There could scarcely be a more ideal venue for an Anselm Kiefer exhibition than the White Cube Gallery. With expansive spaces and neutral walls, it provides a complimentary, minimalist backdrop to the work of an artist famed for an elaborate, loaded aesthetic. Such is the power of Kiefer’s latest exhibition, one of typical conceptual daring: his explosive canvases strike a starker note; their density resonates even more deeply.
On entering the main central corridor, however, the gallery’s whiteness is now consumed with a sepulchral darkness, setting the tone for Kiefer’s latest collection. We’ve entered Walhalla, the legendary afterlife in Norse mythology on which the exhibition is named and based. In this paradise for those heroes slain in battle, Kiefer’s vision is deathly: lining the corridor are hospital beds with lead blankets and pillows, bearing the names of mythical figures Siegfried and Brünhilde. It’s claustrophobic, unpleasant; one is inevitably reminded of the Holocaust.
These kinds of allusions are no coincidence, and pop up everywhere in Kiefer’s work. Born in 1945, his art, like many German artists of his generation, illustrates the challenge of both confronting and moving on from the atrocities of Nazism. What stimulates Kiefer in this particular exhibition is how ancient history and mythology were misappropriated by the Nazis in their rise to power, and how this has haunted the German psyche. ‘You cannot kill mythology. It goes on, sometimes in a very bad way,’ he says.
And against the fractured political landscape of today, alongside the rise of fascism, Kiefer’s works have taken on an even more foreboding quality. To wander around the rooms of the exhibition almost feels like perusing a ruin. Giant paintings of bombed out landscapes sit on blank walls, harbingers of an apolocalyptic destruction; small, uprooted trees hang suspended in glass cases. It is typical Kieferian art, but the context of our times suddenly fits the scale of it.
In the 9 x 9 x 9 gallery, a rusty staircase spirals up towards the ceiling, off which hang muddy, discarded clothes. Entitled Stairway to Heaven (2016), it is a depiction of the flight of the Valkyries, the women who decided who would live and die in battle, and accompany their dead to the afterlife. Their robes hang empty, a suggestion of loss and, like the hospital beds, the absent traces of bodies. It’s a dramatic, mournful sculpture.
With his familiar use of materials such as acrylic, emulsion and clay, Kiefer’s transforms his landscapes into three-dimensional, melodramatic realms. It is as though the paintings themselves are damaged, sullied artefacts, as much products of creation and destruction. You sense that there is relish behind these scenes of ruin, for indeed, Kiefer’s work is as much infused with hope as with doom. The idea of history as one continuous cycle is a recurring motif: those tiny red splatters of paint on some of his large canvases are as likely the hopeful spring of new flowers as they might be specks of blood.
The merit of this exhibition lies in how Kiefer’s utterly transforms the space of the White Cube to create an immersive experience. One room features stacks of charred documents and objects apparently decimated by the effects of war. Unsown seeds spill out of a safe and shelves crush under the pressure of boxes. It’s almost a ‘non-exhibit’, with ideas abounding everywhere, abandoned and unrealised. But it’s also an intriguing illustration of some of the powerful qualities of Kiefer’s work: sprawling an chaotic, unsightly and intriguing, expansive and compressive.
Matthew Biro writes that Kiefer’s work serves as ‘an examination of how we construct ourselves as individuals in the context of our culture.’ Walhalla is a demonstration of this very aesthetic in practice. And in light of the startling direction of global events, it does leave one with a reluctant curiosity to see just how Kiefer’s art will continue to add to the dialogue.