Thursday, November 8, 2012

Anselm Kiefer, Die Ungeborenen @ Thaddeus Ropac Paris-Pantin

Installation View, Thaddeas Ropac, Paris-Pantin
Two of Paris’ blue chip galleries have opened new spaces in the bandlieu this fall, and, apparently unbeknown to each other, both Gagosian and Thaddeus Ropac are inaugurating their new spaces with exhibitions of Anselm Kiefer’s vast canvases and sculptures. Because Thaddeus Ropac’s Pantin is easier to get to than Gagosian’s Le Bourget, the choice of which to visit first was made for me. I was not disappointed to find that this new space is definitely to be celebrated: it is expansive, filled with light, and enables an display of art that the cramped — or intimate, depending on how you want to think of them — spaces in the Marais can’t compete with.
Anselm Kiefer, Für Rabbi Löw, 2010-11

As further celebration, the new series of Kiefer works — new in that they are brought together here for the first time, but not necessarily created for the space — was profound and moving. The themes and aesthetic concerns of Die Ungeborenen are not new to Kiefer’s work, and those familiar with his oeuvre will know them well from his previous series. We will remember the steps made of lead books leading (or not)  to the sky on a canvas of ashen skies in the Heaven and Earth series. And the tragic and poignant remnants of children’s foreshortened lives have covered Kiefer’s canvases for decades. These, together with the shattered glass and rusted metals so typical of Kiefer’s works have, and continue to remind us of the weight of the Holocaust on contemporary history. And for Paris people, the dead sunflowers that nevertheless reach  toward re-birth are very familiar to us from, Hortus Conclusus 2007 permanently installed in the Louvre. What is rare and makes this exhibition welcome, is that in Paris it’s rare to see such a series of this many monumental Kiefer works under one vast roof.
Anselm Kiefer, Hummelsschlucht, 2011-12

As an example of the expansive works on display, Himmelsschlucht (2011-12) is heartwrenching. A stack of child-sized rusted and battered bed frames with lead pillows strewn on the springs is precariously placed on a cement “pedestal.” The beds are on wheels just as they would be in a hospital, or if they were there for the sick, and their placement one on top of another gives the idea they are no longer needed, that their one-time occupants are long gone. A notice, or label, in lead hangs from each frame, with chalk writing, awaiting erasure and the bed’s next occupant. Wires, like the string that might hold together a bundle of belongings on the back of a trolley, give the impression, or perhaps articulation of the intention to hold the bed frames together. In Kiefer’s works, childhood and sickness belong together, like life and death. The contradiction is always alive on his monumental paintings, in his sculptures.
Anselm Kiefer, from Die Ungeborenen

As always the works are as much about medieval mysticism, German history, literature and legend, as they are about Kiefer himself, and about the artistic process of an overbearingly male artist. In one sculpture, strips of what look like paper printed film grow like the ashen sunflowers out of an aging printing press and decaying typewriter. The images depict the concrete and iron towers of Merkaba, the seven heavenly palaces that Kiefer erected on his property in Barjac, the south of France. The “palaces” could be either in a state of incompletion or destruction – typical of the ambiguity and non-determinism of Kiefer’s work. But the point is, the repeated frames of his own work, and the reuse of certain motifs and objects such as the rocks that might weigh down the witches or imbalance the scales of justice, the space set up between images and words, things and images, as expressive of his own creative process, speak Kiefer’s self-obsession, his concern with his own development. Indeed, the shards of lead strewn across the floor of the Paris-Pantin gallery indicate the destruction that surrounds this creative process.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Ungeborenen (Niemandsrose), 2011
Beyond the references to his own artistic output, there are multiple literary, historical and mythical references that give the works and the exhibition a density that speaks the complexity and importance of Kiefer’s art. The piece that gives the exhibition its title — according to the catalogue — Die Ungeborenen (2011) is wonderful. The same piece is accompanied by writing on the wall Für Rabbi Löw, so I could be wrong about its title. On one tray of a scale is what we assume to be Sodium Chloride – due to the “NaCl” written on the underside of the tray – the salt of the earth, the abundance of nature — is the heavier substance. On the other, an “S” indicates that the yellow powder which is lighter, must be sulfur, the spiritual symbol for the human soul. Mercury is the balance itself – perhaps Kiefer’s favorite chemical element because it is fluid, unpredictable, deadly. The letters “Hg” are written on the bar that holds the scales: mercury is also the connection between the high and the low, responsible for the planet’s baleful influences. The title of the work would suggest it is, like the creatures waiting to be born, about the interstitial. The piece also makes reference to witches, their being weighed to determine their guilt. But if indeed the title is Für Rabbi Löw, then magic, science, alchemy, medicine, the horror movie (Rabbi Löw being the protagonist in Paul Wegener’s 1920 film, Der Golem), the Holocaust, and legend are all possible avenues of interpretation. The piece also makes reference to art history with the image of the Romantic stormy sea onto which this whole ambiguous and mercurial narrative is hung.
Anselm Kiefer, Die bösen Mütter, 2007

Everything in Kiefer’s world is grey, though the works in Die Ungeborenen introduce the copper green, the color of oxidization, of age, weathering, exposure to the elements, all of which intensify an agitated, tactile surface. In Die bösen Mütter, infinite lines of what appear to be graves, or a dead landscape of dense un-navigable mud and charcoaled wood gives substance to the doom of grey. And yet, there is always a horizon line, and even when it shows that land meets an apocalyptic grey sky, the line somehow holds the possibility of hope. On the horizon line of Die bösen Mütter is a trace, or perhaps a deliberate overpainting of red, a red that up close is like breath, fire and energy in a dead world. And the chairs, however long it is since they saw life, suspended in the grey sky, drift up to heaven.

When I asked the people at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac why the reproductions in the catalogue did not always correspond to the works on display, their answer was in keeping with the unpredictability of Kiefer’s otherwise Romantic worlds. Apparently, Kiefer kept changing the exhibition right up to the very last minute, changing his mind about what should be displayed. I wouldn’t be surprised if when I go again, I might actually be going to a different exhibition, retaining its perplexity and mercurial dimensions even in the context of display.

All Image courtesy Galerie Thaddeus Ropac and the Artist

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