Anselm Kiefer is placing the ending touches to his exhibition Finnegans Wake with the assistance of a forklift truck. The large gallery at White Dice Bermondsey has been all however stuffed with a mound of shattered concrete surrounded by barbed wire, like a bombed second world conflict bunker. I watch because the wiry, bespectacled 78-year-old lion of German artwork directs the drop of a remaining piece of rubble into place, sending a rusty chunk of metallic crashing on its facet. “Good,” he says.
Once we sit down to speak he tells me how he hacked out this damaged mass from his studio. “There was a ground and I minimize it from the perimeters and it fell down. And it was fantastic! Actually nice. And I had the concept, that is unbelievable along with Finnegans Wake, as a result of it’s the start of one thing, not the top. It’s the starting. So I introduced it right here.”
The shattered ground is one among a collection of installations and work that proliferate and interbreed within the addictive labyrinth that’s Kiefer’s new London present. You come throughout golden snakes, bronze books, toy troopers and a vitrine by which a coronary heart is weighed towards a feather (illustrating the traditional Egyptian perception in judgment after loss of life – “In case your coronary heart is heavier than a feather you go to hell!”). All are introduced collectively in celebration of James Joyce’s punning, mythic, dreamlike fashionable textual content Finnegans Wake. The title of the concrete mass is a quote from the e book, that he’s scribbled throughout the gallery wall: “Phall should you however will, rise you will need to.” For Finnegans Wake sees historical past as a cycle of rise and fall, fall and rise, and that imaginative and prescient infuses this present.
The concrete wreckage seems tragic to me as gray mud rises from the rubble beneath dim lights, however Kiefer explains that he sees ruins as a starting, not an finish. It comes from being born in 1945 within the final apocalyptic months of the conflict, in Donaueschingen, a fairly city within the Black Forest.
“After I was born I used to be within the hospital with my mom within the cellar. After which this night time our home was bombed. In the event that they hadn’t been within the hospital they might be useless, me included. It’s attention-grabbing, no? After which as a toddler I had no Spielzeuge – no toys. So I constructed all these homes with the bricks from the break. I had all that I wished. As a result of my household had moved into the home subsequent to this bombed home. I used to be subsequent to the ruins, it was unbelievable. As a toddler you don’t choose. You’re taking what it’s and hold it. For me it was not a disaster. It was my toys.”
Kiefer’s childhood in a ruined nation, subsequent to his household’s ruined home, made him the artist he’s: one who has excavated the bomb web site of contemporary historical past. His work and installations embody the nightmares of the previous with relish. They’re sublimely pungent, ripened monuments with a scope and seriousness that leaves most up to date artwork trying flat and simplistic.
But his daunting works have generally been accused of the sins they criticise. Although I’m aware of his oeuvre I’m startled when he performs a Nazi salute for me. It’s an impromptu restaging of the controversial “Motion”, as he phrases it, with which as a younger artist in 1969 he introduced his intention to look Germany’s historical past straight within the eye. Kiefer stood to consideration in romantic landscapes, by the ocean or in entrance of classical temples, to be photographed giving the identical straight-armed salute he does for me now. He doesn’t imply it now and didn’t then: his Fawltyesque efficiency was a mockery of the need to energy. The primary one who acquired it, he tells me, was the good efficiency artist and sculptor of felt and fats Joseph Beuys, who merely declared: “It’s an excellent motion.”
After I ask if it was enjoying in bombed rubble that made him an artist, he says it wasn’t fairly as uncooked as that. He grew up in a cultured, art-loving household. “I had an aunt who was a watercolourist and so the painters and artists had been at all times current, in books, in what they advised me: Klee, Kandinsky, Van Gogh. All these painters who weren’t appreciated within the Third Reich, however then after the conflict the Germans tried to make it higher.”
Van Gogh’s shadow looms in his new present on an extravagant, gorgeous scale. His gigantic portray known as – in one other Joyce quote – Meednight Sunflower is a mesmerising imaginative and prescient of tall sunflowers with black petals. To me they’re macabre, however Kiefer sees them as symbols of the cyclical nature of being: “First the sunflower is related with the celebrities, as a result of it strikes its head towards the solar. And within the night time it’s closed. The second they explode they’re yellow and unbelievable: that’s already the declining level. So sunflowers are a logo for our situation d’etre.”
One other towering canvas portrays a bunch of shattered-seeming folks beneath an exploding sky. Its matted layers of torn material saturated in thick paint have the coagulated coarseness of a dwelling world the place actual footwear grasp suspended within the stormy sky.
That is the sort of sublimity that Kiefer sceptics maintain towards him. Not everybody within the German or worldwide artwork world agreed together with his mission to make historical past pressing by recapturing an expressive Romantic grandeur worthy of Wagner. When he and his fellow “neo-expressionist” Georg Baselitz put their historic provocations within the German pavilion on the Venice Biennale in 1980, they had been accused of feasting on Nazi imagery and making a “Teutonic necropolis”, within the phrases of Artforum journal.
You solely need to take heed to Kiefer speak about literature to understand how absurd that’s and the way far he’s from being bombastic. He’s trustworthy, and humorous, about his lifelong efforts to grasp Finnegans Wake, a novel whose story, if it may be known as that, lies buried beneath layers of wordplay that make even the primary sentence a monolith of a problem: “riverrun, previous Eve and Adam’s, from a swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation again to Howth Citadel and Environs.”
Kiefer admits the e book has been virtually a life’s work to get by way of: “I began it way back and I gave up. After which I restarted with English on the left and German on the suitable facet, after which I believed that is fully loopy. After which I began time and again, and within the meantime I had discs, ? By an actor – and this was fantastic. I had it in my studio on a regular basis. It’s like music.”
He has come to like this e book and see it as a mirror of his personal life and artwork. Two areas of his present are full of objects that recreate only a small a part of what he calls his “arsenal”, an enormous retailer the place he retains works from a long time of obsessive gathering and making: “It’s a kilometre lengthy. All these things, it’s like my head, . Some was completed, some was not completed, and I believed: ‘It’s like going by way of the Finnegans Wake e book!’”The present is sort of a parallel textual content: Kiefer’s artwork and Joyce’s phrases facet by facet. A complete room is hung with attractive work of gold and matted inexperienced like psychedelic Monets. One is known as Liffey; others too are titled after watery pictures from Finnegans Wake.
The move of Kiefer’s artwork is sort of a river, however its darkness lies within the imaginative and prescient of time as cyclical that he shares with Joyce. Finnegans Wake’s “vicus of recirculation” in its first sentence refers back to the thinker Giambattista Vico’s perception that humanity ascends by way of levels however then falls again, recirculates. Does he suppose the conflict in Ukraine means we are able to fall again into the nightmares of Twentieth-century Europe?
Putin’s conflict, he says, is “towards all human legislation and worldwide legislation. However , I feel the west made a mistake in 1991. There was, I keep in mind, a sense of victory. The ambiance was ‘we’re the winner’ – and with atomic bombs, you might be by no means the winner.”
I say that Germany and Britain could have totally different views due to our totally different experiences within the second world conflict. He expands extra on the historical past of the Twentieth century: “On the finish of the second world conflict there was triumph and it was good, it was mandatory. And the sacrifice that English folks made for that conflict. However ’91 it was not the time for triumph; ’45 sure as a result of if Churchill wouldn’t have been there, maybe Hitler would have made one thing with England as a result of he favored the English folks. Churchill was an ideal thinker.”
Kiefer even finds the trendy historical past hidden in Joyce’s apparently apolitical textual content. One of many quotes he’s scribbled up exhibits the good author had an ear for what was taking place in Germany: it consists of the phrase “Gestapose”, a pun on Gestapo.
Joyce is just not Kiefer’s solely literary hero. This London exhibition follows on from a latest present in Paris that paid homage to a different of Kiefer’s affinities, Paul Celan. Born to a Jewish household in Czernowitz, then in Romania, now Ukraine, Celan survived the Holocaust by which his mother and father each died and have become one of many biggest postwar poets in German, till his suicide in Paris in 1970. His poem Demise Fugue has lengthy haunted Kiefer’s works. “Joyce wrote in his personal language however Celan wrote within the language of his murderers,” he says.
Books, because the picture of our fragile human collective conscience, are in all places in Kiefer’s artwork. There are burned books and books with wings to fly. On this newest exhibition, all the gallery turns into a manifestation of a single e book. I discover a heap of books, forged in bronze, crawling with snakes. A nightmare picture that evokes Celan in addition to Joyce. “Historical past is a nightmare from which I’m making an attempt to awake,” says Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus. I quote this to Anselm Kiefer.
“Positive. It’s filled with nightmares,” he says. “It’s nonetheless a nightmare.”