It can be hard to get close to Anish Kapoor, not just in a physical sense, as he is a busy man surrounded by studio assistants or gallery staff when he's not jetting around the world. It is also difficult to approach him intellectually. Where do you begin a conversation with one of Britain's most successful and lauded artists of the last twenty-five years, when he is only just past his own half-century mark and still, strictly speaking, a mid-career artist? Although he was educated and resides in London, is the fact that he was born in Bombay and informed by visits to India still relevant to his work? Prior to interviewing him, my initial feelings of trepidation were not dissimilar to those experienced when encountering one of his sculptures, which can at first appear like strong, monolithic, and singular structures, only to suddenly dissolve into a numinous void of unfathomable space when you least expect it.
His commission for the Deutsche Guggenheim, entitled Memory, will also be difficult to come to grips with and is perhaps best described by the man himself: "You walk in, and there's a big object that blocks off the space. It doesn't allow a full view of the form or the building, much as Marsyas did not at Tate Modern." Kapoor, of course, refers to one of his breakthrough large-scale works from 2002, in which a tight skin of bright red PVC was stretched across the Turbine Hall-only there's more to the experience of Memory than an initial grasp of scale. "Then you have to physically leave the building and walk around to another entrance to be able to see the other side. After this circumambulation, once again you'll have a longer version of what you've just seen, but it will be frustrating as you can't see that much; the whole is still hidden."
In common with much of Kapoor's output, the solid, central shape he describes instantly evokes associations to the body-definitely to the womb, perhaps a prone torso or even an elongated breast. Finally, as with all of his best objects, there is a transcendent twist: "There's a third room inside [the steel structure of Memory] that's seen through a carefully made square window, just below waist height. It's a very tightly cropped view, set into the wall and looking into the interior, but it's very dark and mysterious, and hopefully immaterial." Here is the Kapoorian denouement: a seemingly unified form is revealed to have hidden depths, the cavernous interior completely at odds with the hard facts of the exterior shell. "This is the paradox of the piece-it's there physically and yet not there at all."
The corporeal hull of Memory is being fashioned by shipbuilders in Holland from Cor-Ten steel, a material I associate much more readily with the American garganto-sculptor Richard Serra. Is this a conscious departure from Kapoor's signature, flawlessly polished stainless steel pieces? "No departure, the work has always been made of many different materials such as wax, which is about as rough and ready as it gets. I have various form languages that I work with and various material languages, which I constantly expand. It's a world where lots of things are possible." The coarse surface comes from a bright orange layer of rust that has developed through exposure to the elements, which I suggest might have something to do with the title, alluding to the process of acquiring memory over time. "No, it's just rusty material," he says. "The important thing is that it's very much a made thing-fabricated like a ship or a pressure vessel from an exoskeleton that's fitted together piece by piece." Here, the material skin plays a more important role for the interior, where Kapoor says, "I'm hoping that the rust will be monochromatic enough to be immaterial, so that I don't have to paint the interior."
As I've gone temporarily off topic, Kapoor quickly steers me back on track by explaining the real meaning behind the title. "It's about memory and sculpture. What you see the first and second time around doesn't really marry together. Sculpture isn't simply an object in space. It lives through the processional or returning view. In a normal-scale object-a[n Auguste] Rodin or [Donald] Judd for example, the living process is the walking around its three-dimensionality. We're used to the mise en scène in which the first view is the whole view, but you have to keep reviewing sculpture, just as you do with Rodin, because the front of Balzac is not the same as the back."
It's not enough that sculpture, or any art of a certain size, cannot be appreciated in one go ("Scale has a bad name," he admits, "but it's an integral tool in dealing with space."). More than size, Kapoor wants us to experience one perspective or aspect of this Cor-Ten sculpture and then try and retain that memory until our next visit, which might be at the other end of the gallery after walking down the street, or it could be in a month, or even, in our mind's eye, a year later. What does a sculpture look like in hindsight, and can you ever hope to conjure up its whole again?
There's a further implication to Kapoor's disjointed, partially visible intervention in Berlin (which will later travel to New York's Guggenheim), one that questions how long we spend in front of any work of art nowadays. Answer: very little time indeed. Art appreciation used to be about the "long look" in the hushed, studious environment of the museum, yet nowadays all contemporary art has to compete with neighbouring whizz-bang video art installations or one-hit visceral Pop-tastic paintings in busy and noisy galleries. So what chance has the viewer of stopping to consider or even remember?
"Instinctively, I don't want to create a narrative," Kapoor says of the possibility that Memory might be read too literally, "but it's an essential part of knowing the world, which is also 3-D and temporal." Besides, Kapoor is himself guilty of some powerhouse artistic statements in the past and so is keen to go beyond creating an immediate impact or that much-derided wow factor of much current spectacle art. "I'm always having to innovate-hence the walking around the back of this piece-but the challenge of the work is that it needs to confound expectations. In fact, the final confounding of all this is that at the end it becomes nothing but a picture." This hatch into the interior of Memory refutes precisely what Leon Battista Alberti said about the frame of a painting being like a window onto the world, because Kapoor's aperture leads to a shadowy nether region where only awkward self-contemplation is possible. "It also has to do with the sense that at the heart of the matter, an object is only of real significance when it has an immaterial counterpoint. It's the materiality and beyond."
While one might perceive a certain pomposity in Kapoor's pronouncements, behind it is a heartfelt, even childlike awe of space and its possibilities, something he shares with the existential thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose work on phenomenology promoted the notion of an intertwined body and environment, rather than a Cartesian world lived through the mind alone. In the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty outlines how "The perception of space is . . . an expression of the total life of the subject, the energy with which he tends towards a future through his own body and his world." Kapoor's work seems to function on a similar experiential, sensorial plane, one in which, he says, "One is always returning to a similar set of problems about our body's relation with things in space. These projects are risky but also really interesting, as one never really knows what's going to happen. I know about the practical realities now but I don't know about where the art will come from yet."
After nearly an hour with Kapoor, it's clear that he's an engaging mediator of his work and I now know that Memory is neither a departure from previous output nor is the rust meant to signify anything other than its materiality. So what have I learnt, and precisely what was it that made Kapoor's answers seem so perfectly concise and clear at the time? It's a strange truth, but no matter how hard I try, I just can't seem to recall. It must be my memory.