Anish Kapoor’s latest work, Dirty Corner, at Versailles is causing more discord than ever. Andrew Anthony reports

Like some corporate-sponsored mega rock band on a mammoth world tour, there is a type of international artist whose epic-scale installations are must-see events in a string of major cities. One such visual superstar is the Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor, whose grand projects tend to be discussed in terms of their dimensions: height, length, tonnage.

His large signature sculptures have been seen in New York, London, Chicago, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Delhi, among other places. Last week, his latest work went on view at the Chateau de Versailles outside Paris.

It's 300 years since the death of Louis XIV, whose baroquely opulent style has been imitated, but never matched, by everyone from Nicolae Ceausescu to Liberace. The Sun God's greatest legacy is Versailles, a gilded triumph of regal architecture and formal gardens.

It is in these immaculate gardens that Kapoor has set Dirty Corner, a massive steel funnel with limbs of broken stone that the artist described in one French publication as "le vagin de la reine qui prend le pouvoir" or, excuse my French, "the vagina of the queen taking power".


The discordant sight of the steel vulva and splayed rocks amid the ornate splendour of one of France's most treasured buildings has not been to everyone's taste.

"It's difficult to understand why so much money is being spent to inflict this trial on the visitors who have paid for a normal visit to the park," wrote the essayist Christian Combaz in Le Figaro.

Yet the French, who have previously played host to Jeff Koons' kitsch inflatables at Versailles, have long appreciated a provocative gesture. More than that, they appreciate Kapoor.

It was in Paris' Grand Palais in 2011 that he displayed Leviathan, his celebrated Zeppelin-size installation that he dedicated to the artist Ai Weiwei, who at the time was being held without charge by the Chinese Government. That vast inflatable was compared to a womb and it's clear that female reproductive anatomy plays a vital part in shaping Kapoor's sensually dramatic projects.

"I'm endlessly obsessed with the question of the interior. Of course I was in psychoanalysis for 20 years, so some of this stuff did come up."

Kapoor entered psychoanalysis in his 20s when his sense of identity was under siege. Born in Bombay to a Hindu Punjabi father and an Iraqi Jewish mother, he attended the elite Doon school, known inevitably as India's Eton. He "hated" his school days. His "wonderfully modern" parents were keen for their children to travel. So in 1970, at the age of 16, he moved to Israel with one of his brothers, first living on a kibbutz and then studying electrical engineering at university. But apparently put off by the maths, he dropped out and decided to become an artist.

In 1973, he relocated to England to study at the Hornsey College of Art, then the Chelsea School of Art and Design.

His work at art college, by his own reckoning, was "very symbolic" and "quite sexual", descriptions that can be applied to much of his subsequent output. Art seemed to offer a vital means of expression to a troubled Kapoor but what it couldn't provide in the 1970s was a means of living.

Artist Anish Kapoor. Photo / AP
Artist Anish Kapoor. Photo / AP

He earned money making furniture for interior designer Nicky Haslam. He also taught for a while at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. On a trip back to India, though, he experienced a kind of epiphany. Suddenly, he realised that what he found in art was a sense of ritual, so the act of making art was itself a kind of artistic performance.

His pigment pieces and work with limestone, granite and marble drew acclaim and by 1983, a little to his surprise, he was able to start supporting himself through art. Thereafter, his trajectory was rapidly upwards. Key moments were picking up the best young artist's prize at the 1990 Venice Biennale and landing the Turner prize the following year.

In 1995, he married the German-born art historian Susanne Spicale. They have two children, but were rumoured to have separated a couple of years ago, around the time Kapoor began to be photographed with his former assistant, the then 27-year-old Sophie Walker. The fact that this personal story made it into the press had everything to do with his prominent profile. And his prominence had much to do with his steel-structured installation that spanned the vast Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in 2002. That piece provided his breakthrough moment.

As if to confirm his popularity, 280,000 people attended his retrospective at the Royal Academy in 2009, a record figure for a sculpture exhibition in London. By then, Kapoor had become a brand-name artist whose work sold for millions. He employs 25 at his London base in Camberwell, another 30 in other parts of the world, and is estimated to be worth 100 million ($215 million). Two years ago, he was knighted for services to the visual arts.

Kapoor is forthright about the dimensions of his success. "Good artists have money and I'm not going to pretend that's not true," he has said. "It's a big operation that I need to fund. Sculpture is not like painting, it takes months, sometimes close to a year. I'm very lucky there are people who want to buy what I make. I have a very sophisticated relationship with money."

Nonetheless, with his kind of wealth and status, Kapoor could easily have found himself subsumed by the industrial process of big statement art, a complacent figurehead lending his name to uninspired but expensively in-demand public works.

"I think he goes in for a visual grandstanding, which can be a weakness," says the art critic Matthew Collings. "He loads on intimations of profound content sometimes, which can be off-putting too. But he mostly balances delicacy with impact. He is a big talent and a genuine artist. I rate his sculpted objects for their sensual deliciousness."

Whether the sensual deliciousness of his work is appreciated by visitors to Versailles is another matter. As Catherine Pegard, who commissioned Kapoor for the royal domain, said: "Anish Kapoor's work enters a sort of dialogue and confrontation with this place and history." Exactly what kind of dialogue was overheard by Kapoor when two American tourists passed him at Dirty Corner. "What's that thing doing blocking the view?" one asked the other.

- Observer