Internationally renowned graphic designer Scott King devilishly discusses his 2014 work, Anish & Antony Take Afghanistan
King isn’t afraid to be a menace. In 2014, armed with a pen and a sanguinary sense of humour, he and illustrator Will Henry produced Anish & Antony Take Afghanistan, a graphic novel featuring public sculpture superstars Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley. The work has travelled to exhibitions in Berlin, Munich, New York and London, and has been published as a book by JRP|Ringier. Prompting snickers from cover to cover and posing serious sociopolitical questions, the book brings high-minded ideas about the redemptive powers of public art back down to earth with a resounding ‘KABOOOM!’
We asked him about the book and his motivation for writing it.
What was the inspiration behind Anish & Antony Take Afghanistan?
For some time I’d been making work about the nature of public sculpture – how it is deployed by ‘big business’ on company HQ plazas, or used in the hope of regenerating particular areas. This led me to the idea of ‘sculptural transplants’. I started to think, ‘if the government believes that they can turn Middlesbrough docks into a hotbed of innovation and creativity by building Temenos, could this also work in a place that desperately needs an injection of social unity, economic growth and hope?’ So, it became a question about the role of public sculpture within schemes for economic regeneration. The original idea was simply to Photoshop enormous public sculptures on to Helmand Province – but it looked too trite, too throwaway and flippant. So I began to think about the backstory, and to imagine a scenario where the West began building enormous public sculptures across Afghanistan at the request of (then) President Karzai. It was an idea for myself really – one that Will played no small part in bringing to life.
Could you summarise the plot for us?
President Karzai is in a crisis conference at the UN – Obama is keen to wrap up the meeting and get back to more important business. Karzai loses his temper and demands some serious input from the UN – not more ‘band aid solutions’. David Cameron knows what Karzai wants and so arranges for Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley to be shipped to Afghanistan along with huge amounts of building materials. They begin to build gigantic public sculptures across the country and the nation starts to prosper… then it all goes terribly wrong.
Talk to us about the title. It seems like a tongue-in-cheek military reference?
I suppose it is suggestive of a military operation – except it is a military operation that uses art rather than arms. I only ever had this one title. Normally I’ll debate titles with myself a lot – they are very important to me – but this one was set in stone… as it were.
Why did you choose Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley as the protagonists?
I used Anish and Antony because they are the ‘poster boys’ of sculptural gigantism in this country. They’ve made the most famous and largest public sculpture in the UK, and are household names, more or less. Also, I think they have a kind of disconnectedness from the reality of what they do.
There is a lot of humour in the text and illustration – the book cover shows the artists holding cocktail glasses with rather ‘Inspector Clouseau-esque’ facial expressions. Why?
I didn’t really have to do much in terms of adding humour: Anish and Antony kind of do it themselves. One is enormously tall and the other is really quite short, so they make a good double act. Also they have a pomposity about them, which makes them vaguely ridiculous figures and very easy to write for. In fact, some of the things they say in the book are word-for-word quotations of what they’ve actually said. Anish really did compare the ArcelorMittal Orbit that he designed for the 2012 Olympics to the Tower of Babel. Antony seems to believe that the Angel of the North is some kind of ancient earthwork – he even refers to it as ‘my Stonehenge’ and recently demanded that some trees be cut down so the sculpture could be better seen from the A1. Also, I am told there is a tension between them, a competitiveness, particularly after Antony lost out on ‘the Olympic biggie’ to Anish.
What do Anish and Antony think of Anish & Antony Take Afghanistan?
I don’t know, though Anish’s studio did order ten copies directly from the publisher.
Can the work be considered a piece of political satire? Were you influenced by satirical cartoon traditions?
It can be, but I think of it – at the risk of sounding pompous myself – as more of a parable. I think that it is an old story really, with lots of versions. For example, in ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ by Rudyard Kipling two conmen from the British Empire briefly succeed in making themselves Kings of Kafirstan (now Nuristan Province in Afghanistan) before a bloody downfall. Will is very interested in satirical cartoons – he loves Steve Bell, I think. I was more interested in the story and the almost endless possibilities of where it might go, what might happen, when you tell it in cartoon form.
How did you and Will Henry work to put the text and images together?
I wrote out the story and scribbled the images, then Will took the scribbles and made them into these great illustrations. Once he’d done that, I rewrote the story to fit the images. It was all very easy really – unlike the new one we are doing, which is proving to be agonising.
Did you originally envisage the work as both a graphic novella and a public art exhibit?
I did it originally for a show at Wolfgang Tillmans’ gallery, Between Bridges in Berlin. It filled one of the two rooms in the gallery and was part of a solo show called Totem Motif. I then sent the final work in PDF form to JRP|Ringier – I’d done a couple of books with them before, and they were very happy to publish it. It only took a week to make into a book, with hardly any changes, so it was all very easy. I like the democracy of it being a graphic novel – the simplicity of it, and the idea of it being in a ‘serious’ art gallery. I’m not sure it reads any differently on a gallery wall to the way it does as a book. I think it works well in both formats.
What does Anish & Antony Take Afghanistan say about the value of art in society and attitudes towards international aid?
I think people should read it and decide for themselves.
Anish & Antony Take Afghanistan is available for purchase on the JRP|Ringier website