taken less time than he says to convince me... sometimes you just hear an idea that resonates with you - this was one of them." Soon thereafter, Mittal pledged £17m of his fortune to Boris's priapic fantasy and the mayor sent out a notice inviting the artists and architects of his realm to find a way of spending that money.

"Anish called me up that morning," Balmond recalls. The pair had long been friends and had collaborated on various projects including Kapoor's Marsyas, the brilliant crimson horn that filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2002. "He said, 'Have you seen this one?' I hadn't. Then he said, 'Shall we get together and do this? You know, rival the Eiffel Tower and so on?' And I thought, 'Well, no one's going to say no to that.' So we joined up. And then realised that there wasn't the money for the Eiffel Tower."

Kapoor and Balmond sat down with a sketch pad and thought what the reference points might be. As well as Eiffel, they thought of Tatlin's Tower (the vast constructivist monument conceived for Petrograd in the year of the Russian Revolution, but never built). And they thought, too, of the Tower of Babel, particularly Bruegel's version of it, an irregular mass of stone and humanity reaching chaotically heavenwards, like some termite's mound. And then they thought: how can we make a mythical tower new?

"Anish was saying, 'Well, all towers go up, but what can we do that is different?'" Balmond recalls. He couldn't imagine to start with. "But then I thought, everything that goes up is concentric, essentially. That's what we need to get away from. So I thought 'orbit', just as a metaphor originally." He sketched a loose ellipse on a piece of paper. "Now planetary orbits are highly unstable things, whirling around, but they are stable in the sense that they follow a fixed path. So then I drew an orbit that comes back on itself but keeps touching itself. So that was the idea."

It was to be 180m high, the platforms just stuck in as and where. With this sketch, from a starting line-up of 60 proposals, Balmond and Kapoor made the last three, alongside Antony Gormley, looking to recreate the success of his Angel of the North, and the Hackney-based architects Caruso St John. Just before he walked in to present to the first of many committees, Balmond recalls: "Someone from the mayor's office said to me, 'Do you know the budget?' And I didn't. She said it was around £25m. And I thought, 'Oh Christ!' Because what we had I knew would cost £50m to £80m. So straight away we brought it down to as low as we could go and still get a good sightline into the stadium: 115 metres."

That was only the first of a series of compromises. In this sense, as Kapoor observes the Orbit is very much of its political moment: "The basic premise was to do everything you promised for about half the money," he says, with a grin. Earlier in the week he had watched the Olympic mockumentary Twenty Twelve's take on the process. "The organising committee on the show come up with the idea that Orbit should be a symbol for promoting sexual health," he says. "But sadly they copped out half way through and don't end up putting a condom on it as planned. What is astonishing about it is how accurate it was in terms of some of the meetings we all had..."

As Balmond says, with a similar sense of weary mischief: "I suppose the story behind the story is that the competition seemed to go on for ever, round after round." The decision process lasted the best part of a year. "At one of these meetings, I said to Boris, 'Just choose someone, for God's sake. Otherwise nothing will get built.'"

Balmond and Kapoor not only had to convince Nicholas Serota and his aesthetic jury of the value of the design, but also the "legacy committee", who, full of Dome-shaped nightmares, didn't want a "white elephant, still less a red one". So there was insistence on maximum retail and restaurant areas. The elevator had risen up the outside of the tower in the original plan but that cost too much so they put it inside one of the legs. The walkways that spiral up to the viewing areas were originally open but health and safety insisted they be covered. Gaps between stair treads were also removed. "First, any space had to be too narrow for a mobile phone," Balmond recalls, "then it was a 50p piece."

After that, the Olympic delivery people, who were building the stadium site, "were instinctively against it because they had done a brilliant job of getting things ready on time and they didn't necessarily want this huge art piece in the middle of it all, potentially screwing all their plans up".

In order to minimise disruption, the Orbit was put up without scaffolding, and essentially by three men: one in a crane and two rising slowly on cherry pickers, bolting the ultimate Meccano together piece by piece. And, despite all the earlier compromises, both Balmond and Kapoor are immensely satisfied with the result, though they are tired of the question: "What is it?"

"The fact is that you will never get Orbit in 2D," Balmond says. "Its richness and its over-layers can look excessive to a certain kind of mind. But 3D and the scale are the only way to judge the piece. Even then, it's a tough aesthetic for some."

"The problem with models," Kapoor says, "is that you can't pretend scale. You have to experience it."

With this in mind, early on the morning after I had spoken to Balmond and Kapoor, I drove east to have a look at their creation. As I came down from the A12 flyover, the Orbit was rising into the gloomiest morning, like some strange helter-skelter, defiantly red against the black storm clouds (Boris Johnson's greatest regret is that it did not incorporate a slide to whizz down). The Olympic development has sought to make sense of the particularly chaotic bit of urban landscape that the tower presides over; it hasn't succeeded quite and the tangle of the Orbit seems, from all the vantage points I could find, to add to the confusion. The closer you get to it, the less sense you can make of it, beyond a smile-inducing kind of energy and movement. Which is, for better or worse, exactly what Kapoor and Balmond (and perhaps Boris and Mittal) had in mind.

You can see in it what you want, as Balmond observes. Mittal tells me that to him the Orbit "represents the essence of what the Olympics are about, pushing yourself to the limit... building the unbuildable..." (though he also likes the fact that the structure that bears his name is "a showcase for everything steel has to offer...") Pandering a little to his sponsors Balmond admits he did one "cheeky presentation" where he extrapolated the five Olympic rings from the swirl, "a bit of post-rationalisation, but they are there". More than that, though, he claims to see "a kind of semi-organised flux, which was a pretty good way of describing London in the 21st century, and all its energy frothing and bubbling round and around." That kind of thing.

Kapoor's worst nightmare, he said, would have been to create a logo or, worse, a national symbol in the manner of the Beijing Olympics. "I can clearly make sleek objects but this was not meant to be one of them." So what was it meant to be?

"It's a series of discrete events tied together," Kapoor says, which again is something approximating his idea of London. "We didn't want an icon, we wanted a kind of moving narrative. You start under this great domed canopy that sits above you, almost ominous darkness, sucking you in. Then you come up slowly to light. At the top, there is a room with two very large concave mirrors, bringing the sky in, as if you are in the lens room of a telescope. There are moments, walking round, when it looks a jumbled mess, and then at certain points you might see little harmonies and clarity. That is the kind of thing we wanted, not something that gave itself away all at once."

Kapoor and Balmond can talk about their creation in this way because they have had to. But they prefer simpler notions really. "It was just an attempt to answer the question: how do you go up if not in straight lines?" says Balmond, who plans to watch the 100m final from the top. Kapoor, meanwhile, sums up his sense of his creation with a final laugh. "Don't you think it's just amazing that they actually let us build this?" he asks, with undimmed incredulity. And the more you look at it, the more you agree.

The Orbit opens on 28 July, with tickets available to those who already have tickets to Olympic events, and after the Games to the general public. www.arcelormittalorbit.com


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December 21 2011

Arts Council's third Flashback tour puts artist Gary Hume in spotlight

Hume follows in footsteps of Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor

It is a snowman, definitely a snowman, but a melancholic one with a red body and brown head, and he stands with his back to us aware, perhaps, that he won't last long. The work is by the artist Gary Hume and will feature in an exhibition of his work set to tour Britain early next year.

The Arts Council Collection said Hume would be the third artist to appear in the Flashback shows, which have so far featured Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor, with Rachel Whiteread planned for the fourth.

Caroline Douglas, head of the collection, said the Flashback shows helped highlight one of the council's fundamental purposes, which was "to support artists early in their career".

She added: "We have many outstanding examples of work from early in the career of artists who have gone on to make enormous reputations nationally and internationally."

For the Riley exhibition the collection showed the 1961 painting Movement in Squares, which the artist said was her breakthrough piece, the one that led her to the work she then pursued over the next 50 years.

Douglas hopes the third tour, which will take in Leeds, Wolverhampton, Hastings and Aberdeen, will bring Hume's work to a wider audience.

Douglas said: "Gary is far too little known in this country. He has had remarkably little exposure in the UK outside of London. This is the thread that runs through all the Flashbacks – artists obtain a certain level in their career and they are rarely showing outside capital cities.

"People enjoy having an in-depth examination of one artist's career, and the [Flashback] shows have had a fantastic response. There is a great appetite … to see the work of outstanding contemporary artists."

The Arts Council Collection, which started up in 1946, holds more than 7,500 works, by artists ranging from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst, which it regularly lends.

The tour takes place in what will be a busy year for Hume, one of the YBA generation who was part of important shows including Freeze in 1988, the 1997 Sensation show at the Royal Academy and who represented the UK at 1999's Venice Biennale . On 18 January the White Cube gallery will present work he completed over the last two years, in its galleries in central and east London.

The tour begins at Leeds Art Gallery, from 2 February–15 April, then goes to Wolverhampton Art Gallery (28 April–7 July), the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings (14 July–23 September ), and Aberdeen Art Gallery (13 October–19 January 2013).


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December 12 2011

Art Basel Miami Beach 2011: Art Public

The Art Public section of Art Basel Miami Beach presents sculptures, performances and site-specific performances. The 2011 edition was special because it inaugurated a new collaboration with the Bass Museum of Art. This presentation in the public space between the Bass Museum and the Oceanfront with most of the works placed in Collins Park compliments the indoor experience of Art Basel in the Convention Center.

Curated by Christine Y. Kim, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at LACMA and Co-Founder of LAND, Art Public featured work by Darren Bader, Nina Beier, Chakaia Booker, Andrea Bowers and Olga Koumoundouros, Bruce Conner, Kate Costello, Jen DeNike, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Rachel Feinstein, Theaster Gates, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, Thomas Houseago, Richard Hughes, Robert Indiana, Glenn Kaino, Anish Kapoor, Robert Melee, Anthony Pearson, George Rickey, Eva Rothschild, Eduardo Sarabia, Banks Violette, and Zhang Huan.

This video provides you with a walk-through on the last day of Art Basel Miami Beach. VernissageTV also captured the performances of Glenn Kaino and Theaster Gates on the Art Public Opening Night, as well as Jen DeNike’s performance (coming soon). There’s also a video on how to use Gardar Eide Einarsson’s installation (already available on our Members page).

Art Public, Art Basel Miami Beach. Miami Beach, December 4, 2011.

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October 14 2011

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

Big Ben is becoming the leaning tower of London, but architects the world over have begun deliberately tilting towers, from the Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi to Anish Kapoor's Olympic Orbit

News that Big Ben or, more properly, St Stephen's Tower, is leaning is not exactly surprising. Battered by the elements and undermined by human intervention – the digging of sewers, railways, roads and underground car parks all around them, as well as the effects of war and earthquakes – it seems remarkable that so many towers around the world stand ramrod straight. Some, like the famous campanile at Pisa Cathedral have leaned since they were new. Others, like the church towers of Venice, have leant gradually over the centuries, as the artificial structure of the islands they rise from rots and buckles.

What has changed in the past few years is the fact that architects are designing towers that lean deliberately. RMJM – a long established British practice – has just completed a 35-storey tower, the Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi, that, said the architects when it was commissioned, "is intended to lean 18 degrees westwards, more than four times that of the world famous leaning tower of Pisa". And it does. This angle of lean has secured the eyecatching tower a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the "World's Furthest Leaning Manmade Tower."

The root of this leaning architecture can be found in the mesmerising, although unbuilt, 400-metre high Monument to the Third International designed by Vladimir Tatlin shortly after the Bolshevik revolution. It was to have leant over Petrograd (later Leningrad and now St Petersburg) at the same angle as the Earth's tilt: 23.5 degrees. Inside its double-helix steel frame, three great chambers – a cube, a pyramid and a cylinder – would have revolved, in turn, yearly, monthly and daily. Appropriately, the "daily" cylinder was to have housed a newspaper. The tower has haunted dreams of architects and engineers ever since: a 10-metre replica has just been completed by the team at Dixon Jones in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts as part of the exhibition, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-35 that opens on 29 October.

"It's been a huge challenge, but what a pleasure creating an interpretation of something you so admire", designer Jeremy Dixon tells me. "It's been rather like interpreting a piece of music where you have to fill in the gaps with imagination and whatever skill you have."

Meanwhile, the leaning, looping structure of the ArcelorMittall Orbit at the London Olympics Games 2012 site is very nearly finished, but the big day of completion turns on the weather: high winds have prevented engineers from putting the last piece in place. What is clear is that this extraordinary 115m red tower, designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, and realised in co-operation with Arup and Kathryn Findlay Architects, owes much to Tatlin's tower.

Britain will be home in years to come to thousands of almost invisible new towers if the winning entry of the competition for the design of a new national standard electricity pylon is put into production. This is the T-Pylon by the Copenhagen firm Bystrup Arkitekter og Designere.

The judges of the competition held by the National Grid, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and RIBA agreed unanimously that T-Pylon would work best and make the least impact on the landscape. It would be two-thirds the height of current standard British pylons, although National Grid engineers will work closely with the architects before a new version is allowed to march across the country.

In Scotland, a tower that disappeared 18 years ago might just rise again. This was the 90-ft campanile of St Bride's, East Kilbride in the diocese of Motherwell, one of a large number of Catholic churches built from the late 1950s in new towns and areas of new mass housing. A daunting design – its power station-like exterior houses a magnificent daylit interior – St Bride's was designed by Gillespie Kidd & Coia (architects of the internationally famous modern ruin, Cardross Seminary), and consecrated in 1964. The campanile neither leaned nor swayed, but was demolished to keep maintenance costs of this vast church to a minimum. Now the Paul Stallan Studio, part of RMJM, has been asked to restore St Bride's. We can only pray that the campanile will be rebuilt. Without it, the church has been like a headless statue of a saint vandalised by passing iconoclasts.

Back to Earth, or Venice, with a bump. Silvio Berlusconi is trying to replace Paolo Baratta, head of the Venice Biennale, with his friend Giulio Malgara, a 73-year-old businessman whose greatest cultural achievement to date is bringing Gatorade to Italy. The Italian government is expected to approve the appointment.

Baratta has done much to raise the profile of the Architecture Biennale. According to Ricky Burdett, director of the 2006 Architecture Biennale, speaking to Building Design magazine, "In the Italian system, individuals make a big difference, and this will be a serious loss. It is sad and depressing to see that local politics has once again won the day in a country that has so much to offer. The Italian government should reconsider this flawed appointment. But with teenage sex scandals and a banking crisis occupying politicians' minds, I doubt anybody is listening."

Writing in the Architect, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, Aaron Betsky, director of the 2008 Architecture Biennale, says: "My contacts tell me that the outrage this move by Berlusconi has produced is so intense that what is usually a routine procedure validating the prime minister's choice might offer chances for reversal." Mind you, Betsky's Biennale offered the very kind of spectacle that might well have triggered Mr Berlusconi's sudden interest in the Biennale. Ding Dong, as Big Ben might say.


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June 11 2011

Government Art Collection: At Work – review

Whitechapel Gallery, London

Does art have its uses, other than to civilise, enlighten, stimulate, console? Purists would say certainly not. Art has no function whatsoever. But anyone visiting the Whitechapel Gallery, where the notoriously closeted Government Art Collection is being shown in public for the first time in its 113- year history, will discover that this is not the case. Art can be a cunning form of diplomacy.

Take one of Bob and Roberta Smith's fairground-like signs, brightly painted in chip shop colours and currently hanging in the first tranche of the collection at the Whitechapel (there are several more selections to come). 'Peas are the New Beans,' it says, advancing a silly paradox about legumes, but punning on the bean-counting profession as well, at least if you have a mind to spot this.

And plenty have, it appears. When Paul Boateng became chief secretary to the Treasury he hung the painting outside his office, to laugh the waiting accountants and civil servants out of heaven knows what negativity. Apparently it worked every time; full pictorial efficiency.

Sir John Sawers, currently head of MI6, previously at the UN, used to invite hostile nations into his office to dwell upon the beautiful cobalt ground of Claude Heath's Ben Nevis on Blue – all dots and doodles (Heath draws with his eyes closed) and just shy of figuration. Which was extremely helpful during some particularly heated negotiations on Iran, where the painting was used as a kind of soothing time-out for eyes and mind. "Agreement," according to Sawers, "was reached an hour later."

And so it continues: an Anish Kapoor for the high commission in New Delhi to demonstrate how far Britain and India have come together (world-class artist born in Mumbai, resident in London: perfect symbol); Thomas Phillips's magnificent portrait of Byron posted to the British embassy in Athens, where he remains a hero for taking part in the Greek war of independence; the latest Britart sent to impress smart Parisians, if not to shame their euro-pudding artists. These are works to impress, co-opt and persuade.

So the subtitle of this particular selection, At Work, may be coarse but perfectly apt. It really is as if the artworks are part of the staff, sent out to work as ambassadors for British culture with extra responsibilities during a crisis. And viewed this way – the works at the Whitechapel are put in political context – it no longer seems quite such an affront to the public to be coughing up for a collection it never actually sees.

A good deal has been written about the invisibility of the GAC. I wrote some of it myself, around the time of Blair's triumphant entry into Downing Street when there was so much press coverage of New Labour receptions, who was in, who was out, and we sought the secrets of the art equivalent: what was displayed (Cool Britannia), and what removed (Old England), from the walls of No 10. For the GAC supplies not just embassies and consulates across five continents but scores of ministerial offices in London as well. Of its 13,500 works, more than two-thirds are displayed at any given time. It is the largest, most widely dispersed collection of British art in the world, and it keeps on moving as governments change and new ministers make their selections.

Hansard is full of questions about how much it drains the public purse, how much of it is mouldering away, how much has been clandestinely sold (none at all). Behind these questions is the lingering grudge that, unless we happen to be ministers, their cronies, or belligerent kids from Jamie's Dream School granted an audience with the PM, then we will never clap eyes on the mandatory Lowry or the dingy oval view of the Thames by the deservedly neglected William Marlow selected by the Camerons.

What's ingenious about At Work is that it replicates these selections so that you see the art but also the implicit self-portrait. So Boateng chooses Osmund Caine's striking group of second world war soldiers from 1940, the whites playing cards in uniform, the blacks separate and naked. Nick Clegg goes for an outsize thermos flask standing alone at a gloomy picnic, surely a post-referendum choice. Ed Vaizey, current culture minister, and Save 6 Music campaigner, continues to show his contemporary credentials by pushing Tory Tracey Emin.

Most piquant of all, Peter Mandelson has chosen a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth I that resembles Margaret Beckett. It's an awful painting, flesh like Bakelite; but along with a photograph of Lucian Freud painting Elizabeth II, a statue of the artist-diplomat Peter Paul Rubens and one of Cecil Stephenson's designs for the Festival of Britain, we have two queens, a super-urbane diplomat and a memento of Herbert Morrison, Mandelson's grandfather (and chief sponsor of the festival), which allows for some self-serving allusions to his own grand projet, the Dome, in the exhibition leaflet.

The choices of Sawers and Dame Anna Pringle, our woman in Moscow, are much stronger as art: Walter Sickert, Heath, some bittersweet space-race Pop by Derek Boshier and Bridget Riley's beautiful Reflection, bought for the British embassy in Cairo partly because her sheaf of stripes was inspired by the colours of tomb walls in Upper Egypt, but also because the abstraction dovetailed felicitously with Muslim culture.

All these works were purchased on a shoestring budget, just to add to the complex GAC criteria: works must be cheaply acquired, they must act as an extension of the diplomatic service and fit with all sorts of unusual environments. The result is a most quirky collection that has no major Bacon, Hockney, Sutherland or Freud, no Turner, no Constable landscapes, few museum stereotypes. But which is rich instead in great works by Sickert, Joan Eardley and Paul Nash.

That eccentricity went out with New Labour and the hyping of Britart, which is extensively represented in the GAC. This is not reflected in At Work, though one sees how successfully the Emins and Michael Landys have crossed the floor, because so much of the recent art is commissioned to be site-specific.

What you do see at the Whitechapel is just how fine a face the collection gives to Britain at home and abroad, from Edward Burra's satirical drawings to Bridget Riley. Of course, there is no need to put good art on the walls of our government buildings. But what this first show reveals is just how civilised it looks as our national image instead of a flag or a framed photo of the latest dictator.

'At Work' is at the Whitechapel until 4 September, with further GAC selections then running until September 2012, then at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery followed by Ulster Museum in late 2012-13


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June 03 2011

Venice Biennale: Prada on parade

Fashion couple confirm their places as major cultural figures with display from their art collection

If any designer has effortlessly vaulted the confines of the fashion world to become a major cultural figure it is Miuccia Prada and on Saturday she and her husband and Prada CEO, Patrizio Bertelli, will confirm their status.

Their new venture is opening to the public: a semi-permanent display of works from their art collection, housed in a faded but imposing 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Enter the Ca' Corner della Regina from the water, and you come straight to the work that occupies the lofty, Doric-columned hall, Anish Kapoor's Void Field: a series of sandstone blocks, each with a curious black hole penetrating its surface, giving the impression that these mighty boulders are at the same time hollow or weightless.

It was part of Kapoor's 1990 British pavilion for the Venice Biennale, the 2011 edition of which also opens today on Saturday.

In the surrounding rooms are Italian artworks from the mid-20th century and contemporary international pieces. Among them are Damien Hirst's 1996 Loving in a World of Desire, in which a beach ball hovers, lifted by an air blower, several feet above the ground and Maurizio Cattelan's Untitled of 1997, a stuffed ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

Tucked beyond the elegant courtyard is Cell (Clothes) by Louise Bourgeois, which contains the only possible reference to the couple's day job: nighties, little blouses and delicate 1930s dresses drape themselves emptily within the suggestion of a bedroom.

According to Prada – who wears a pleated-silk skirt, black merino sweater and sensible, striped-plastic flat sandals that she swaps for mountainous heels to be photographed – the couple began buying art in the early 1990s after a friend suggested their Milanese working space would be "perfect for sculpture".

That started them off, she says, "on a full immersion in learning ... We wanted to understand [the 1960s Italian art movement] arte povera better, and contemporary art".

Bertelli, more leonine than the impishly twinkling Prada, chips in: "We didn't seek advice: we studied, we went to museums. We attempted to understand how certain things happened in the arts."

This art-history course was not meant to result in a collection. "I hate being a collector," says Prada. "We just bought some pieces. And now there is so much of it it's a pity for it to stay in stock."

At the suggestion that learning is possible without buying, the designer, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of Milan, says: "I completely agree. It's vulgar, this desire to own things, but it is also very human."

The Ca' Corner, which once housed the archive of the Venice Biennale, has recently lain empty. Last year, the Venetian authorities offered it to the Fondazione Prada, which has staged regular temporary exhibitions in the city. The foundation has the space for six years, with the option to remain for another six.

Meanwhile, the couple are also building a large-scale, permanent gallery in Prada's native Milan, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas.

Under Bertelli's direction, a gentle restoration of the dilapidated Ca' Corner has been undertaken. But this is no white cube: Pino Pasquale's sculpture Confluenze (1967), which consists of shallow vessels of water placed on the ground, sits beneath a glorious painted ceiling on the piano nobile, while Jeff Koons's multicoloured steel Tulips (1997-2005) glints nearby.

As Prada begins to speak about the way the art works in the context of its faded building, Bertelli cuts in and there is a swift back-and-forth of bickering ("He thinks I am speaking in banalities," she says, goodnaturedly).

Bertelli forges ahead: "We didn't want to be too logical with this palazzo. We didn't want to invade, or wipe out the space.

"We wanted it to keep its veneer, and we did not want to exaggerate the skin of the floors or ceilings with makeup."

A critical commentary on each other's remarks is a feature of the conversation: so how do they agree when it comes to buying art?

Into a waterfall of swiftly spoken Italian from Bertelli, Prada interjects: "He is obsessed by Sigmar Polke." And: "Every time he buys another Lucio Fontana, I say 'Not another Fontana!' "

Bertelli bats back: "She is like the fox with the grapes in the fable. It is easy for her to say 'Not another Fontana,' because if I didn't buy them she would."

There are four of the Italian painter's egg-shaped, slashed canvases on the palazzo walls.

They generally buy separately, according to Prada, and only once have they fallen out badly over a purchase.

"It was the first piece I bought, and he sold it, because he thought it was horrible," she says, laughing. It was a Dalí.

Her strategy, she says, is to "never buy anything except those things that change my ideas, if only in a small way".

She also keeps art and fashion well away from each other: "I refuse the connection," she says. "For me those things are completely separate, except to the extent that your mind is your mind, and my work reflects myself."

The opening few days of the Venice Biennale are a social event, with artists, curators, dealers, critics, collectors in the city to see art – and each other.

Roman Abramovich's yacht is moored not far away, and Elton John has pitched up to see an exhibition hosted by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk.

Each night sees a baffling array of parties, from prosecco-fuelled celebrations to discreet dinners. Do Prada and Bertelli enjoy the exclusive social scene enjoyed by the world's wealthiest collectors?

Prada replies with a laugh: "I have succeeded in going to not one single party at the Venice Biennale."

On this, at last, they agree: "Our social life," says Bertelli, "is not very sparkling."


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June 01 2011

Venice Biennale - in pictures

From holy smoke to an upturned army tank doubling as a treadmill, we sneak a peek at Venice's best bits as the annual art exposition kicks off



May 28 2011

Anish Kapoor: Leviathan at Grand Palais, Paris (Monumenta 2011) / Interview

For Monumenta 2011 in Paris / France, internationally renowned artist Anish Kapoor has created a truly monumental work called Leviathan. Kapoor created a space within the space of the Grand Palais. “Visitors will be invited to walk inside the work, to immerse themselves in color, and it will, I hope, be a contemplative and poetic experience” (Anish Kapoor).

Video and interview with Anish Kapoor by VernissageTV correspondent Christophe Ecoffet. Paris / France, May 7, 2011.

PS: See also: Christian Boltanski: Personnes / Monumenta 2010 at Grand Palais Paris / Interview. For more Anish Kapoor-videos, click here!

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May 10 2011

Anish Kapoor dedicates sculpture to Ai Weiwei

Call goes out for museums and galleries to close for a day in sympathy for missing Chinese artist

Anish Kapoor has dedicated his largest ever artwork – a truly enormous cathedral-like space made from inflated PVC – to the missing Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The sculptor called for a worldwide day of action where museums and galleries close for one day in sympathy for the plight of his fellow artist. "Why not?" he asked.

Ai, whose sunflower seeds work in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall closed at the weekend, has been missing for about a month, in the hands of the Chinese authorities. He had not been heard from, nor charged with any offence.

"I've never met Ai Weiwei but he's a colleague, an artist," said Kapoor. "In a very simple way he is heroically recording human existence. All he's done is to record death by administration, death by corruption, inefficiency. I don't even think he's pointing that sharp a finger, frankly."It is more than a month that he's been completely disappeared. It is a true tragedy. Accuse him of something. Give him a lawyer. Let him defend himself … The state is not threatened by artists.

Kapoor was speaking at the opening of the Monumenta exhibition in Paris's Grand Palais – a commission similar to the Turbine Hall in that it is filling a vast space, this time with the added trickiness of having glass windows all around.

"This is a terror of a space, probably much more difficult than the Turbine Hall," Kapoor said. "It's three times the size, huge horizontally and vertically and above all the light is a killer. It's almost brighter than it is outside."

What Kapoor has created he's called Leviathan, a 35-metre tall work – inflated, it's 13,500 square metres .

Visitors first of all walk inside it, like going into the belly of a whale or a cathedral with three chambers veering off it. Then outside you see what it actually is – four connected balloon-type structures. Something from a science fiction film, perhaps, that's taken refuge in this grand 19th-century glass building by the Seine.

Kapoor and his team have spent the past week inflating the work and there was no trial run. "We had one shot," he said. "Doing a project like this is about taking a risk."

The work will stay up until 23 June before it is gently deflated like a bouncy castle at the end of a fair. A very big castle with absolutely no bouncing allowed. The PVC alone weighs 18 tonnes and will be folded up into three parcels when it's let down – a 90 minute process.

Kapoor is known for his supersize works from the trumpet like Marsyas at Tate Modern in 2002 to Temenos, his enormous net-like sculpture in Middlesbrough. It is an impressive piece of design and engineering. "It is a perfect bit of tailoring," said Kapoor. "A millimetre out and there are wrinkles and wrinkles aren't allowed."

The work is also pan-European. The initial computer work was done in England and then the PVC was cut in Germany, assembled in Italy and set up by a Czech crew in Paris. Kapoor is the fourth artist to take on the Monumenta commission, following Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra and Christian Boltanski.

Dedicating the work to Ai reflects mounting concern for the artist and continuing pressure on the Chinese authorities to explain why he is missing.

Tomorrow outdoor sculptures by Ai will be opened to the public at Somerset House in London, while on Friday a survey of his work will be held at the gallery which represents him in London, the Lisson – an exhibition that was planned with the artist last year. Greg Hilty, the director of the Lisson, said: "The response to what's happened to Ai Weiwei from the artistic and wider community has been incredible. It just keeps growing."

Hilty feared the situation may put up cultural walls between China and the west. "The idea of some worldwide cultural gesture is absolutely appropriate and the idea of closing is the right one because that's what this is about. If you imprison artists then you don't have them."

Anish Kapoor's Leviathan is at the Grand Palais, Paris, until 23 June


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Anish Kapoor calls for Ai Weiwei protest

Sculptor wants museums and galleries to shut for a day over detained Chinese artist and dedicates Paris commission to him

The sculptor Anish Kapoor has called on the world's museums and galleries to close for a day in protest at the Chinese government's continued detention of the artist Ai Weiwei.

Ai was arrested by the Chinese police on 3 April in Beijing as he was about to board a flight for Hong Kong.

The 53-year-old artist has been accused of "suspected economic crimes" by the government and has not been seen or heard from since his arrest.

Kapoor – who has dedicated his installation at the Monumenta exhibition, which opens on Wednesday at Paris's Grand Palais, to Ai – told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that artists needed to look out for each other.

"As a colleague – I don't know him personally – I feel that as artists we have a communal voice and it's important that we stick together, that we have a sense of solidarity with each other," he said.

"It would be nice to see the art world come together a little more. Perhaps all museums and galleries should be closed for a day across the world. I think some such campaign needs to form itself."

Kapoor said the Chinese state's behaviour was reminiscent of the Soviet era, when "the voice of artists of different kinds was seen as being dangerous".

He added: "It does bear witness to the barbarity of governments that if they're that paranoid they have to put away artists. It's a ridiculous situation."

The sculptor added that if the Chinese authorities had a case against Ai, they should bring it as soon as possible.

"Let's get on with it then – let them accuse him of something," he said. "It's a month now that the poor man has been held without a voice. But not only that: his family doesn't know where he is. This is not a situation that's acceptable in any circumstances."


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April 08 2011

In a new place

Amanda Levete made her reputation working with in the influential architectural practice, Future Systems. She talks about her 'spectacular failures', and also her many thrilling triumphs

Amanda Levete is showing me a model of her most spectacular failure. We're standing in our stocking feet (her office, her rules) before a little box containing her and Anish Kapoor's 2002 design for the Princess Diana memorial fountain. It consists of a dinky red pillow lying in a model of the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park. White marble steps on one bank sweep down the water's edge to provide a viewpoint.

"It was so beautiful – a blood red pillow that would shoot a 15ft high dome of red water. We wanted to create a wonderful, ethereal place."

Pillows? Blood? Some critics were livid. How dare Levete's architectural practice Future Systems and Kapoor be so insensitive to the memory of her Di-ness as to produce a design that reminded them (poor flowers) of sex and death?

"The judges hated it," recalls Levete. "They asked 'Why red? Why not green?' Anish replied grandly: 'As an artist, I could never work in green.'"

"I was really pissed off we didn't get it," says Levete. But surely, I suggest, she's well out of it. Look what happened to Kathryn Gustafson's winning design: her ring of bright water faced a tsunami of press criticism; visitors injured themselves on the slippery granite or washed their dogs in streams designed for moody contemplation.

Better, sometimes, for architecture to remain unbuilt than be sullied by realisation. This isn't a trite point. It goes to the heart of Levete's formative architectural experiences. At the Architectural Association in the 1970s, Levete was taught by architects who preferred their projects to be hypothetical. "Not one of them, people like Rem Koolhaas and Nigel Coates, intended to build. When I left, I didn't know anything about building." Isn't that nuts? "You could argue it's a problem, but it's also not: it's the one moment you get to explore your creativity. I learned how to build later."

It also goes to the heart of her working relationship with her late ex-husband, Czech architect Jan Kaplický, with whom she designed two of the most remarkable pieces of recent British architecture: the 1998 Media Centre at Lord's cricket ground in London and the 2003 Selfridges department store in Birmingham. "Jan would have been happy not to build. He knew his place in history was assured through his drawings. He couldn't bear to visit the actual buildings. At Selfridges' opening, he stormed off because the finished structure wasn't as pure as the original work."

Levete, though, is more pragmatic. "I don't devalue the power of conceptual thinking, but for me the thrill of architecture is to see your ideas realised. To struggle against the problems out there and overcome them."

For Levete, 55, that creative struggle with an external constraint is one of the things that seduced her into studying architecture in the first place. "After I got expelled from school for sunbathing naked on the roof during a biology lesson at 16, I didn't know what to do. I got so embarrassed that all my friends were going to university that I did an A-level in art and art history, and a foundation year at art school. That's when architecture came across my radar, and when it did, I realised that I work best when I'm doing something creatively, but have a boundary to push. As an artist you have to create your own boundaries. I realised I would find that difficult, whereas architecture is creative, but it has the reality of boundaries you don't create."

But sometimes those boundaries have proven insurmountable. Another of what she calls her "spectacular failures" was a recent project for the Louvre in Paris. Her design envisaged freeing the subterranean space beneath IM Pei's transparent pyramid from its role as holding pen for angry, queueing tourists. "We wanted to create space where visitors could have a moment of repose and think about what they've seen, rather than a clogged entrance hall."

But, again, her ideas were not well received. "The judges told me, 'You're not playing the game.' I knew enough French to say: 'I didn't realise it was a game.' So bureaucratic! For me, architecture is about not playing a game by the rules, it's about challenging the brief you're given – pushing boundaries."

Enough about Levete's (alleged) failures. We're meeting because Amanda Levete Architects has just won the competition to built an extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It will be the biggest new art space in London since Tate Modern – a 1,500 sq metre gallery for temporary exhibitions with a new entrance to the building.

Isn't it a poisoned chalice? Seven years ago the V&A abandoned Daniel Libeskind's provocative Spiral extension plan. "It had got through planning and then there was a storm that made the V&A change its mind," says Levete. "But, no, I don't think that will happen to us." That storm included journalist William Rees-Mogg describing Libeskind's plan as a "disaster for civilisation". What does Levete think of Libeskind's plan? "It was iconic, but the time for iconic buildings has passed." Levete met the V&A's new brief by producing a subtler, indeed scarcely perceptible, piece of architecture than Libeskind's strutting, jutting extension, one she argues will create an "iconic space rather than be an iconic building".

Her design takes its cue from the local authority's proposed pedestrianisation of Exhibition Road. "That street will be thronged with people. Our idea is to encourage them to drift in. We want to break down the separation between street and museum. We will draw visitors in from Exhibition Road through a colonnade into a large, light-filled public courtyard, and down into the galleries."

Levete says a lot of the thinking that went into the failed Louvre bid was recycled for the V&A project. There, too, she was concerned with flows of people and light into a subterranean space. "The gallery space can either be flooded with dramatic daylight, or the glass painted black to provide the low light levels that the V&A needs for the delicate materials they sometimes exhibit."

Her aim, she says, in architecture, is to change the way its users interact. "The point of architecture is to contribute to the culture of a city or the culture of a nation. Architecture changes the way you see yourself, the way others see you. It should be respected for that."

But it often isn't. Levete is furious about education secretary Michael Gove's disparaging remarks about her profession. He recently told a conference, "we won't be getting any award-winning architects" to design new schools, "because no one in this room is here to make architects richer".

"I do find it depressing he thinks we're in it to get our snouts in the trough." But does it matter if our kids are educated in schools that look like out-of-town Tescos, so long as they can add up and speak proper? "There's no necessary relationship between how beautiful school buildings are and exam results, but what Gove is saying is: let's have more mediocrity, more crap buildings, because they don't matter, right?

"Already 80% of the profession are not good. You only have to look around London to see that. Politicians too rarely root out the crap. When I think of all the mediocrity in an area of expensive real estate like the City of London, and think how little a genius like Jan – and I don't use the term lightly – saw built in his lifetime, you can't help but think two things: one, the dice are loaded against great architecture; two: work harder."

She met Kaplický in the late 1980s. He was tall, elegant, handsome and "very Czech, by which I mean passionate and pessimistic" – the very embodiment of a romantic emigre, one who came to London after Soviet tanks had crushed the Prague spring in 1968, with £50 in his pocket. He had worked in the Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers team that designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and when he met Levete had just been fired from Norman Foster's office because "he was too much of a maverick. I fell for all of that."

It's easy to overstate the couple's differences and their potential for creative symbiosis, to cast him as dour, masculine, iconoclast and tall, her as sunny, feminine, pragmatic, small – but there is something in that. She persuaded him to stop teaching and get an office where they could begin to build on the precedents established by Rogers and Foster, toward a more organic, voluptuous, formally inventive architecture. That office is the warehouse in Notting Hill where we're doing this interview.

It was here that the couple designed the Lord's media centre, an egg-like structure sheathed in aluminium panels. "That structure, probably more than any other, expresses the ideas, the aesthetic and the technical innovations that Jan had been exploring relentlessly for more than 20 years. That was also the year our son Josef was born – without question the best work we made together."

The £5.8m design almost bankrupted them, but when it won Britain's foremost architectural award, the Stirling prize, in 1999, the practice took off. But living and working together with no boundaries proved too much. "Ours was a very public falling out, played out in the office." They divorced in 2006, but carried on working in the same building. "For the last few years, there was a Berlin Wall between us in the office. Awful, awful, awful."

On 14 January 2009, Kaplický collapsed on a Prague street and died, aged 71. Hours before, he had visited his second wife Eliška and new-born daughter Johanna. Twelve days later Amanda met Eliska for the first time at Kaplický's funeral in Prague. "My greatest regret is that I didn't make peace with him in life," she said shortly after. A few months before his death, she and Kaplický had agreed he would move out of the office they had shared for 20 years, retaining Future Systems with a team of four, and she would remain in their Notting Hill warehouse as Amanda Levete Architects. "I'd hoped this would have made things easier. But we never found out if that would happen."

Levete is now married to Ben Evans, director of the London Design Festival. Amanda Levete Architects is thriving. Why are so few leading architects – you and Zaha Hadid notwithstanding – women? "Women leave to have babies and don't come back. It's a tough thing to be an architect. One of the hardest things for me is that I get described as super-tough. No man would ever be described that way – at least not as a criticism." Is it fair? "I think I'm a very benign boss. I'm also very demanding."

She shows me artists' impressions of her recent work, from a cultural centre in Lisbon to a tower block in Shoreditch. And then my favourite Amanda Levete scheme – a metro station in Naples designed with Anish Kapoor. Why couldn't they have done up my tube station, Finsbury Park? "Because there are very few visionary pieces of public patronage in Britain nowadays. Gove just expresses a more general contempt."

Shame. The design looks wonderful: one entrance looks like a rusting steel pair of lips, while the other is an aluminium form that seems to float in mid-air. It's great Levete and Kapoor will finally see a joint design realised. "Only one problem," says Levete. "For now, there are no other stations. We've designed a station for a subway line that goes nowhere." Hilarious, if a little embarrassing. No wonder some architects prefer their works to remain unbuilt.


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March 12 2011

November 27 2010

Look out India, here I come

Anish Kapoor is one of Britain's most successful artists. His London shows are sell-outs and so ubiquitous is his work he is fast becoming a household name. But not in India, the country he left 40 years ago, and to which he returns with a new exhibition that opens this weekend

Anish Kapoor is 56 but his friendly face and abundant hair suggest boyishness. His hands are in his slouchy jacket pockets and as he walks he almost bounces with eager anticipation. "First let us go to India," he says and we walk across his Camberwell studio to two rough, miniaturised wooden mock-ups of those real Indian spaces 4,000 miles away; one in a new wing of the National Gallery in New Delhi, the other in a former film studio in Mumbai, the city where he was born and raised. I call them spaces rather than venues because I know that space is something of an issue with Kapoor; he talks about it as if it is a tangible thing, calling it active, playful, able to pull or push a person. Here and now, however, he describes the New Delhi space simply as "horrid" because of all the pillars, and the Mumbai one as "magnificent and nationalistic". He points, like a Blue Peter presenter, to the dinky miniature replicas of the art and I can't help wondering what they might be worth – a full-sized Kapoor can fetch upwards of £1m. But I can't ask. Firstly, artists don't talk about the value of their work, secondly, Kapoor, who is very good company, is in full flow now and apparently uninterruptible. He is talking me through the Mumbai space, describing it lovingly as "theatrical, a dirty, dark old place".

During a pause, as we turn to New Delhi, I suggest that this whole Indian venture must be a big deal for him, country of his birth and all that? Which rather silences him. He runs his hands through the abundant hair and says, "Oh God". He is smiling as he says it, he always smiles, not just a polite smile, but one suggesting that while there may be woes in his world, he is truly happy here among his art. On the subject of India, however, his tone is pleading. We will, he assures me, talk about artists and national allegiance later, over a cup of tea in his office.

Kapoor is an easy, attractive, expansive fellow. I had expected a tricky introvert, which he absolutely isn't. I had met him before, very briefly, when he collected his 13 year-old son, who is a friend of my son, from our house one evening. He said no more than a polite "Hello" and "Thank you" then but now he talks and talks in his very English, rather public schoolboy voice.

So much of the art is familiar, there are the pyramid sculptures of bright blue and red pigment, most reminiscent of India. Except that is not how Kapoor sees it. He ignores me when I mention it and in the past has said, "They are more like icebergs … partial objects … the object is only partially above the ground." India doesn't apparently come into it.

There were pieces of spiralling metal, which reminded me of the Boris Johnson Olympic commission, the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower. I got caught up on one and Kapoor smiled but must have flinched inwardly as I untangled myself and remarked that it was like being caught on a bramble. He talked me round gleaming protuberances swelling out from the walls, orifices in the floor, push-me-pull-you spaces in front of mirrors that make your eyes whirl and gynaecological slashes. Some of it was in the 2009 Royal Academy show that attracted 275,000 visitors, making it the most successful exhibition ever by a living artist in London. The blood red wax works are reminiscent of those Royal Academy posters that were plastered like a massacre all over London's bus shelters a year ago, all the way from Camberwell to Chelsea where his son, daughter and art historian wife, Susanne, live in a house that is modern, cool and quiet and resembles nothing so much as an art gallery. (I've been there to pick up my son.)

Kapoor's ubiquity has rather crept up on us; despite his 1991 Turner prize; despite the fact that when it comes to public art commissions these days he is right up there with Henry Moore; that as long ago as 2002 Tate Modern's Turbine Hall was filled to bursting with a vast ear-trumpet like Kapoor construction; despite the mirror pieces currently on display in Kensington Gardens; the Teeside Giants commission for five enormous sculptures costing £15m, the first of which was installed in June this year. What with the publicity from the London mayor's Orbit tower, he is in danger of becoming something of a household name here in the UK.

But not in India which he left 40 years ago to study in London via a hippy moment Israel. His mother, an Iraqi Jew, was born in Baghdad but raised in India from six months. She was the daughter of a cantor (the person who leads liturgical prayer in synagogue). His father was a secular Hindu. Kapoor describes him as a "rather intelligent, brilliant man, very cosmopolitan". In Mumbai, Kapoor went to the same school as his friend Salman Rushdie, but they didn't cross over, and by the time he was studying at Hornsey School of Art in the 1970s, Kapoor senior had became director of the International Hydrographic Survey, which meant a move to Monaco. "I was in my 20s and one of the great pleasures of life was to go and spend the summer there," he says. "In those days it was fabulous. Now it is a kind of down town Moscow." His parents and two brothers eventually left Monaco for Canada.

As promised we eventually retire to the merciless glare of Kapoor's very white office where the only things that are not white are the books on art, philosophy and poetry. He has said he didn't feel he could be an artist until he had done 15 years in psychoanalysis and describes it now as an "important process, rather akin to what happens in the studio. You lie on a couch and deposit material in the space between you and the analyst. You create a third space and that is one of the interesting things about how art and psychoanalysis link with each other."

Tea is fetched, white cups, white tray, and he explains, also as promised, that his problem with making too big a thing about India is that he has always resisted national allegiance and always will. "You don't talk about art from America, what you say is 'How about looking at Hopper or Rauschenberg?' You attribute creativity in a different way. That is part of what the job is, to keep free of national allegiance. I am free from those shackles." As well as the almost permanent smile there is the laugh, which is a bit pantomime. Still, I persist, it is "significant" taking his art home? He visits twice a year. What will the Indian art world think of it? He leans his elbows on the table and says confidentially, "I don't mean to be arrogant but there has probably never been a show like this in India. I have this feeling that even though there is a sort of art world there, dare I say it, I don't think it is all that sophisticated … So going back to India is curious for me because in a way, how can one put it, the psycho-language of the work is definitely Indian. How could it be otherwise? It is where I grew up, it is partly what I am informed by. But only some of the psycho-language, not all of it."

Kapoor says there will be no entrance fee to the exhibitions: "If I have an ambition it is to reach well beyond the art world and do something in India which will have a much, much bigger public. But most exhibitions are not free. So what do you do? Do you let street people in? My argument is that you let them in. But success is hard to manage in the sense that the works are fragile."

What I think he means but would never say, for fear of sounding arrogant, which, ironically he does anyway, is that because he is up there with Moore in terms of fame and importance, his works are extremely valuable. He wants the street people to see his art but he doesn't want his art damaged by the street people in a country where a seven rupee entrance fee would be the amount a street person would live on for a week.

Making too much of India, however, just because he was born there, and there is poverty, would, I get the impression, be too easy for him; he reads and reads philosophy from Lacomte to Freud, Melanie Klein and Homi Bhaba. He says he is "extremely close" to Bhaba, the "post-colonial" philosopher, exploring how colonised people have resisted the power of the coloniser, which is interesting given that Kapoor was born in ... No, I'll leave it alone. By now his Indian-ness has become something of an elephant (African probably) in the room and all we can do is, in the context of Indian poverty, talk about how he appeased his social conscience in 2007 in São Paolo where he employed as guards the glue-sniffing, homeless boys who slept under a bridge near where his Ascension smoke piece was to be situated. "It was terrifying, terrifying. In utter naivete I said to the guy who was organising the show, I will only do it here if we can do something with the kids. And then I met an NGO who worked with these addicts and by going to ex-street children first we kept the project running for about two years and we got 23 children off the streets. And I felt that was a huge, huge success."

He is too gentle a man to bang the table about social issues. When I ask him about the Teeside Giants commission he says quietly, "There is just one so far and we are beginning to look at the second one. It will happen." And then he builds up to a crescendo, not noisily but vehemently and it gradually becomes clear that what is bothering him is the government's response to the economic crisis.

"I think that it is a tragedy really that we have to bow to Tory ideology and that everything stops. In Middlesbrough where the first piece was made, 40% of people are employed by government or government related agencies. So if there are 25% cuts … It is Tory crap on this level and in that context art is very, very hard. I mean I believe that art can change anything and needs to be able to change everything and, sorry, I am all preachy." He keeps smiling though, the multimillionaire artist who believes that art should be accessible to everyone and that it can change things for everyone. He says of Ai Weiwei's porcelain sunflower seeds carpeting the Turbine Hall, that he likes the way "the politics is worn if not right on the sleeve, then quite close to the sleeve. I like the idea of useless, unsophisticated production very much, that you have 1,600 people making ridiculous bloody sunflower seeds. Now does that mean it is a great work? I have no idea."

When we leave the white, white office and walk, him eagerly, me in awe at his relentless enthusiasm, along the grey street we re-enter the building through a back entrance where I am shown Kapoor's own take on unsophisticated production. This is his latest experiment; a series of small, roofless huts built entirely from extruded concrete that is generated by computer – hi-tech for low-tech. He describes it as piling up "like intestines or shit" and I mention that they build houses out of shit in India. "That's right," he says, politely, and I find myself both liking and admiring a man who can smile in the face of the bleeding obvious but irrelevant remark, while around his psychoanalysed, poetry and philosophy filled head, proper, deep and complex thoughts permanently swirl. It can't be easy for Anish Kapoor, but he is nice enough to makes it look as if it is.


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November 03 2010

Anish Kapoor takes his art to India

Turner prize-winning sculptor Anish Kapoor admits nerves ahead of first exhibition in his native India

The Turner prize-winning sculptor Anish Kapoor is uncharacteristically nervous about his next project: his first ever exhibition in his native India.

"A return is always going to be difficult – quite frightening, actually," said the man whose exhibition last year at the Royal Academy in London was the most successful ever for a living artist, attracting more than 260,000 visitors.

One of the most spectacular pieces from that show, a cannon that fires large blocks of wax into a corner of the gallery, gradually producing a slaughterhouse scene of blood red splodges, is among those being installed in Delhi where the exhibition will open at the end of the month, and where Kapoor was born in 1954.

"I still have many relatives there – I hope they will approve," he said.

While in Mumbai the exhibition will take over an entire Bollywood film studio, in Delhi they have merely had to expand an entrance to the new wing of the National Gallery of Modern Art to get the pieces in. All were designed and partly constructed at his studios in London.

Although Kapoor has created gigantic pieces all over the world and site work will begin this week for his Orbit 115m spiral tower at the London 2012 Olympics site, he has only had a temporary installation of one outdoor piece in India.

He originally left India to become an engineer like his father, studying in Israel, only taking up art seriously when he moved to England in the early 1970s. Since then he has become one of the best known contemporary sculptors in the world, noted for work on an epic scale, including Marsyas, which filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, and the Tees Valley Giants, where over the next 10 years he plans to create the five largest sculptures in the world working with the engineer Cecil Balmond.

Andrea Rose, head of visual arts at the British Council, and co-curator of the exhibition, said she and Kapoor first went to India 10 years ago and had been looking for exhibition spaces ever since.


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November 02 2010

Anish Kapoor: Turning the World Upside Down / Kensington Gardens, London

This autumn The Royal Parks and the Serpentine Gallery present a major exhibition of large scale outdoor sculptures by acclaimed London-based artist Anish Kapoor in Kensington Gardens, titled “Turning the World Upside Down“.

The exhibition showcases a series of major recent works never before shown together in London. Constructed from highly reflective stainless steel, the giant curved mirror surfaces will create illusory distortions of the surroundings and will be visible across large distances. The works on display are: Non Object (Spire) (stainless steel, 302 x 300 x 300 cm); Sky Mirror (270 cm diameter, 2009); Sky Mirror (10m diameter, 2006); C-Curve (220 x 770 x 300 cm, 2007).

The sculptures are sited to contrast and reflect the changing colours, foliage and weather in Kensington Gardens. The works appear as pure reflection of their surroundings: the sky, trees, water, wildlife and changing seasons. “The distortions in the works’ mirror-like surfaces call into question the viewers’ relationship to both the work itself and the surrounding environment.”

Kapoor was born in Bombay in 1954 and has lived in London since the early 1970s when he studied at Hornsey College of Art and Chelsea School of Art and Design. Over the past twenty years he has exhibited extensively in London and worldwide. His solo shows have included Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2009; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2008; Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2007; Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2003; Hayward Gallery, London, 1998 and Tate Gallery, London, 1990.

The exhibition is organised by The Royal Parks and the Serpentine Gallery and is generously supported by Lisson Gallery, Gladstone Gallery and anonymous donors. It is part of the Serpentine Gallery’s 40th anniversary exhibition programme and initiates a new arts strategy by The Royal Parks.

Anish Kapoor: Turning the World Upside Down at Kensington Gardens, London / UK. October, 14, 2010.

Anish Kapoor at VernissageTV: Click here.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.


September 27 2010

Kapoor turns Kensington Gardens upside down

In pictures: Four sculptures create distortions of their parkland surroundings



September 10 2010

David Shrigley saves the arts

Watch a brilliant new film by David Shrigley, part of a new campaign to save the arts from funding cuts



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