“You have to find a golden path between controlling and not controlling, between order and chaos.” This is the view of Anselm Kiefer, a German artist born in 1945. Kiefer is currently showing a large selection of his works at White Cube’s Bermondsey location. Its grand space allows Kiefer’s most monumental works to be presented and, walking through the exhibition, one is struck by the enormity of his pieces and the silence they demand from the viewer.
A recurring theme throughout Kiefer’s work is alchemy – the fabled process in which lower metals such as lead can be turned into silver or gold, and the search for the philosopher’s stone, which enables immortality. The idea of the philosopher’s stone also suggests the quest for perfect knowledge, a theme present in his central piece Sprache der Vögel. The work consists of a stack of manuscripts in delicate balance upon a tomb-like pedestal, with lead wings in full extension of flight. This piece stands solitary in its own room; it holds an oppressive grandeur creating a heavy atmospheric presence.
Symbols are integrated within Kiefer’s works and it is left to the viewer to decipher the meanings. Kiefer has stated that he aims to follow the path of alchemy; maintaining a relationship with magic, which emerges through the process of his art making. This is evident in the works that he leaves to the forces of nature to achieve the final result, in which oxidisation occurs, particularly his sculptures made from raw materials; ragged, weather-beaten and rough.
…creates an undeniable gravitas that holds viewers captive…
Kiefer’s works take on two trajectories: the mystical and the historical. His landscape canvases envelope the viewer with a heady, overpowering scent of oil paint, adding to the oppressive, all-encompassing atmosphere of his works. They incorporate architectural infrastructure of Berlin’s Tempelhof airport, a grand structural feat that was intended to become a symbol of Hitler’s utopian “world capital Germania”, pre-World War II. Intertwined within these landscapes are sculptural additions that hang in balance, creating a three-dimensional mixed media effect. The layering of materiality suggests an interweaving of processes, engaged within a complex recipe in which time and structure and balance become underlying motifs.
Kiefer’s work bears timelessness with grave undertones through its engagement purely with the past, from utopian failings of Hitler’s dictatorship to utopian beliefs surrounding the mysticism of magic. Kiefer, in his grand scale canvases and heavy bearing sculptures, creates an undeniable gravitas that holds viewers captive to the weight and severity of his artwork. The dichotomy and tension between spirituality and historical destruction paves forth an attempt for a solution to the precarious balance between order and chaos.
The exhibition continues until 26 February
Images courtesy of White Cube, Photos by Ben Westoby