Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Anselm Kiefer's Tottering Towers

German artist Anselm Kiefer long maintained a studio at Barjac in southern France, where he assembled his large sculptures and painted some of his dark, disturbing canvases. Now he has abandoned the site, with the wish that it be allowed to "revert to nature." People exploring the site have been struck by these towers, made of concrete slabs held rather tenuously together with steel cable and iron bars.

Kiefer seems fascinated by this basic design. He has exhibited photographs of the towers, like this one.

And a few years ago he installed two at the Royal Academy in London, under the title "Jericho."

And when he, in collaboration with musician and composer Jörg Widmann, staged a sort of opera based on Biblical themes for the 20th anniversary of the Bastille Opera in Paris, the set consisted of more of these towers.

Like many others, I found all of these images immediately appealing. I think the operatic set is the most powerful I have ever seen, and the towers at Barjac are works of great wonder. As soon as I saw them I had to find out more about them.

Why? What do they mean? Critic Morgan Meis connects them to our fascination with "ruin porn," the images of decaying rust belt cities that have become so popular in America, Europe, and Japan. The constructions of the industrial age are decaying all around us, and whole cities like Detroit and Buffalo are emptying out, leaving vast arrays of ruins for us to explore. Those ruins have the melancholy beauty of ancient temples, and what they lack in age they make up for in their close connection to us, our dreams, our history, and our sometimes painful adjustment to technological and economic change.

Kiefer himself connects the towers to Biblical themes. A recent documentary film about his work was titled, "Over your cities grass will grow," which Kiefer says in the film is a line from the Bible spoken by Lilith. Actually Lilith does not appear in the Bible, but the point stands: from the prophetic point of view our cities are constructions of pride, and one day they will fall and disappear. People writing about Kiefer almost always mention that he was born in 1945 amidst the ruins of Germany. Since his memories cannot extend back that far, I am not sure of the relevance, but certainly he is obsessed with decline and decay. One of the themes of his opera is dust, both the metaphorical dust that the Hebrew poets used to mean death, and the physical dust that covered the stage and was sometimes swept into clouds by the actors. Like the stone feet of Ozymandias, Kiefer's towers are comments on the vanity of earthly ambition and the uncertain foundations of our prosperity. And they just look really cool.

1 comment:

leif said...

the opera set would have to be magnificent as a backdrop. the towers and the descending gloom behind. no mere muslin paintings those... they have real depth and volume. it's a wonder that the singers can fill such a large space.