Anselm Kiefer’s large exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey – Il Mistero delle Cattedrali – is something of a re-engagement for me with this most hermetic of artists. Kiefer’s always worked through allusion and suggestion and much of his work depends on readings of other artists and writers re-contextualised and re-written in his monumental paintings and sculptures.
I use the word ‘monumental’ advisedly – he’s not creator of intimacy by any means. Like Rothko, there’s a dialog with the sublime going on. Unlike Rothko, the sublime is continually open to question at best and in a constant state of entropy and unstable decay at best. Another layer of irony and one I’m sure the artist appreciates is the equally monumental subject of the largest set of works – massive, uncanny representations of the enormous Templehof Airport, Albert Speer’s intended gateway to Germania, Hitler’s envisaged European super-capital, and scene of the Berlin Airlift.
Anyway, long terms fans will recognise a lot of familiar tropes – lead books, lead aeroplanes, objects embedded in thick layers of weathered paint and so on. Some of it brings fresh associations, some of it doesn’t. What follows are unedited lists of images and references taken from the notes I was making as I slowly made my way around the airport terminal-like space of White Cube.
Fulcinelli: Finis Gloria Mundi
A long, squashed cone of oxidised lead, like the envelope of a squid. Huge sunflowers, transmuted or coated in lead cascade from one end.They could be giant, spindly psilocibin mushrooms. A kraken? Or the body and folded tail of a peacock? All the eyes are blind and turned to lead.
(Fulcanelli’s alchemical texts are a key referent throughout).
Dat Rosa Miel Apibus
More lead books, a model ME262 (but no Blue Öyster Cult soundtrack) in the signature lead. Roofing thieves could make a fortune in here. Not rotting but decaying, achieving a unity in decay over Lovecraftian lengths of time. Is Kiefer a Lovecraft fan? Probably not. Though his work is suffused with the aura of At The Mountains Of Madness et al. “That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.” (Lovecraft)
Each piece here is a clock ticking in aeons.
The salvaged, decaying bicycle made for three turns out to be a thin facsimile. Hung with scale-pans of salt, sulphur, still mercury, each labelled with the appropriate symbol. Going nowhere.
Notoriously within my family, I can’t ride a bike.
Sprache Der Vogel: Fulcanelli
The mysterious Fulcaneli’s assertion that the language of the Freemason’s was derived from the speech of birds. The wings seem to rise imperceptibly on unseen currents of air. One turned down corner of a massive book forms a beak. A squat golden eagle of lead books, collapsed folder chairs and a massive block of stone. Red ochre. Alchemy in progress. Time speeded up and slowed down by intense scrutiny.
The wings continue to rise.
A serial number and an unknown rune-like formula adorn the cover of one book.
(The curtains are drawn. It is night at the airport in here.)
An immensity overlaid by memory and history. Shut finally in 2008. Attritioning greys and muddy greens. Weather.
Alchemical scales suspended and unbalanced in front of primordial chaos. Thor’s hammer lurks nearby on a stone anvil. Ginnunginap?
Come closer. The paintings are a mosaic of cracks. They have been dug up and preserved. Preservation itself is a form of alchemy – look at any book binder at work in Trinity College with their little tray of unguents and chemicals.
The masonic compasses have marked out, drawn and engraved the relentless geometry of the airport.
(Does the Templehof only exist because of this painting?)
A satellite dish receiving unheard, unseen, unread signals for thousands of years as the city accretes at the feet of its shambolic brick tower.
There is a world in monochrome where Germania is the whole of the continent of what once was Europe.
The satellite dish awaits signals from this hypothetical Germania. The city below has stopped listening.
This is the Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Thin, giant sunflowers/psilocybin swarm from the ceilings of the abandoned departure halls and hangers. Swimmers drown in the oceanic cement runways.
Mjönar left to rust, long after Ragnarok. Somehow, the rebirth of Líf and Lífþrasir never happened.
Wrong. Everywhere in the room, the mushrooming fleurs du mal of the lead sunflowers. Roots and hidden eggs are everywhere
The rue morgue. An impossible machine frozen in mid-stitch. The child’s coat abandoned on the anvil. A doll wrapped in lead.
(Books read by the gallery attendants. Dressed in black, tight. Young, under-nourished looking.
– 1Q84, Haru Murakami
– Something by Gide
– Music For Chameleons, Truman Capote)