Roving the labyrinthine world of artist Anselm Kiefer, there’s more to Sophie Fiennes’ documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow than just watching paint dry.
Death And The Maven by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Following German director Thomas Riedelheimer’s Rivers And Tides, a documentary on British artist Andy Goldsworthy, here Sophie Fiennes repays the compliment with her own cine-essay on German artist Anselm Kiefer. Gone are the genre’s familiar talking heads and informative voice-over. Instead Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow pares down its subject to the bare bones of creation and creator. Her camera glides through Kiefer’s supersized installations at La Ribaute in the south of France, where he has lived and worked for 18 years, creating a maze of artworks in glass, paint and lead.
With a dissonantly haunting score by Hungarian Holocaust survivor and Space Odyssey: 2001 music man György Ligeti, Fiennes highlights Kiefer’s creative concerns right from the get-go: disaster and the cosmos. And as her camera caresses the tunnels littered with shards of glass and fallen metorites made of lead, the fragments slowly cluster into an obstructed view of Kiefer’s art. The opening is austere and pleasantly confusing, a head-on confrontation with his multi-layered Gesamtkunstwerk, his artwork labyrinthine and out of context. A kind of collision between Richard Long and Daniel Libeskind, Kiefer’s is a very architectural topography.
The next movement is creation, as we watch the maestro stipple and daub in his white linens, heckling his overalled minions to work. Pouring molten lead into cracks on canvas, smashing vast panes of glass or throwing handfuls of ground concrete over a supersized canvas of The Ardèche before uprighting it, the process of creation is as beautiful as the piece is brutal. And Fiennes foregrounds both the creator’s controlling desires and arbitrary whims; the lengthy processes of pressing and repressing a book’s leaden pages or the eye-pleasing vagaries of making a concrete tower look right. Kiefer’s approach seems to pendulate between master of ceremonies to kid in a sweetshop, eager to finesse all his pieces at once.
Only a fixed-camera interview conducted by a German journalist provides intellectual context; the ideas and thoughts behind titles inspired by post-holocaust poetry like Ingeborg Bachmann’s Nur mit Wind mit Zeit und mit Klang or a Chairman Mao quotation, Lasst tausend Blumen blühen. Details slowly emerge, which allow us to retrofit ideas onto the textured mass which formed the opening movement. The long lines of numbers turn out to be stellar coordinates, the pocket-lit tunnels a subconscious cesspool for the meisterwerke above. The space at La Ribaute becomes clearer, with each piece, according to the artist, requiring its own space to be properly effective. Slowly we are treated to the unrestricted vista; an angelic meteorite in the room above, a JCB creating underground columns, or an amphitheatre like the seven squares of hell.
As Kiefer’s Weltanschauung emerges (sea water has the same chemical composition as blood, lead is a living metal) his concerns too become more apparent. His supersized artworks in earthy greys and dank blacks may not appear mythological, but they are drenched in themes of resurrection and survival. His work highly symbolic, like the dragon’s teeth he dips in whitewash, which when buried allow warriors to be born from the earth. Or Kiefer’s momentously precarious towers, a wasteland home for Hebrew legend Lilith living in the ruins of Edom. Whether biblical, classical or modern, Kiefer’s fascination with man’s relationship to catastrophe provides a satisfying gravitas to his impermanent, impenetrable works.
With burning books and devastated cities, the spectre of Germany’s past looms large. But other aspects of Kiefer’s work remain illusive, Fiennes happy enough to explore rather than explain. Her sweeping, at times grandiose cinemascopic style brings an epic quality to Kiefer’s work, but doesn’t always fit his sparse, monochrome brutalism. But Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is documentary in its purest form, crystalising a creative evanescence; a moment and a place lost in time, as Kiefer’s artworks are shipped off for exhibition at Le Grand Palais. But immortalised on celluloid, La Ribaute remains a hallowed ground of inspiration, a desolate place where this lonely Lilith can happily create among the ruins.
Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is released in the UK on 15th October.