Subodh Gupta, India’s hottest new artist, talks about skulls, milk pails and cow dung

The Times October 10, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

His swaggering, exuberant work has made him India’s most talked-about artist, and the paintings of his wife, Bharti Kher, are also winning wide acclaim

India’s hottest contemporary artist, Subodh Gupta, dubbed the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” — they share an interest in skulls — is telling me that he likes his wife and fellow artist, Bharti Kher, as a friend. Sorry, could you repeat that? “I like Bharti more like my friend than my wife . . .” Kher, who is sitting with us in her husband’s newly built concrete and glass ultra-modern studio, nods her head. Hang on a minute, when you say that you like Bharti more as a friend than you do as a wife . . . ? “Revelation!” Kher cocks her head. “No! No!” Gupta (whose English is a little approximate) exclaims. “You’ve made me confused now. When we talk about art, it’s like a friendship, no? And then domestic work is completely different, and that’s irritating sometimes . . .” OK, but let’s get this straight: you are pleased you married each other? Gupta: “Yeah.” Kher: “Oh, yeah.” Whew, just checking. “Talk about Lost in Translation,” Kher whoops. “Good job I’m here, really!”

This conversation took place during a long, sweltering day in Gurgaon — an hour’s drive southwest of Delhi — where the couple work and live with their two children, Omi, 12, and Lola, 6. Since General Electric opened its call centre there in 1997, shiny high-rise buildings have been sprouting one after the other, transforming what was once a small farming village into one of the most prominent outsourcing hubs. En route to Kher’s studio, we drove past a building site advertising a new five-star Westin; across the way a couple of pigs snuffled in a mound of rubbish, and a cow moseyed past.

While Gupta is the couple’s undoubted superstar — last year his London gallery, Hauser & Wirth, sold two versions of his Mind Shut Down for €1 million each and, as his wife says, there hasn’t been a recent Biennale that hasn’t featured him — Kher’s work is also commanding attention. She was one of the artists featured in the Serpentine Gallery’s recent Indian Highway (along with Gupta) — India having replaced China as the global art flavour of the month, with Charles Saatchi’s forthcoming contemporary Indian show (featuring Gupta again) — and has her own solo debut with Hauser & Wirth in 2010.

Gupta’s work displays a swaggering, rock’n’roll exuberance: his towering mushroom cloud, constructed from his trademark stainless steel pots and pans, at Tate Britain’s Altermodern certainly made an impact. As did his huge skull, Very Hungry God, bought by François Pinault and displayed outside the French billionaire’s Palazzo Grassi, at the 2007 Venice Biennale. This was the same month, June, that Damien Hirst showed his diamond-encrusted, deity-invoking human skull — For the Love of God — at White Cube.

When I ask the Indian artist whose skull was conceived of first, he says that he started work on his project the previous year (where it was exhibited in Paris). Aha, so should we be calling Hirst the Subodh Gupta of England? “I have a lot of respect for him,” he laughs. “Art is in the air. Theme, subject, everything is in the air. It’s just a matter of time who begins first.”

His work, like Kher’s, can be delicate and beautiful, too, but despite its authentic Indian flavour — or occasionally stinging subversion of what we, Westerners, consider to be “authentic Indian” — the effect is sometimes a bit obvious. In his new show, the referential nods are overt: a black bronze bust of Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa; the stack of Puppy boxes, emblazoned with the name Jeff Koons.

Just as Gupta’s staples are the stainless steel tiffin sets, cow dung and milk pails; Kher’s Indian trademark is the bindi, the women’s forehead decoration. She leads me into a room where one of her assistants, a slight woman in a sari, starts to peel away a plastic sheet protecting a huge canvas, every surface covered in brightly coloured swirls of what look like felt spermatozoa. The effect is dazzlingly gorgeous but also odd; like something scientific, maybe sinister, the origins of a mutating virus, perhaps, picked up under the microscope.

On the top floor, there’s a work in progress: a cascade of chairs, some stacked, others fallen; a chintzy tea cup in broken shards, a scattering of pearly teeth, a pair of high-heeled shoes; the sense of a genteel occasion that has gone awry. On a shelf, protected by a glass box, is a tarantula that I last saw resting on the hand of one of Kher’s horn-headed, fibreglass models. She strokes its furry legs and tells me how beautiful she finds it, partly, I suspect, because of its poisonous reputation.

Her parents came to England in 1967, two years after they married. Kher’s mother was 23 when she arrived, pregnant with her first child — and able to speak only Punjabi. Bharti, the middle child, made the reverse trajectory at the same age, barely able to speak a word of Indian, and says it was only then that she realised “what courage it took to just get up and leave everything to start your life again. It made me understand my parents a lot better.”

When Kher was 6, her parents separated amicably and remarried English people: “So we have this quirky, nutty family where we all meet and holiday together.” She recalls loving the flocked wallpaper in her childhood home — “I used to sit there and stroke it” — and her mother’s sari shop in Streatham, South London, where Bharti and her elder sister, Mona, would help every Saturday. The girls would take down roll after roll of material and Kher can still recall the precise sound of the fabric when it was unfurled, and the whip-like rip as they would cut it.

The privately educated Kher sisters were taught by an inspirational art teacher, Martin Shaw, at Greenacre School for Girls in Epsom, Surrey, and both went on to art college: a foundation course at Middlesex, followed by St Martins for Mona and Newcastle for Bharti. What was that like? “Very tough the first year. Newcastle [like Surrey] is also very white. I lived in a small house in Gateshead and on my first night I thought I was going to get mugged on my way home. I have never been so terrified in my life.”

After leaving college, Kher moved in with her father in Hampstead and painted in a studio that he organised for her, next door to his textile-importing office in the West End. But unsatisfied and restless, Kher decided to take off travelling: “I hadn’t been to India since a visit when I was 4, so I thought I should see my grandmother.”

Her plan was to spend some time with her family, meet some artists in Delhi, and return to England when her six-month visa ran out: “But within two weeks of being here, I’d bumped into Subodh.” They fell in love and that was that.

But it wasn’t that straightforward, as Gupta explains when we move from Kher’s workspace to her husband’s impressive studio. We break for a basic but delicious lunch: beetroot and spinach-stained chapatis to dip into bowls of yoghurt and vegetable curry, washed down with a sulphurous-tasting black-salt lime soda.

Kher takes off and her husband resumes their story. Her father, perturbed by the news that his daughter had taken up with “some kind of criminal”, flew in to Delhi and demanded to see him. Gupta recalls: “So he sits down and says, ‘My daughter wears Coco perfume which cost three and a half thousand rupees, so where can you give it to her? It’s unrealistic.’ Then he said, ‘Can you paint?’ I say, ‘Of course I can paint.’ He said, ‘Do you paint very closely or do you go distance sometimes?’ I say, ‘Of course I go distance sometimes.’ He says, ‘Well, you see my daughter very closely and now I am taking her … so you see her from a distance. And if you still like her from a distance, I will bring her back.’ So he just took her and I was suffering with shock, and she was not happy either.”

Fortunately, his beloved’s mother took pity on her pining daughter and paid for her ticket back to India. Years later, Kher had told me, her father turned to her and said, ‘Sometimes, you know, you just meet your soulmate’ and that’s what happened. But then because we were so different, it was: ‘Where is this connection?’, ‘How are you communicating?’ ”

They may both be Indian, but their backgrounds, it is true, could scarcely be more different. Gupta’s tales of his childhood and teenage years are wonderfully rich. He was born (one of six children) in the northeastern state of Bihar, which he describes as the Wild West of India. His father, a railway guard, was a drinker and died in his early forties, when Gupta was 12. His mother, who came from a farming family, sent him off to live with her brother for a few years in a remote village — “Not a single school kid wore shoes, and there is no road to go to school. Sometimes we stop in the field and we sit down and eat green chickpea before we go to school — it comes in my memory like a movie. Fantastic! My kids, when I tell them, will not believe it because they live a very urban lifestyle.”

At night, villagers would water the huge communal roof to cool it down before placing their mattresses. “So all the families, after eating their dinner, would meet on the roof and go to bed. It was good fun — fantastic! — a great memory to have.”

After leaving school, Gupta joined one of the four small theatre groups in Khagaul and worked as an actor for five years. He also designed posters to advertise the plays, which is when it was first suggested that he go to art college. He ended up working as a part-time newspaper designer and illustrator while studying at the College of Art, Patna. The day he was offered a permanent job by the newspaper, he packed it in to try his luck in Delhi, where he was awarded a scholarship by a government-run initiative, and a space to work in the Ghari Studios.

This is where Kher met Gupta, who explains that “most of the artists in India in the generation above us have been through those studios”.

At that time, Gupta was painting typical Indian scenes, but it wasn’t until 1996, and his first residency, that he came into his own. “It was a very peaceful place and I collected my childhood memory to do what I wanted to do. My first installation was called 29 Mornings,” Gupta says. “With 29 stools, where I would eat my breakfast, lunch and dinner, and in one corner of the room there was a bulb and a black wire hanging, and some of that what the spider makes … web.”

Since then, Gupta’s career hasn’t looked back, sparked as it was by that single act of looking backwards. Part of his education was a stint in England in 1999 when, after another residency in the Gasworks Gallery, South London, Gupta was offered four months in a brewery in Kendal: “A fantastic place to be! Countryside, rain, pub, beer — I love it.”

Gupta is at his most fluent when he talks about the rationale behind his art, The relevance of the skull in Indian culture, with the sadhus who “sometimes eat the flesh of the burning human to make them powerful and carry the human skull. You don’t see that anymore so much.” Why he uses the stainless steel utensils, again and again: “The poor, the middle class and the rich use it at home. In this country, how many people have the utensils but they starve because there is no food?”

Kher returns, and I ask her why she thinks there is such interest in India. “In the way that China [was picked up on], people felt that India is a country one needs to look at … The thing is that although these shows are very useful, at the same time, you know, you shoot yourself in the foot.”

Could she explain? “It’s fantastic but no artist is ‘overall’ or ‘generic’. One wants people to go in deeper. You don’t want them to read the synopsis of the book, and then not read the actual book.”

* * *

Common Man, Subodh Gupta at Hauser & Wirth, London W1 (, until October 31

Artists, Women

Paula Rego on her museum to celebrate the brutal world of Portuguese storytelling

The Times September 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

The acclaimed artist has been inspired by her country’s rich oral tradition. Now she is determined to keep that heritage alive

Paula Rego is talking about her love of pornography, particularly as penned by Henry Miller: “When I discovered it, I found it really quite wonderful and thought, ‘Gosh, look at that!’ ” Her sooty eyes gleam. “I used to read a lot of it and I just found it, you know . . . naughty.”

Her discovery came when she was renting a studio in Dean Street, Soho, Central London, from a woman: “Not a tart, a lovely girl.” Are you saying that tarts can’t also be lovely girls, I tease her. “No, no, no, no, but she wasn’t a tart and this was in 1959, my dear, long before you were born. [I wish.] One day I looked up and saw this book and took it down and read it and I thought, ‘For heaven’s sake! I’ve never read anything like that in my life’.”

Rego’s thoughts take off like startled birds. Her responses are unpredictable, and she can be tricky to pin down. Her art is a form of storytelling, often ambiguous and mysterious, hinting at sinister emotional or political complications. In her earlier work, particularly, you feel that something unspeakable is about to happen or has just occurred, challenging you to guess the narrative; it’s like a hard-core Vermeer.

One of the more interesting difficulties is that Rego’s interpretation of her own work is markedly different from the way most of us view it. This has been acutely observed by Marco Livingstone in an essay that the artist (as she never calls herself) pressed on me when we parted. The text was commissioned for the catalogue of a new museum devoted to Paula Rego, the Casa das Histórias, which is opening this month in Cascais, in her native Portugal.

“ ‘Darkness? What darkness?’ Rego seems genuinely perplexed whenever she hears comments about her art being disturbing or conveying a harsh or bleak view of human suffering and cruelty,” Livingstone writes. “For her it is clearly simply a case of showing life as it is . . . ”

Ask her about a certain sadomasochistic thread (as I see it) in her work, and Rego is nonplussed. The Policeman’s Daughter, for instance, with the grim-faced daughter’s arm plunged into the black leather boot as she polishes it, suggests repression but also an atmosphere that makes you think she will find a way of getting her own back somehow.

The Family, a year later, in 1988 (the year her husband, Victor Willing, died, after a long decline from multiple sclerosis), depicts a suited man with frightened eyes, rigid on a bed, being undressed by a smiling woman, a young girl pressed up hard against his groin, another young girl by the window, her hands clasped in a prayer, which could also be a strange sort of excitement. There is a sense of complicity between the women that is not altogether benevolent. “That’s not sadomasochistic. They are trying to raise him from the dead,” Rego says. “I was going to call that Lazarus.”

She continues: “First of all, I don’t get a kick out of sadomasochism and I never thought of my pictures as sadomasochistic. I mean, there are very nasty things that happen and tender things that happen. So there is brutality and there is tenderness, there is cruelty and there is tolerance and kindness. There is everything. Most of the things I do are based on Portuguese folk tales, which are not folksy. They were jotted down by anthropologists, at the turn of the century, who would go into the villages and the mountains and take down these stories which are brutal and magic as well. And it is those stories that I have adored and revered all my life. That’s why this museum I am opening in Portugal is called the House of the Stories.”

When I arrive at the Kentish Town studio she has occupied since 1993 — a former North London woodworking business, with its bafflingly inconspicuous doorway and 3,000sq ft divided into two spaces, one for drawing, one for painting — Rego is a model host, offering coffee and apple pie. She is famously mad about clothes, something she inherited from her late mother, and is wearing a fabulous jacket, made out of different slashes of patterned fabric, by the Belgian designer Dries van Noten.

Her hair is sticking up in tousled clumps, which gave her the look of a charming, if slightly wayward, sprite. She wears her make-up in a smoky smudge above and below her eyes, which she closes, for longish periods, or looks at you from under hooded lids. Sometimes, alarmingly, she will bare her jumbled teeth, in a sudden, simian snarl and break into high-pitched laughter, although it’s not quite clear why.

At the end of the hangar-like room we are sitting in is a sort of altarpiece for the Foundling Museum, with a series of stuffed figures in brown uniforms depicting scenes conjured by Rego: the abandoned children in Thomas Coram’s famous school, and the events that led up to their births. “So on the top left-hand side is a rape. Below, on the left, she’s having a baby in the moonlight. Over there, they are throwing babies down into the well. I had a well built, you see. I compose and build these things, and then I draw them. The one on the far right is throwing the baby out of the window. It’s a bit like Michael Jackson but it was before he died, so it doesn’t count.”

On various tables, every surface is covered with curious objects: a bright orange cat, dusty artificial flowers, a frightening pagan-looking doll with a grotesque phallic nose. An anatomical dummy, in tails, is splayed over a sofa and Rego zestfully unzips the fly to show me how “he” can be converted into a “she”. There are rails of clothes, including dresses that belonged to her mother and grandmother, and stacks of plastic drawers crammed full of underwear and stockings.

In the room next door Rego has created another scene; of a classroom, this time, a couple of children fighting on the floor and a desk with the seated figure’s back to us. This is a hated teacher from her own childhood, the artist explains, but the pupil has wreaked her revenge. We walk around the tableau to confront the teacher and find that her “face” is a hideous skull. On the walls are etchings — Rego’s preferred medium — some from her series on female genital mutilation. As we stand in front of one of an African girl, her poignant face shrouded in a white bride’s veil, a boat of star-scattered fabric in front of her, Rego says sadly: “You see, she is carrying the sky in her lap.”

The combination of storytelling — often around women’s bonds and bondage within the family— and the directness of her political comment is more suggestive of a literary tradition, such as the magic realism of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Rego’s abortion pictures — her response to Portugal’s 1997 referendum on the legalisation of abortion — are among her toughest and most confronting to date. (The poll attracted only a 10 per cent turn-out and the vote went against; the decision was overturned only two years ago.) Her art has also been informed by her revolt against the twin oppressions of the Church — “the horrible Catholic Church”, as she puts it — and her memories of the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.

Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, three years after Salazar came to power, where he remained until 1968. When Rego was 16 she was sent to complete her education at an English finishing school in Sevenoaks, Kent. Her mother was appalled when she next saw her daughter. “ ‘What is this?’ she said, when I arrived at the station. ‘You look revolting!’ Quite right, I did,” Rego recalls. “I’d eat all the remains of people’s food from their plates. So she took me to Paris and forced me to eat only meat and no potatoes, and by the time Mum and Dad got back to Portugal I had lost the weight.”

Rego is a manic-depressive and there is mental illness on both sides of her family. Fortunately, none of her three grown-up children — Caroline (married to the sculptor Ron Mueck), Victoria and Nicholas — seems to have inherited the depressive gene. Her father, who was her favourite parent, would withdraw for long periods in silence. When her parents were away on business, the young Rego — an only child — spent alternate weeks, blissfully, with her beloved grandparents, and less blissfully with her mother’s aunt, who was catatonically depressed, barely stirring from her chair.

When I ask her whether her mother also suffered from depression, she roars: “Good God, no!” And then: “She loved shoes.” That’s quite an eccentric non sequitur. “Well, she did love shoes,” Rego says. “In the end we had to put her in a home with nurses. They used to dress her and she always complained when they put brown shoes with black clothes.”

The first psychiatrist Rego saw was Anthony Storr — also an eminent author — who suffered from depression himself. “He was very good and saw me for a while. But then he said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I’m writing and I don’t have time’, so he sent me to somebody else, who I saw every week since 1973 until about five years ago, when he retired.” I wonder whether she thinks she may have suffered from some form of post-natal depression, as it was possibly years before her depression was recognised and treated. “Oh, good God, no. Having children is nothing. You open your legs and out they come.” And then, marvellously: “I mean, while I was having my daughter, I read Simone de Beauvoir all the way through it.”

She hates the word “creative”. “I’m not a literary person so I can’t explain to you why I don’t like the word. But doing art is disgusting, don’t you see? And creative is something to do with doing art.” You’ve lost me. Why is “doing art” disgusting? “I think it is.” But you’re an artist; that’s what you do! “Yairssss, that’s what I do. But really I do drawing. I like drawing best of all, like when you’re small and . . .” She starts humming as she used to do, a solitary child, sketching away for hours in her playroom.

When we were talking about Rego’s love of pornography — or erotica, more accurately — I asked her whether her discovery had made an impact on her relationship with Willing. (She said, rather primly, not.) When she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952, he was already in his third year, although seven years her senior, and newly married. I had also asked her what she remembered most clearly about her time with him, and her reply was a succinct: “Bed.” Oh, was he good in that department? “ ‘Take off your knickers’ was the first thing he said to me.” That’s — ah — an interesting line. “Yes.” So did you? “I obeyed exactly. It was at a Slade party, and I was a virgin.” Crikey. “I know. It was very dramatic and dirty. There was blood everywhere,” she says through a fit of giggles.

Rego became pregnant while Willing was still with his wife — a ballet dancer and childhood sweetheart — and he married Rego in 1959, the year that their second daughter, Victoria, was born. The anxiety of returning pregnant and umarried to Portugal to deliver the news can be divined, decades later, in the rabbit paintings of 1982 — Pregnant Rabbit Telling her Parents and Rabbit and Weeping Cabbage. When Rego explained to her mother that the cabbage represented her, her mother apparently responded happily: “Why, you’ve made me look so young.”

There seem to have been some idyllic years — certainly in the photos from that time the handsome couple positively glow — when the Willings lived with their small children in Rego’s family rural retreat in Ericeira, although Victor Willing was more involved in helping to support his father-in-law’s ailing business than creating (dread word) his own art. But in 1966, when multiple sclerosis was first diagnosed, the struggles began, ending in his death in 1988.

Rego has a long-term companion — Anthony Rudolf, a writer and publisher — who is also one of her models: “He loves sitting; he’s very good.” His name comes up when we are talking about the dangers of love, and she says that their relationship is not like that. “We’re terribly good friends, which is much healthier than being in love. I don’t recommend being in love to anybody.” Why? “It’s much better to have a very good friend who takes you to the theatre. I don’t think being in love is a particularly nice thing.”

She clearly adored her husband. “He was immensely intellectual, he liked talking about philosophers and French poets and that. He was a bloody dish and I think that intellectuals, on the whole, are dishy. He was a dominant person but he also had a kind of delicate, feminine quality. Men were in love with him as well. He was incredibly charming. He really was.”

But Rego can also see that her love was “a form of worship, that came from a long way back, OK? [When he, unlike her, was the rising star in the art world.] I was a mere nothing with him, do you understand? So when he was diagnosed, we didn’t know what the hell it meant. And then it got worse and worse and I thought, ‘I don’t like this at all’. It was horrible and then your life becomes very restricted. But I was always lucky because I had Portuguese au pairs and things like that to help.”

Rego cannot say that she regrets having fallen in love but, anyhow, she doesn’t believe she had any choice in the matter. It was a coup de foudre; an irresistible force. “I did love him — very, very much — and I wouldn’t have known any other way to be because that’s how I was then. I was very young and I admired him enormously. But if you’re young and you fall in love madly, you lose a sense of yourself, as well. And it’s not terribly good for the work. But, yeah, well, it’s life, isn’t it? Life is that.”

We’ve talked for a long time; the photographer has arrived, and EastEnders beckons, one of Rego’s last addictions, now that a heart condition has restricted her alcohol consumption to a daily dose of two flutes of champagne. I check her age before I leave, and get it wrong by a year — “75!” she gasps, as though I’ve mugged her. “Four!” (I’m worried that I’ve hastened her departure) “74!” I’m all for accuracy but does the extra year really bother you so much, at this stage, I ask, intrigued. “Every hour matters, my dear. Every hour.”

Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Cascais, Portugal, opened yesterday;


On appearances I do my best to look my best. I think that’s terribly important. When you come out of the hairdressers, you do feel better. I like dressing up and going shopping, and I like it very, very much.

On fascism Having been brought up in a Fascist country, you are naturally aware of the injustices and the poverty. Of course, my father kept me well informed as to what went on. So I was politically aware and furious at times. Most of my pictures are political.

On being Victor Willing’s model There’s a wonderful nude of me that disappeared in Belgium — somebody must have bought it, and it’s fabulous. But, you know, Vic was married.

On psychiatry What I wanted was a buzz so that I could get new ideas for pictures.

On Tracey Emin I gave her a tutorial once and it was a disaster. I think we talked about men a lot of the time. So she says.


Paula Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935 to Maria, who had studied painting, and José, a wealthy electrical engineer. It was a privileged household, but the family moved to the seaside town of Estoril when Rego was 3 after incipient tuberculosis was diagnosed.

Art and love Her talents developed at an Anglican English school in Portugal. At the Slade in London, where she won prizes, she fell in love with the painter Victor Willing. At 20 she became pregnant with his child and returned to Portugal. He later left his wife to marry her.

Artists, Food

How friends Ferran Adrià and Richard Hamilton inspire each other

The Times July 11, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Food and art fusion cooks up surprising results

There are several moments in my interview with Ferran Adrià, the head chef of El Bulli, and the artist Richard Hamilton, when I feel like screaming very loudly or simply giving up.

We are here to discuss the surprising friendship that has grown up between the two men over the past 25 years.

First, for those who have not already read about Catalonia’s El Bulli phenomenon (with its three Michelin stars; regularly voted the best restaurant in the world): this is “an experience” rather than a meal, with an entirely new menu every year — the restaurant closes for six months while the chefs reinvent — and where nothing is what it seems to be. The dishes are beautiful, sculptural, outlandish and mess with your head. An “Oreo cookie”, for example, is made out of artichoke caramel, black olives and sour cream.

Hamilton is still probably best known for two memorable works — Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? in 1956 (cheeky collage, Mr Universe man; pin-up woman on sofa, with a lampshade hat, clutching a perky breast), and Swingeing London 67 (different tinted versions of the photograph of Mick Jagger handcuffed to Robert Fraser in the back of a police car, after the infamous drug bust). In the intervening time the artist has been honoured with three retrospectives at the Tate, represented Great Britain at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and, at 87, is still hard at work. (In his faded jeans and trademark cap, Hamilton remains as switched-on and “now” as that other octogenarian cool old daddy, Elmore Leonard.) His latest pieces are protest pictures (the name of his show last October), continuing a theme that has been a constant in his career: a television screen depicts the tanks of Desert Storm, blood dripping from the bottom of the set; Tony Blair, an anxious-faced little boy, is dressed up as a gun-toting John Wayne cowboy.

The first problem with our conversation is that Adrià doesn’t speak English and talks muy rápido, but with a stammer, which means that his interpreter helps him to finish sentences, so they end up talking over one another. The interpreter’s Spanish accent, alas, comes with such a frothy lisp that it is quite difficult to understand her translation. (It took several attempts of “newellequeetheeen” for me to get “nouvelle cuisine”.) Hamilton, who doesn’t speak any Spanish, also talks into my ear, usually to correct Adrià’s dates: “No, that’s not right at all” and so on. Then there is Adrià’s press man, who feels the need to reinterpret the interpreter’s translations . . . and thus no fewer than four different voices can all be competing at the same time.

In addition, we are sitting around a table in a disco with oppressive black walls and ceiling, enlivened by a fluorescent palm tree and a number of suspended silver glitter balls. The only illumination is the hostile glare of a makeshift lighting rig and the total effect is similar to an interrogation room in a country run by a tinpot dictator.

This sense of dislocation would doubtless delight Carsten Höller, the German artist who created the slides at Tate Modern and also this venue, the Double Club — a temporary six-month installationcum-nightclub-cum-bar-cum-restaurant in Islington, “produced” by Prada and funded by a Nigerian bank. The idea behind it, to quote from its website, is that each space (hello Pseuds’ Corner) “is divided into equally-sized Western and Congolese parts on a decorative and functional level, generating an inspiring perspective on double identity as well as on cultural co-existence”. Whatever else it is — and, at night, it’s as absolutely fabulous as New York in its clubbing heyday — it is most certainly a “vanguard” experience, which is Adrià’s interpreter’s quirky version of “avant garde”.

We are celebrating Adrià’s transcendence from cook to artist, after his controversial 2007 inclusion in Documenta, an art show that is held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Spanish art critics fumed: “Adrià is not Picasso.” Robert Hughes pitched in with: “Both Adrià’s participation and contribution seem ridiculous to me. Food is food.”

The new double-titled book inspired by the Documenta show, Food for Thought. Thought for Food, which is being launched at the Double Club (its own delicious food masterminded by Mourad Mazouz, the restaurateur behind Momo and Sketch in London), includes a photographic panoply of 1,500 dishes that Adrià has created over the past 25 years, round table discussions of the cuisine — featuring Anya Gallaccio, Heston Blumenthal, Bill Buford and Höller — and various maps charting the cook’s revolutionary development (“jellied molluscs”, 1992; “hot jelly”, 1998; “foie-gras as butter”, 2008, etc), as well as a section of responses from the lucky Willy Wonka-like winners of Documenta attendees who were selected by its director, two a day, to dine at El Bulli.

The book’s editors are Vicente Todoli, the foodie director of Tate Modern, and Hamilton, who has also written an elegantly persuasive introduction.

Hamilton has been eating at El Bulli since maybe 1963, possibly 1964 or even 1969 — it’s one of those debatable dates — at least once every year, long before Adrià’s arrival. He first visited nearby Cadaqués, where Salvador Dalí had a home (other artists who spent time there include Picasso, Miró and Marcel Duchamp) in 1962 and bought his own house in 1968.

His memory is of going to El Bulli for the first time with Duchamp’s widow, Teeny, when it was little more than a shack on the beach where you could enjoy a picnic lunch. He would arrive in his Zodiac inflatable boat, 25 minutes by sea from his home, and “they had a nice toilet, so I would go in and squeeze the water out of my shirt and put it on again. I looked pretty disreputable. The food went up and down over the years (according to the ability of the chefs) and then one year it was up like that,” Hamilton points a tapered finger to the ceiling, “and that was when Ferran had arrived.” How dramatic was that change? “Suddenly it was, ‘This is the best food I’ve eaten anywhere’.” Later, as part of a panel of Adrià aficionados attended by an audience (including Blumenthal, Antony Gormley, Bianca Jagger), he says: “There came a time when it was difficult to get in, but I developed a relationship with the staff and that helped .”

One of Hamilton’s abiding pleasures — not that his lean physique and long El Greco face would betray it — is eating. When he was a child his mother worked long hours waitressing at banquets in the City, and the young Hamilton would always ask her: “How many courses did they have, Mummy?” He was recently reminded of this by his artist wife, Rita Donagh. He supposes that he got the idea then that the more courses there were, the better the meal: “And at El Bulli [35-odd courses] I will sometimes say, ‘How many courses have I had now, Rita?’ and she will add them up. But then I can be there for three hours, and I rarely say, ‘Have we got to the dessert now?”

He recalls his first impressions of Adrià: “In the early days, Ferran wouldn’t appear very much and if he did he would come out of the kitchen and stand on the terrace, with his legs slightly apart and look out over the bay,” he says, his voice descending to a basso profundo, hinting at a certain gravitas. “I always felt that he should have had his hand in his jacket, like Napoleon. He didn’t speak to anybody. I don’t think he smiled much. He just looked. He’d had a long morning’s service and he was tired and wanted to get some fresh air.”

The chef, with his plumpish, morose José Mourinho good looks, can still appear solemn, chewing gum glumly (one audience member asked about its flavour but was not enlightened) and coming to life only when he understands the odd word — Hamilton’s mention of Henri CartierBresson, for instance, elicits an enthusiastic “fantastique”.

I ask him whether he had been aware of “Richard Hamilton, the famous pop artist,” when he took over as El Bulli’s head chef in 1984. “There was a type of customer who came every year — maybe 50 of them, not all at the same time! — and Richard Hamilton was one of them. He always used to come by boat, which was unique, and he was someone I already had a lot of love for. He never gave us any problems.

“Juli, my partner, told me that he was an artist, but I was 22 years old and I didn’t have any relationship with the world of art. But over time, slowly, I have become a fan.”

He tells a story of the time when the artist asked him to take a Polaroid photo of him for a book, which he thought was “loco!” This was for the final volume of Polaroids of Hamilton taken over the decades by an incredible roll-call of artistic heavyweights, from Brecht and Man Ray to Yoko Ono. Not long after the loco photo session, Adrià was in Barcelona, where he saw a book called Pop Art. “I read, and discovered exactly who that Richard Hamilton is. I phoned Juli and said, ‘Did you know what type of artist is that Richard Hamilton? He’s an incredible man!’ And whenever I spoke then to people in the art world about Richard, they said that he only talked about El Bulli.”

Others may label Adrià an artist now (Hamilton prefers to call him a poet), but Adrià insists that he is a cook: “Cooks shouldn’t become painters and painters shouldn’t become cooks. In the world of art, I’m only there as a fan, to learn, watch and listen. But cooking is a different matter because that is my world.”

I ask him what prompted his revolutionary tactics and his cryptic response is: “Things happen and one doesn’t know why they happen.” On reflection, he says: “I am a cook and that is not my business — it is my passion. It is a way of understanding life through the kitchen. The chefs and I cook so that we ourselves are happy, and we need a challenge to be happy. The great revolution that happened in 1993 was when we started to play out our very own language, whether people liked it or not. So after we are happy ourselves, we share this happiness with the people.” He points to Hamilton and says: “Richard was the first man to talk about El Bulli as a new language. I never thought of it that way, but he gave me this explanation and he opened the world for me.”

The shock of the new, however, was far too shocking for some of El Bulli’s customers when Adrià unleashed his first new dishes. A deconstructed chicken curry from 1995, for instance, emerged as a savoury ice-cream in a puddle of garlic jus, coconut and electric-green apple froth. Many of the punters reeled in horror, saying the chef had gone “loco!” and walked out. Hamilton, however, embraced the changes.

But even Ferran’s biggest fan has his limits: “The only thing I’ve had there that I’ve had a bit of a misgiving about was a rabbit’s ear. It looked like a rabbit’s ear although it didn’t have fur, but it’s the skin, the tissue. Even when I tasted it, I didn’t think ‘This is a great experience’, but I wouldn’t complain. On the whole, I think, ‘I trust Ferran and he would not suggest I eat this without being right’.”

Not yet having had the pleasure of eating at El Bulli – it is £200-odd for a meal, and a two-year waiting list — I am unable to comment on the food. (Although I have enjoyed several meals at the Fat Duck, a close relative.) What is certainly the case is that Adrià’s gastronomic experimentalism can be a culinary disaster in the hands of less skilled disciples. I once had the worst meal of my life, cooked by a bullishly arrogant El Bulli wannabe in Oman, of all places. Imagine, if you will, the taste sensation of over-brewed Earl Grey tea bursting out of a cold jelly tablet, and a frozen sorbet of dog-food pâté.

“This is not something to do with El Bulli,” Adrià says. “Richard from the art world could say the same thing. A lot of people did very bad Pop Art. Some people did it very well. It is not the problem of the type of cuisine. How many good paellas can you get in London? Or a great osso buco?”

I say that it is a bit different; there’s not the same amount of fanfare over that sort of eating experience. “No-no-no-no-no-no,” Adrià flashes one of his rare but engaging smiles. “A bad paella is a bad paella.” And you can bet he cooks a mean one of those, too.

* * *

Food for Thought. Thought for Food is published by Actar


David Hockney on why iPhones are the future for art

The Times May 09, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

As a major exhibition of new landscapes opens, Britain’s best-loved artist talks about mortality, family, his return to his beloved Bridlington, and why iPhones are the future for art

David Hockney is a very funny man. If he ever wanted to give up the day job — about as likely as Bridlington becoming the new St-Tropez — he would make a superb monologist; Spalding Gray, perhaps, channelled by Alan Bennett.

He may have lived in Los Angeles for the greater part of the last 30 years but his humour, and accent, remain dry and forthrightly northern. His mother, Laura, who died in 1999 at the age of 99, was quite religious, he tells me, and was wont to refer to her late-beckoning mortality thus – “I haven’t been called yet.” Her son would sometimes joke: “Well, stay by the telephone.” He continues: “When I told that story to a friend of mine he said, ‘You might live longer than her, David, because you won’t hear the call’.”

Hockney’s current pair of hearing-aids — he’s been experimenting with them for three decades — are small and neat. They also seem effective. He doesn’t strain to hear but he is still in the habit of going off on curious tangents, or taking a thought and running it into the ground, which may be a legacy of being deaf for so many years.

The last time we met, in 2005, I could not get him off the subject of smoking — he is passionately pro — although we were meant to have been discussing his curation of a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. It still appears to be Hockney’s favourite subject and I have to firmly reroute his conversational drift.

He’s been living in the old guesthouse — with his partner and French assistant — which he bought for his mother in Bridlington, the East Yorkshire seaside resort, for the past three years, with another three to go, while he completes a monumental group of landscape paintings. We are strictly not to interpret this as Hockney coming “home”, since he still views Los Angeles as his base. “There’s a side of England I don’t like at all, I must tell you,” he says. “The meanspiritedness gets me down.” Of English people? “The smoking is one thing,” he says. “It’s outrageous and I won’t stop attacking it anyway.”

What would he say if he met Gordon Brown? “I would not be polite, I’m going to tell you. Four or five years ago Paul Johnson told me that Gordon Brown was talking about making it [England] smoke-free. He didn’t say we’ll make it convenient for anybody. This is Stalinism, practically.”

Is this the only reason you’re cross with him? “Well, I don’t think he’s got any vision.” Do you think David Cameron is any better? “Not much, no. Of course I don’t.” Hockney’s never been one much for politics anyway: “But somebody’s got to decide which way traffic goes and who picks up the rubbish and I’ve left that to other people. I don’t mind the taxes, I’ll pay whatever, but when they begin to affect my life personally, I think, ‘Well, wait a minute, what is this about?’ It isn’t about smoking; it’s about them telling me what’s best for me.”

He’s not even excited about Obama “although Bush was pretty ghastly and I think he [Obama] is rather good. But I’m not political — in fact, I’ve rarely voted, to be honest — and I don’t want to be either. I’ve something else to do.” That “something else” is his work, by which he is more consumed than ever before.

We are talking in a lovely light-filled private gallery, the Kunsthalle Würth, converted from an old brewery in the medieval town of Shwäbisch Hall, near Stuttgart. A handful of English journalists have been flown in, joining a horde of German media people, to look at 70 new works produced by Hockney in the past couple of years. It is the largest and most comprehensive museum exhibition of the artist’s Yorkshire landscapes to be shown to the public for the first time.

At the morning press conference, before our interview, Hockney anticipates the obvious question — so why Shwäbisch Hall? — although no one has been tactless enough to ask it. “Why did I do this exhibition? I’ll be frank, I did it for myself to see all the work together.” And on he goes in his marvellously undiplomatic way. “At first I didn’t take much interest in it, but when I came here I thought, ‘It is a lovely area . . . with individual trees and every one is different, just like we are’ . . . Also I knew that journalists would travel to see an exhibition. It’s an opportunity you don’t get often, and I am an opportunist I must admit.”

The best-known British artist of his generation is 71, and is often described as a national treasure. Despite his determined efforts to come across as a grumpy old man, he still retains the mischief and curiosity of a boy; an impression reinforced by the way he peers wide-eyed over his spectacles, and shuffles his feet impatiently under the table. When you laugh at his more preposterous statements, he joins in, which suggests that his curmudgeonliness is partly an act. There is a sense of fun in the way that he dresses, although his flamboyance, these days, is restricted to the odd detail: a flat white cap over his undyed hair, a red and white spotted handkerchief dangling elegantly from his jacket pocket.

After the conference, when we follow Hockney around the exhibition in a clingy pack, he explains that his suits are especially tailored to include an inside pocket in the jackets large enough — he gives us a quick flash — to accommodate a sketchbook and brushes that he always carries.

He is well aware, as he says, that “the art world thinks that this is a genre that’s quite exhausted – but nothing is quite exhausted”. Images, he says, help us to see the world: “I keep thinking that people have stopped looking at landscape . . . and I’m very interested in how we see; seeing is memory and memory is now. We don’t all see the same things even if we’re looking at the same thing . . . looking is a positive thing — you’ve got to decide to look.”

In the northern hemisphere, “you’re hit over the head with seasons, and each season I see more . . . how early spring begins at the top of trees, for instance. And I’m eager to get back right now [to Bridlington], as it’s just coming up for ‘Action Week’, which is what I call early spring.” In East Yorkshire now, Hockney says, he would be up at 6 in the morning, when the sun comes directly up over the sea: “The best light is between 5am and 8am, with the long shadows and the sun lighting everything from the front. Everything is very, very clear, whereas in the afternoon it’s all silhouettes.”

Marco Livingstone, a Canadian-born curator, writer and friend of Hockney, has contributed an illuminating and charming essay for the show’s handsomely produced catalogue. He told me about a recent visit to the artist’s Bridlington home, where he and his partner had been invited to stay the night. After a jolly dinner, the guests had retired at 1am and woke in fright a few hours later, with a loud banging on their door (the old guesthouse numbers have not been removed, apparently). Their host insisted they get up immediately and drive with him to a particular copse because the light was so magical, and he didn’t want them to miss out on the treat.

If this could be described as Hockney’s love affair with the landscape of East Yorkshire, it has been a slow burn rather than instant infatuation.

In the last ten years of his mother’s life, her son came to visit every three months: “And I never went there without drawing her because at that age you think, ‘Well, how long will she live?” Did she like the results? “Well, she’s your mother,” he says, throwing me the sort of look that suggests he’s thinking, ‘You daft brush’. “She’s going to like what her son does, yes, of course.” They were close and he misses her but the drawings comfort him: “I’ve still got them and there are lots of them and I won’t let them go, so that makes a big difference.”

They used to go on drives down the empty lanes and Hockney found himself responding to the subtle, undramatic landscape — so different from the showy lushness and bright light of California — and now that she has gone he feels even more deeply connected to the countryside of his youth. It’s tempting to see this as a way of bringing his mother back to him, especially with him moving back into her house, but he says not.

He describes his neighbours, pithily, as “modest and not too disappointed because they never expected much.” Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, his assistant, is probably the only Parisian, Hockney says, to have visited Bridlington. It is Jean-Pierre, I admit, who responded to this comment with the joke that it was the new St-Tropez, which was too good not to appropriate. There’s a picture of JP, in Hockney’s Photoshop computer works now on show in London, in formal black tie that, he jests (presumably), is normal dinner dress for the Bridlington ménage à trois. There’s also one of the artist’s partner of the past decade, John Fitz-Herbert — a former chef. What an honest face, I say, as we flick through the book of the exhibition. “He’s an honest human being,” Hockney replies.

There are several drawings of Hockney’s brother, Paul, and his sister, Margaret; and in each picture the subjects seem mesmerised by a small gadget in their hands, which turns out to be an iPhone — Hockney’s latest enthusiasm: “Yes, my brother and sister sat there for three or four hours, totally engrossed.” Hockney is thrilled that he has finally persuaded Celia Birtwell to buy one so that he can send her pictures: “I draw flowers on them and send them out every morning to a group of people.”

He demonstrates, tracing his finger over the tiny screen with such absorption that I worry he will stop talking altogether. “Who would have thought the telephone would bring back drawing?” he exclaims with glee.

“It’s such a great little device, it has every Shakespeare play in it and the Oxford English dictionary. In your pocket! But it’s also amusing, look at this.” He blows into it and his new toy becomes a harmonica.

At the other end of the scale are his epic landscapes, including the one created out of 50 separate canvases to form an enormous painting, which took up an entire wall at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The most striking thing about these landscapes, initially at least, is their size.

Perhaps it is still too early to judge to what extent — apart from the obvious technical differences — Hockney has made them his own.

As a student at the Royal College of Art, Hockney’s famous complaint was, “I’m not doing anything that’s from me”. Then came the light-saturated Californian pictures of palm trees, swimming-pools and naked boys in the 1960s, which made an instant (bigger) splash and are still instantly recognisable as Hockneys; as are his beguiling portraits through the years, set designs and elegant book illustrations. But in these oil paintings, there are constant refrains of other painters; a forest scene that makes you think of Matisse, another of Rousseau. Here and there, in certain details, you detect the free brushstrokes and wild exuberance of Howard Hodgkin.

These echoes may be deliberate. Back in 1976, Hockney wrote: “I am very concious of all that has happened in art during the last 75 years. I don’t ignore it; I feel I’ve simply assimilated it into my kind of art.”

In January 2012, Hockney says, there will be a big show of his work at the Royal Academy, mostly landscapes: “Just before the world ends on December 21st.” Sorry? “That’s the Mayan calendar and that’s when the sun will be at its fiercest. Look it up on the web.” He proceeds to go on at great length about a book he found in his favourite bookshop in LA — Book Soup — and the riveting new information it contains about the edge of the Universe and time and the Sun being at a certain pitch. All of which makes me think that you can take the boy out of Bradford but you can also, clearly, take Bradford out of the boy.

When I ask him whether he truly believes it’s going to be the end of the world, he says: “What I suddenly realised is that it could just be me — the end of the world for me.” But, unlike his mother, Hockney is not waiting for the call. “I don’t think about it much,” he says. “I assume I’ll just work until I fall over.”

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Drawing In a Printing Machine is at Annely Juda Gallery to July 11 (020-7629 7578). Just Nature is at Kunsthalle Würth, Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, to Sept 27. Imagine on Hockney, BBC One, June 30.