Anselm Kiefer

Supersize me

It is a tale of two giants in the art world, Thaddaeus Ropac and Larry Gagosian, squaring up to each other as only giants can, by each opening massive spaces on the outskirts of Paris at exactly the same time, and filling them both with the work of Anselm Kiefer, an artist whose epic themes and equally-epic works bust the conventional four white walls of lesser galleries.

Vici and I had wanted to visit both Ropac Pantin and Gagosian Le Bourget. Ironically, both new spaces are in the Northeast reaches of Paris, beyond the Périphérique. Although we know the centre of Paris well enough, this was certainly new territory for us. But after consulting the Gagosian website and google maps, we concluded that getting to Le Bourget, although not impossible on public transport, would be challenging. Once out of the RER station, there was a 3.5 kilometre walk up what looked on the map like a dual carriageway road – not very pedestrian-friendly. The fact that the gallery is actually a former airplane hangar in Le Bourget airport should have given us the clue – if you don’t have your own plane, too bad. And that’s because this new Gagosian enterprise isn’t for the likes of me and Vici, it’s for other giants who have giant wallets and giant walls vast enough to accommodate a Kiefer or two.

Ok, I’m exaggerating slightly. There are lots of places in London which are difficult to get to unless you have a car (London being vastly more spread out than Paris). But there is a difference of approach to the two galleries which is notable. While the Gagosian website had very little information about Le Bourget and the current show, Ropac’s website says this:

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is delighted to announce the opening of its new exhibition space in Pantin, located in the northeast of Paris, in October 2012. Formerly an early 20th century ironware factory, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Pantin will allow for the display of large-scale works alongside a programme of related events. “We created this new space which will give the artists the opportunity to realize their vision without the usual restrictions of space.” (Thaddaeus Ropac) The architects Buttazzoni & Associés who already redesigned the existing Parisian gallery in the Marais have worked on the redevelopment of the new space in Pantin, where they have preserved the historical character of the listed buildings. The site has eight separate buildings allocated for exhibitions, performances, private viewings, archives and offices … The project also includes a multimedia space for performance, dance, lectures, conferences, screenings and other activities that complement exhibitions and attract a wider audience.

And it’s not that difficult to reach. Pantin is on the Metro, and then it’s a 15-minute walk through rather characterless light industrial country. But Vici and I are always up for a journey through the more charmless bits of cities. And anyhow, the gallery was signposted, and once there, we felt the hike was worth it.

Kiefer’s work is always ambitious, reaching. Some find it bombastic (and perhaps the fact that he has become embroiled in the clash of the art titans will not help this perception). It is true that the work is very dense in its field of reference, taking on mysticism, alchemy, history. The Holocaust is ever-present in the work, a dark line that runs through all, and the poet Paul Celan sits on his shoulder, the imagery of the Todesfuge present in Kiefer’s motifs, the dug earth, the black milk. I don’t always understand his references, but I feel the same way when reading late Stevens – there is something so complicated being grasped at, an understanding of the world and its deeper workings, not just physical, but psychic, cosmic. That sounds a bit new age, but I feel I don’t have the vocabulary to describe how Kiefer works, without falling into the grandiose, the abstract. If I try and express it in imagery, it’s like there’s wide field before you, sometimes cluttered with the rust of our discarded machinery, sometimes flat and reaching into a distance you can’t see. The landscape is dead – it is winter here always. I think Kiefer is saying that’s where we are, as a people, standing in this barren field with our rubbish all around us. Nothing can grow here; it’s our winter.

The other great artist who is present in Kiefer’s work is his teacher, Joseph Beuys. In another building on the Ropac site, there is a display of Beuys’s work related to his 1969 performance piece, Iphigenie. Seeing the work of both artists together made me look again at the motifs and materials they share: ash, rust, stone. While Kiefer remains outside of his work, Beuys is always the subject, the conduit for change and protest.

It was disappointing not to get to Le Bourget, perhaps a journey for another time. Kiefer’s work is so important and vital that it’s a shame it won’t be easy for many people to make the journey. But I was glad to have made the effort. And I look forward to future trips to Pantin.

More ruins

Why is it that a pile of stones can make us so emotional? Think of the great abbeys toppled, mansions abandoned, the kind of ruin that represents the decline of the mighty and powerful. Then think of the modest shacks of Haiti razed to the ground, families picking through the pulverised remains of their homes. Or the Gaza Strip, or Basra, or Kabul, anyplace where war has created the kind of ruin which is instant and total and unsalvageable (not like the graceful ageing process of slow decline). Or the most cataclysmic, devastating and recognisable ruin of our age: the site of the former World Trade Centre in New York (I have never liked the phrase Ground Zero, which suggests that nothing was there to begin with). We encounter ruin everyday in our lives as city dwellers: empty office blocks like bulky ghosts, or crumbling houses, foreclosed or squatted. We become so accustomed to ruin as a normal state that we cease to notice it, so when a new building appears and alters the horizon, we can’t remember what was there before (although chances are we walked past it often enough). But there is still a sense of regret; these are the things we have built, and nothing is permanent, not even our efforts to make something of lasting value.

In perhaps the greatest ‘ruin’ poem of the last century, The Waste Land, Eliot gathers ‘fragments I have shored against my ruins’. The assembling of those fragments, those histories, myths, voices and places, is the poem itself, the monument he hopes will save him and his world from destruction. But in the ‘unreal city’ he portrays, destruction is present everywhere, and so what he seems to be saying is that we can gather our words around us, but nothing will stop the slow creep (sometimes immediate blow) of devastation.

The image is Athanor by Anselm Kiefer