Anselm Keifer at the White Cube

So many themes and images dance in my head; I want to write about extraordinary work I saw yesterday, at the White Cube in Bermondsey. Anselm Keifer’s largest European collection. In the cool white spaces of this South London Gallery his vast sculptures and canvases resonated with power and mysticism. The writing, scrawled black on the walls behind each, told the titles.

Spracher der Vogel: (the Language of the Birds.) Two great bird wings attached to either side of a tall pile of lead books between whose open pages burrowed crushed aeroplanes… this piece, the glossary told us, encompassed the ideas of a secret Ur-language shared among the birds up in the heavens, representing a gateway to perfect knowledge.

Merkaba: a spindly, bicycle four wheels in series, with weighing scales balanced within the structure. Merkaba, God’s mysterious chariot; described in the Old Testament by Ezekiel as being pulled by four creatures with four heads, man ,lion, ox and eagle ,each with four wings and accompanied by four wheel shaped angels. This biblical description has been the focus for occult study among early Jewish mystics, seeking the hidden meaning in the text as a portal to heavenly knowledge.

Alkahest: this was the name of a sculpture that looked like a cement mixer coated in crystals spewing forth lead film (absurd, impossible) denoting a universal solvent that might dissolve anything. The name was concocted by a Swiss physician. Paracelsus (1493-15410 who wandered the universities of Europe, seeking hidden knowledge and stirring controversy; as part of his polemical teaching he burnt books in public.

There was also a fallen wing of a plane, lead… so could never have flown. Inserted into this a streaming flow of dead sunflowers, as lengthy as a garden path.

A canvas of a dark town, attached to which a pram; again full of dead sunflowers.

A foetus in a jar on a table, a golem, next to a rock .Lead letters from a printing press scattered around both. (Incidentally, Jewish legend has it the word emet Hebrew for truth, written on a golems forehead will bring it to life, rub out the e and you are left with the Hebrew word met meaning death.)

Then Keifer’s monumental canvas of the Templeh of Airport in Berlin. Built on land once belonging to the medieval Knights Templar, the airport was redesigned in the following decade as part of Albert Speers’ master plan for the Nazi reconstruction of Berlin. The vast complex was intended as Hitler’s gateway to Europe and as symbol of his “world capital” Germania. It was never finished, but was seen as a forerunner of the airports of the late twentieth century. On canvas it is transformed into a derelict cathedral, a mystical site of aspiration reduced to absurdity. Close up the rugged surface of this canvas shows its evolution, Keifer exposes his works to the elements for years, or dips them in solvents.

Anselm Keifer was born in 1945 in Southern Germany. His work is in now in international private and public collections .In 2007 he became the first artist to be given a permanent commission to install work at the Louvre. The substrate he used for many works here was the dark history of twentieth century Germany, while the overarching theme was alchemy, the transformation of substance over time; Keifer says he is merely part of that process; all he does is to accelerate the transformation already present in things. I thought of the parallel in the writing experience, transforming ideas or forms of story already present, by imagination into something else or perhaps just hastening their evolution.

Kiefer in the video interview was surprisingly playful, even mischievous. He wished he had a wife as faithful as Francoise Gilot had been to Picasso; she would faithfully copy his work at any given stage so he could imaginatively depart from that point and yet still return to it if he wished . He also talked about how important the observer is to the meaning of his pieces, the interpretation of his work being the observer’s responsibility. Again the parallel in writing fiction, a narrative exist s only if it is read, the interpretation of stories belongs to the readers.

He also says: You have to find a golden pathway 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 constantly negotiating a path between these two extremes.

That sounds like life to me. My life and maybe yours.

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