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The way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 11 Sep 2018, 17:11

Labyrinth IV: The way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

This is a later addition to the labyrinth blogs (listed below) that comes from following up an interest (not yet matured into a driving and motivating surety with the work) in Anselm Kiefer. I first came across Kiefer in reading (Schama’s Landscape & Memory) for A844 preparation. I say that the motivation for studying Anselm Kiefer has not matured fully because I am still in some ways in a kind of puzzlement about him. I see this blog as a progress report on a journey into his work, so far added to by a reading (that was in parts less substantive than I like) of a good monograph and viewing Sophie Fiennes (2010) Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.[1] If you read this, it might be worth looking briefly at the film’s excellent ‘trailer’[2]

What struck me about both works, which I started after working on Labyrinths I-III was the importance of the labyrinth trope as a means of expurgating Kiefer’s approach to the production and reception of the meaning of art or even as a description of some of its sub-forms (such as the tunnel system at Barjac which opens Fiennes’ Film). However, as Fiennes makes clear there is no one way into or out of the problem of seeking meaning in Kiefer. Whilst invoking many systems of meaning (such as the Kabala, ‘correspondence’ theory in Robert Fludd or later, alchemy, Jung, Ovidian metamorphosis and Neo-Platonic readings thereof) he rejects all of them as having a monopoly on what the art either intends or what will be anyway received from it. These are his books of lead – which allow access to no living meaning whilst promising to be its repository.

I’ll concentrate on Fiennes great film which I saw both in its original shown form and in the version on DVD with commentary. The film was shot during the period in which Kiefer was moving his vast stock of art from the labyrinthine structures he created out of his studio and grounds at Barjac to Paris. This move was itself part of the unfinished work of art that was constructed / destroyed over the ruins of a silk factory site and buildings. Kiefer’s art cannot be described easily as ‘creation without invoking the ‘decreation’ that is simultaneously part of artistic process for Kiefer. In Kiefer to ‘make’ is also to destroy, to construct is also to excavate. Fiennes opens her film showing an underground lead-lined cell space, allowing her camera to go both down into underground excavations and up to the most collapsible constructions of towers or stairways that lead up or down and maybe to nowhere. Thus for the vertical plan. Horizontally the tunnel labyrinths fork but produce dead ends (as in all good mazes). Light to see art is present or absented, natural or synthetic. Keifer’s tunnel journeys in the film opening emphasise the appearance of the ocular of what as well as that by which we see – the scene often appearing like an open eye with a round pupil.

Underground spaces are created crypts but the method of ‘construction’ is as much excavation and destruction quite literally. Kiefer and his small team make well-like holes which are filled with concrete. This creates hard pillars within the earth. He then excavates the underground space around these pillars. These pillars create the only support for the roof of these underground spaces such as emptying out the spaces between them feels full of the danger of fall or collapse. This is true too of structures which rise vertically from the ground which are built only by being placed such that the forces which might make them either maintain their stance or fall are equal. For how long we cannot tell. Kiefer feels the collapse of his towers to be part of their career as a work oft and perhaps that is why, having built them, he abandons them to time to help finish the job of creation / destruction, which he interprets through the story of Lillith from the Kabala, who lived alone in abandoned cities, over which grass will grow’ (whether we, or any other Creator intended that or not).

Kiefer uses labyrinths as his model because he can forever extend their limits and boundaries as a space/time to be travelled that continually offers movement on but of which many of its pathways stop in a state of frustrated ending or incompletion without easing thee means of decryption (back to crypts) The labyrinth is also the search for meaning. Many tracks (and systems for interpretation) are offered. None are entirely satisfactory and we are instead, typically, lost in the processing of following meanings – getting nowhere but progressing nevertheless. His labyrinths move vertically, horizontally (and by staircases diagonally) in either direction. Destinations abound but most look unattainable. Objects and spaces do not look to us as either ancient or modern (or even of an imaginable or unimaginable future) but all of these. 

Thus, tunnel systems and crypts recall both forests, Nazi gas-chambers and ancient Eastern structures whose purpose may only be guessable. Sunflowers may derive from Robert Fludd or Van Gogh or explore the distance between these – being often rendered metallic. Fiennes believes that this is the darkest part of Kiefer’s thinking. A sculpture recalls Gaza, Abu Ghraib or the Holocaust, bombed London or Coventry (or even Dresden). The theme according to Fiennes is that ‘Nothing changes – whether we vary historical time, place or person'. After all there is a moral equivalence between the ‘sides’ of a war sometimes (think of ‘Dresden’ and the Atomic Bomb, all dropped when war was already won). Such pain is part of the creative process. Seeing Kiefer walk in open-toed sandals through glass he smashes in the processes of making a sculpture Fiennes says she tries to capture his ‘immediate pleasure in this destruction.’

I think this invocation of art in which one must travel distances of space/time (he insists the huge Barjac site is ‘a whole piece’ of art which may not yet be finished) only to find similar themes of making AND destroying emerging at every destination. Art like this offers no ‘safe place’, no ‘hortus conclusus’ – only a labyrinth that opens doors so it can cunningly reseal them or defer them. In his work, we will find icons like Daedalus – the master creator of puzzle and Icarus – the victim of belief in a transcendent way out. As both of these, Kiefer himself could have instanced his influence, Gordon Matta-Clark, who destroyed architecture to find no end of its meanings and died of the asbestos-poisoning his t involved.

But, as you can tell, I am not nearly there yet with this obviously great artist. But I will make progress – this dark tunnel I’m in with him currently can’t last forever. Can it?

All the best


Linked to this review are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others.

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings .

3.       An introduction through Charlotte Higgins’s new book.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out. (this one)

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey.

All the best


[1] - Arrasse, Daniel (2001) (trans. Whittal, M.) Anselm Kiefer London, Thames & Hudson

- Fiennes, Sophie (2010 – DVD 2011) Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow: A film of the Work of Anselm Kiefer Amoeba Film, Kasander, Sciapode Production, DVD London, Artificial Eye

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