Issue Number: 94
Tour de force
Anselm Kiefer’s towers at the RA may look like ruins, but Rod Mengham sees them as symbols of revival.
Anselm Kiefer pictured installing Jericho, 2007, in the Royal Academy’s Annenberg Courtyard. Photo © Anna Schori The battered, precarious towers that artist and Honorary Academician Anselm Kiefer has constructed in the courtyard of the Royal Academy look as though they have been torn out of one of his colossal canvases. This is true in more than one sense: Kiefer has said that none of his works stand alone, that each one needs to be seen in the context of others. And, while the grey, ridged towers might look like a kind of apocalyptic alter-ego for the Palladian classicism of Burlington House, they are also meant to be viewed in connection with Kiefer’s show at the nearby White Cube gallery.
Many of Kiefer’s works feature monumental architecture, whose embodiment of imperial power has been slighted, dishonoured and rendered futile; abandoned halls and wrecked ziggurats preside over barren landscapes. On the surface, his vast paintings look like portrayals of an exhausted, dying world, but Kiefer’s imagination is concerned not with the end of history, but with its cyclical nature. Out of the mud-cracked battlefield in his paintings spring pink poppies. Evocations of the aftermath of the Second World War change places with the devastation of Bronze Age cultures. Kiefer’s attraction to mythological interpretations of the meaning of time involves circling around certain narratives and systems of imagery, whose characteristics are reflected in the traditions of thought of several different cultures – chiefly, German, classical and Jewish.
Born in Germany in 1945, the artist grew up among the ruins of a vanquished regime and allusions to the war are found throughout his work. Yet he was not taught about the Third Reich until he was a law student – a shock that gave him an obsessive need to confront history, albeit obliquely, in his work. His historical references are never exclusive: the towers are not meant to be identified with specific buildings, but the mythology of towers and meanings that have accrued to them.
For Kiefer such ruined structures do not imply the onset of decline and fall, but rather the possibility of revival and renewal; they announce a turning-point when history shifts to a different phase. To his eyes, they find kindred spirits in the imagery of literary modernism – in particular, the collapsing buildings of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its lines: ‘Falling towers/Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London’. Kiefer has spoken of his towers with reference to the dynamic interrelation of ‘time past, time present, time future’ at the heart of Eliot’s work – words the painter has often echoed.
Besides Eliot, Kiefer has referenced the work of other key modernist poets, such as Paul Celan and Velimir Khlebnikov, in his work. Literature’s importance to him is reflected in the frequent appearance of textual fragments in his paintings and in the fact that more than half of his output consists of book-like objects. At home in Barjac, in the south of France, the painter alternates between painting and studying in his impressively stocked library. What Kiefer has in common with Eliot, in particular, is that both link the moments of convulsive violence in twentieth-century history to equivalent turning-points in earlier epochs of European culture.
Among the paintings in the White Cube exhibition, News of the Fall of Troy illustrates Kiefer’s focus on pivotal acts of destruction that mythology converts into pretexts for renewal. In the hands of Virgil, one of Kiefer’s cultural heroes, the fall of Troy becomes the necessary prerequisite for the founding of Rome, which in turn becomes the template for subsequent dreams of empire. As their name suggests, the ’Jericho’ towers at the Royal Academy appear to be on the verge of falling down, the victims of some unheard trumpet that is heralding their collapse. Structural engineers, however, have pronounced them safe. Erected by a team of specialist engineers, the towers are a balancing act: the concrete blocks and lead plates are stacked like a house of cards, one on top of the other to form a tower; there is no hidden, internal structure holding it up.
The way the towers are constructed also relates to their artistic meaning. Kiefer has constructed the ‘Jericho’ towers as a series of cellular forms, with successive layers of the same basic unit suggesting what he sees as the stratified nature of history. His imagination works archaeologically, cutting down through the accumulated deposits that both cover and preserve earlier structures. At the same time, the ambition of his towers, echoed in so many of his architectural designs, reflects the desire for transcendence at the heart of those belief systems he admires. He is particularly drawn to myths about a spiritual yearning that springs from entrapment in the material world. One of his most abiding interests is in the history of alchemy, with its aim of turning lead into gold: the transformation and refinement of base materials that epitomises the artistic process itself.
The tension between aspiration and degradation, between the heavenly and the terrestrial, is nowhere more apparent than in Kiefer’s living and working space at Barjac, where the ‘Jericho’ towers normally reside. He has redesigned the hilltop landscape to conform to the principles of his artistic vision. Above ground, he has constructed around 40 concrete pavilions to house small groups of paintings and sculptural objects; these resemble shrines or small temples and often have tower-like forms. Below ground, he has dug networks of tunnels, connecting the pavilions to each other and to subterranean recesses.
At the bottom of this system is a great, barely-lit, lead cistern, half-filled with water. The sense of claustrophobia and of weight pressing down from above is in sharp contrast with the airy pavilions, many of which contain star charts and collections of astronomical numbers suggesting the infinity of space. The concrete towers, meanwhile, stand at the base of the hill, like the forlorn remnants of the biblical ‘Cities of the Plain’.
The experience of visiting Barjac is like that of a processional entry into a citadel. In this, it has obvious resonance for the visitor to his Palm Sunday installation at the White Cube show, which is conceptually linked to the ‘Jericho’ towers at the Royal Academy. Palm Sunday – the moment of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem prior to his arrest, Passion and death – was a single historical event converted into mythic significance through the institution of a ritual and annual commemorations. Kiefer has said that he chose the theme of Palm Sunday because it is ‘the beginning of the story,’ the moment when new meaning is formed out of old. The use of palm leaves had previously been connected with the iconography of Roman triumphal processions, but in a Christian context they launched a religious campaign, whose purpose was not military but ideological triumph. The symbolism that had been associated with the conquest of territory became the symbolism thereafter associated with the conversion of hearts and minds.
Like all Kiefer’s work, his towers are influenced by history, but history understood as a series of re-enactments. They are not just buildings, but memories in solid form and what they remember – the paradoxical relationship between destruction and renewal – has happened many times before.
‘Aperiatur Terra’, White Cube Mason’s Yard, London (020 7930 5373), until 17 March; Jericho by Anselm Kiefer Hon RA
, Annenberg Courtyard, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), until 27 April
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