Exhibition | Anselm Kiefer: Il Mistero delle Cattedrali (White Cube)

For over forty years, the internationally renowned German artist Anselm Kiefer’s works have consistently revisited his country’s relationship with its past. Ceasefire's Joe Lloyd reviews the White Cube's 'Il Mistero delle Cattedrali', the largest presentation of Kiefer's work ever made in London.

Arts & Culture, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, January 20, 2012 19:16 - 0 Comments

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(Photo: Ben Westoby)

Anselm Kiefer: Il Mistero delle Cattedrali
White Cube Bermondsey, 9 December 2011 – 26 February 2012

Anselm Kiefer’s canvases are mutilated by history. Perspectives drawn from classical landscape painting are smothered in congealed layers of paint and salt. Of the two works that share the exhibition’s name, the first dissolves the mountains of German romanticism into a mire of chemical green and dull gray. The second is scarred with gouge-marks, threatening an architectural prospect with some layer of truth that lies beneath.

For over forty years, Kiefer’s works have consistently revisited his country’s relationship with its past. In 1969’s Bezetzung, he photographed himself performing the Nazi salute around Europe, embodying what post-war Germany tried to forget. The four vast canvases at the heart of Il Mistero delle Cattedrali are a culmination of this engagement with Nazism to this point. Their subject – Berlin’s Tempelhof airport – was reshaped throughout the 1930s by the SA-member Ernst Sagebiel, transformed into a colonnaded arc that served as the gateway to Hitler’s world capital.

Since its closure a few years ago, the complex has become a conference centre and a public park, blaspheming a modern cattedrale consecrated by history itself. Alongside these familiar Kiefer paintings, the exhibition contains over a dozen of his less well-documented sculptures, displayed around the gallery like the relics and altars of the Nazi past.

Squint across the White Cube’s immense floor, and Dat rosa miel apibus – a staggering vast canvas, seventeen metres in length – could be an enlarged photograph of a Tempelhof corridor. Move closer, though, and it becomes a violent morass of protruding impasto and thickened paint, the grey transmuted into spongy blotches of ochre and green. Hitler’s airport collapses into something between sludgy nuclear waste and raw organic matter. From the centre, dried sunflowers dangle to the floor and ensnare miniature airplanes.

Although the canvas astounds, the sculpture’s obvious historical reference – the flowers in the airport as Nazism’s core, sowing its ideology through Luftwaffe air raids – is a little heavy-handed. As a commentary on Germany’s post-war amnesia, it also feels dated, as if it consigns itself to the same history it seeks to make present.

His best work here is more ambiguous in its engagement with the past. In the sculpture Opus Magnum, the name both an ironic play on the work’s slightness and a reference to alchemic striving, a terracotta serpent crawls towards a stony egg. In an exhibition where organic material is otherwise blackened and decayed, the red snake becomes an uneasy but vital artistic catalyst, akin to the vipers that play with the writer in Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’. Kiefer conflates the numerous layers of symbolism that historically surround the snake – the serpent of Eden, Jörmungandr, the Caduceus, the Ourobouros – to create a nexus of contradictory possibilities. The creative act, like the snake and the Nazi past, both ruins and sustains, devouring and originating itself.

Although Il Mistero takes in everything from Nazi architecture and Artaud’s Heliogabalus to Epicurus’ garden and the Prague golem, the thread that binds it together is alchemy. In the exhibition’s brochure, the artist claims that “the ideology of alchemy is the hastening of time”; in these works, Kiefer accelerates time by conflating the beginnings and end of human history.

Merkaba, named after God’s chariot in Ezekiel, is a rickety three-seated bike. Three scales containing the alchemic elements sodium, mercury and sulphur hang from its crossbar. Perhaps this vehicle can, in time, become the divine vehicle; simultaneously, it could be the rusting remains of what once was. Kiefer sees history through such an alchemical lens, constantly changing yet paradoxically continually present. Though Tempelhof is no longer the centre of Speer’s Berlin, its previous use and status should not be forgotten.

The exhibition’s title derives from a 1926 text by the enigmatic French occultist Fulcanelli, for whom Gothic cathedrals constitute a public expression of hermetic codes. They are a “vast concretion of ideas, of tendencies, of popular beliefs; a perfect whole, to which we can refer without fear, whenever we would penetrate the religious, secular, philosophic or social thoughts of our ancestors.”

History can inhabit a built space. The key to a ‘whole’ history, rather than a fragmented, subjective one, is inscribed in the walls of Tempelhof. Stone is the “everlasting history of the whole inner truth”, whether in Kiefer’s canvas of the German Alps or in the salt that he uses to thicken his paint.

Whilst Fulcanelli’s whole is a mystical sublime, Kiefer’s is a dense bricolage of chemical processes, a reminder that everything has been, and will become, something else. It is in this attention to the structures of history, rather than to the mid-century German past, that Kiefer’s work here gains its greatest potency.

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Joe Lloyd

Joe Lloyd is in his fourth year of studying English Literature at the University of Oxford. He tweets at @josephalloyd.

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