Saturday, 11 February 2017

Everything You've Come To Expect

Anselm Kiefer 'Die Walkuren' 2016
Glass, metal, fabric, shellac, plaster, lead, dried plants, ashes. 293 x 560 x 231cm. 

During my Masters there was a lot of talk, generally, but a lot talk specifically about effect and in relation to what effect art works can have on a viewer. Without too much of the philosophy, of which I still struggle to fully grasp, these were phenomenological discussions about how being in the presence of an artwork can physically and/or psychologically effect the viewer; the definition in my mind being like getting goose bumps or hairs going up on the back of one’s neck whilst listening to music. This is a deeper more resonate reaction slightly different from a face-judgement of ‘liking’ something or finding it amusing, sad or happy it is almost a 'being altered' by whatever is experienced. Rather than merely 'viewing' as we are naturally accustomed to with visual art the experience becomes a more holistic one. It is, like most things, of course subjective, but generally I think it has always been easier for me personally, to relate to music, architecture, books and film in this way as ‘causing effect’ rather than visual arts. Yet the later is what I chose to study! It is therefore all the rarer and more precious when it is found and the searching for it is certainly something of a personal motivation come obsession.
Therefore I wouldn’t attempt to describe a piece of music that I felt had somehow strongly altered my existence as a human being on this earth to you in writing, I’d just ask you to listen to it. The same could be said of the latest offering from Anselm Kiefer at White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey, London. So monumental, imposing and weighty are some of the latest paintings and sculptures in the exhibition, titled ‘Walhalla’ that describing how it makes one think and feel is no mean feat and even though I have seen a few Kiefer exhibitions now in my now some thirty years, I still feel being in the presence of some of these colossal paintings as awe-inspiring as the first time I’d seen them. In short I hope that in any of my shortcomings to fully describe it, that I may actually inadvertently be describing it better...   
Kiefer’s Walhalla begins in a dark, dark, long, lead-walled corridor... Lined with trolley beds covered in hastily dishevelled lead sheets and pillows, its invisible occupants appearing to have fled some unknown atrocity in haste; it is an unnerving space, made more so in being sparsely lit by hanging bare bulbs, it feels institutionalised, regimental, desolate and other worldly. Other worldly or perhaps of-a-world that many of us have been fortunate enough not to have had personally experienced. Reflecting on (amongst other things) Kiefer’s continuous theme with the weight and almost burden of German history from an artist who himself is German. Despite having continuously worked with these ideas throughout his career, they gain new poignancy albeit unintentional, in parallel with the devastating scenes of the crumbling aftermath in the war-torn city of Aleppo.
Anselm Kiefer 'Walhalla' 2016 Oil, acrylic, shellac and clay on canvas.
 470 x 760cm.
In these paintings numerous towers and monuments crumble, the citadel has fallen into decay, once fertile lands lay now barren, plundered of their resources or poisoned; rust, dust, ash, molten lead are both surface and destruction at conflict with each other all at once. Is it the end of the world or the beginning of something new; the alchemic, pouring and crashing of elements before the big-bang? So thick are the crusts of some of these are paintings they almost become their own entity; molten lead poured on top has had to be screwed-on in places, there’s so much ‘stuff’ on these surfaces it is as though they have been forged, exposed to the elements and like tectonic plates that continue to shift and crack they corrode and age transforming into new surfaces. In these bleak, almost prophetic dystopias perhaps the latter is an offering of hope that we may not continue to make the mistakes of the past and that perhaps out of this totalitarian destruction change is inevitable and something new may be able to flourish.
Anselm Kiefer 'Walhalla' 2016
Oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac and lead on canvas. 380 x 570 x 42cm.
The corridor with its empty and unwelcoming lead beds offers no rest-bite for reflection on all this, it is a transitional space and the claustrophobic crowding of the beds only forces us to keep moving into one of the six  portals off it, to the left into what are more familiar white-walled gallery rooms, their whiteness all the brighter in contrast to the ash greyness from which we entered. The mere treatment of this exhibition as almost one-whole installation is in itself a powerful thing to experience and takes upon the collective concept of Valhalla at its core. The transition from dark to light being amongst the most simple but effective ways of conveying life and death, conscious and unconscious, the realms of night vs. day. Valhalla in Norse mythology seen as the underworld, “the hall that houses dead distinguished warriors, it is also a place of perpetual fighting” another reminder perhaps alluding to those soldiers and civilians caught-up in wars past and present? These myths seamlessly interwoven amongst conflicted rupturing surfaces in his paintings and in the placement of symbols such as the anvil, the spear, in all of Kiefer’s work for those who seek to look for them.
Anselm Kiefer 'Arsenal' 1983-2016 Lead and Mixed media. Dimensions variable.
Kiefer is an artist who has almost enviably gained the luxury of having vast quantities of material and space, technicians at his disposal to which he still does in ambitious abundance, here in Walhalla a historical or library style archive, titled 'Arsenal' is bursting with the debris of the materials he has worked with throughout his career. I suspect more than an element of recycling to be going-on, it is as if now Kiefer may be beginning to address the archive of his own history and career as an artist within his work. Salt, glass, paper, photos printed on reams of lead and seeds spill out of chests of drawers, safes, atop rusty print presses and racks of lead books stacked from floor to ceiling. Am I in a medieval apothecary? A ransacked archive? Or scene from a Harry Potter movie? At this point I am convinced it has become all a bit  theatrical but it is a theatre of which I am happy to have been invited in to explore if nothing for its rarity and glut of surfaces, shapes, nooks and crannies and materials of which remain a visual delight.   
Anselm Kiefer 'Walhalla' 2016 Oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac on canvas. 380 x 570cm.
The preservation and decay of history is explored further in the use of museum vitrines in the exhibition that encase large sculptural works made from stacked bicycles, petrified sunflowers, dead trees and stiffened clothing. Most things in this exhibition appear to be dead or suspended in some way as such is the absence of any figures in the beds, clothing and landscapes albeit except for a lone figure in a photograph at the end of that foreboding corridor, who too offers little solace, as they are depicted walking off into the distance abandoning the viewer in this non-space or purgatory. It is all a perpetual reminder of the fragile mortality of people against the accumulation of what we produce and legacy of history and time itself. Maybe the exhibition is all a little contrite in its contextualisation to ideas of Norse mythology and land of the dead but I think can still be appreciated for its use and breadth of materials alone. It is also in danger of offering much of what we have already come to expect from a Kiefer exhibition, nonetheless I think it important to approach it with fresh eyes and I hope I have already proven why it is still relevant to today. I never fully able to understand what ‘effect’ was during my MA but something in my gut tells me that Kiefer’s work has it in spades.
Anselm Kiefer’s Walhalla is on at Bermondsey White Cube until February 12th 2017(one more day, but do catch it if you can)  
*These photos are my own. If you're in one and would like me to remove it please contact me.