Saturday, November 12, 2011

Anselm Kiefer: Outside In

The Wexner Center recently screened Sophie Fiennes' documentary "Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow". This film artfully documents La Ribaute, the studio compound created and maintained by the artist Anselm Kiefer from 1993 to 2008. Located in an abandoned silk factory near Barjac, France, La Ribaute is a surreal amalgam of industrial work spaces, sculptures, tunnels, and installations. Conceived by Kiefer as a kind of "total work of art" the space acts as both a work of environmental art in its own right as well as a place where art is created.

Now I'll admit up front that I'm not a huge Anselm Kiefer fan. I find his paintings to be more or less "OK" - and really, given the sturm und drang that Kiefer seems to be aiming for, "OK" suddenly sounds like a pretty insulting assessment. It's not meant to be. It's more an acknowledgement that I get it and I understand it, I'm just not moved by it.

Sure, Kiefer has cemented his place in art history. His use of material mediums (dirt, straw, steel, lead, fabric, and concrete) makes him a handy bridge between the conceptual artists of the 70s and the paintings of the neo-expressionists that followed. His connection with post-war Germany provides a link to the 20th century's pivotal conflict. I get the expressive qualities of Kiefer's work too. Burnt books, leaden books, empty dresses, broken glass, distressed materials, and other visual cues send all the right signals. There's clearly something important in all this, and maybe that's the problem. Ultimately I prefer art that sneaks up on me. I like art that asks questions much more than art that prescribes answers.

That said, the paintings play a mostly supporting role in Fiennes' film. La Ribaute is the real star and Fiennes treats it with almost religious reverence, favoring long pans and dollying shots that, depending on one's perspective, are either hypnotically meditative or hypnotically boring. Kubrick fans (guilty) should be forgiven for pointing out the similarities between "Over Your Cities..." and "2001: A Space Odyssey". That's because there are plenty of them.

Like "2001", "Over Your Cities..." opens with a long passage (17 minutes to be exact) in which no humans are seen and no human voices are heard. Both films employ an ethereal (and sometimes piercing soundtrack), and both films use the camera as a tool to quietly and neutrally explore space. Even Fienne's interview sequence seems to be a direct reference to Kubrick's famous HAL lip-reading scene. In short then, Fiennes borrows liberally from Kubrick and makes a beautiful film. There's certainly no shame in that. In fact, more filmmakers ought to try it.

Buried in the film is the question of how we might view La Ribaute in a larger context. Most people seem inclined to understand the compound as an extension of Kiefer's fine arts tradition, as one part of long and distinguished career. That makes sense considering his background, the problem is that in La Ribaute Kiefer has constructed what can arguably be called a visionary environment. Traditionally these types of spaces have fallen under the umbrella of outsider art, whether it's the Watts Tower, Paradise Garden, the Garden of Eden, or Salvation Mountain.

Visionary environments are often based on religious themes. Their creators, while not necessarily marginalized, are viewed as at least mildly eccentric. Their work is rarely considered in the fine arts tradition. Not so for Kiefer, and that's a shame. Here is an artist after all who's created one of the most ambitious visionary environments on earth, one that is based on his own particular view of mythology and religion, and yet we don't discuss it from that perspective. I think we should. It's not an either or proposition after all. By holding La Ribaute firmly in the fine arts tradition we lose things. We lose a new way of seeing Kiefer's work, and we lose the opportunity to bring visionary environments into the larger discussion of fine arts.

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