Striking exhibition at White Cube,144-152 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3TQ till 26 February 2012
You have to find a golden path between controlling and not controlling, between order and chaos. If there is too much order, it is dead; if there is too much chaos, it doesn't cohere. I'm continually negotiating a path between these two extremes.
White Cube is pleased to present Il Mistero delle Cattedrali, the largest presentation by the internationally renowned German artist Anselm Kiefer ever made in London. Staged across 11,000 sq ft of gallery space, just filled with 20 works - from sculptures of the late 1980s, through to a new series of paintings from 2010-11- the show gives us a sense of the epic scale of its content.
The title of the exhibition is taken from the esoteric publication by Fulcanelli (1926), which claimed that the Gothic cathedrals of Europe had openly displayed the hidden code of alchemy for over 700 years. Talking of his fascination with the transformative nature of alchemy, Kiefer declares: “The ideology of alchemy is the hastening of time, as in the lead-silver-gold cycle which needed only time in order to transform lead into gold. In the past the alchemist sped up this process with magical means. As an artist I don't do anything differently...I only accelerate the transformation that is already present in things.”
Kiefer studied with Joseph Beuys in the early 1970s, but soon began to develop his own, deliberately indigenous set of subjects and symbols that he used to explore the fraught territory of German history and identity. His subject-matter ranges over sources as diverse as Teutonic mythology and history, alchemy and the nature of belief, all depicted in a great variety of materials, including oil paint, dirt, lead, models, photographs, woodcuts, sand, straw and all manner of organic material. By adding these materials to the painted surface of his immense tableaux, he invents a compelling third space between painting and sculpture. Few contemporary artists match Kiefer's epic reach, and his work consistently balances powerful imagery with acute critical analysis.
Stand-alone sculptures -aeroplane wings, gigantic books, a rickety tandem with three weighing scales holding sulphur, mercury and sodium alluding to Merkaba (2011), the throne-chariot of God in Judaism particularly potent in Kiefer's beloved Kabbalah- are wrought in sheets of lead, wood and steel, finished with terracotta, salt and resin and placed on monolithic rock-like plinths.
Moreover, Kiefer includes in the exhibition large-scale works undergone an accelerated process of oxidisation. Consequently, images that may be seen to evoke the sublime are themselves subjected to the immense power of natural forces. Kiefer uses salt and lead, suggesting that art, like alchemy, alters base materials into valuable and enticing objects. However, as the artist shows with his vast canvases about Berlin’s Tempelhof airport, the weight of Nazi history did not resist to transformation. Dominating the cavernous central space of the gallery the artist presents four huge paintings depicting Albert Speer's Tempelhof airport, converted into for the occasion in a latter day cathedral, which would have been the gateway to Hitler's dreamed-of state of Germania. Now closed, the airport, transformed by Kiefer into a latter day cathedral, still stands a loaded symbol: built on a land once belonging to the Knights Templar, evocative of the Nazis' obsession with mysticism, is a lasting emblem of Hitler's dreadful vision. These prophetic paintings capture the airport's desolate interior space and the exterior theatrical arc and neo-classical columns in a darkened landscape, with the forms etched into cracking paint accompanied by symbolic sculptural elements - dried-up sunflowers, sulphur loaded into a pram and tiny Stuka bombers.
Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 in Donaueschingen in Southern Germany. He has lived and worked in France since 1991. Over the past four decades he has exhibited widely, including solo shows at MoMA, New York (1987), Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1991), The Metropolitan Museum, New York (1998), Royal Academy, London (2001), Fort Worth Museum of Art, Fort Worth (2005) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2006), Mass MoCA, Massachusetts, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2007), Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark (2010) and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (2011). In 2007 Kiefer became the first artist to be given a permanent commission to install work at the Louvre, Paris since Georges Braque some 50 years earlier.