White Cube Bermondsey stages UK’s largest ever Anselm Kiefer exhibition to great effect
Almost three years after his last show at White Cube, and the legendary sculpture/painter Anselm Kiefer is back – and back with a vengeance. Sprawling across 11,000 sq ft of crisp white gallery space, ‘Il Mistero delle Cattedrali’ is the largest ever exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s work to take place in London. With 20 works by the German artist on display, 14 of which date from the last five years – and including examples of his imposing sculptural work alongside those monolithic, heavy canvases – this is a treat indeed.
Drawing its title from a 1920s esoteric publication arguing that a hidden alchemical code could be found in Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, the structuring concept for this show is that of alchemy – or, of ‘the hastening of time … with magical means’, as Kiefer understands it. For him, the artist of today and the alchemist of old perform identikit functions, with both parties working to ‘accelerate the transformation that is already present in things’. And, walking through this exhibition, this seems an apt comparison, the spanking new White Cube having been transformed into a laboratory, with each piece an experiment – mid-process, mid-transformation, midway between material and mystical states. But then, perhaps Kiefer might better be characterised as a blacksmith, the exhibition spilling over with oxidising leaden wings, colossal compasses, and wrought flora, that occupy the gallery space heavily like monuments or tombstones.
Revisited again are those ever-enduring themes of his career, History and Reconciliation – or, more specifically, the process of coming to terms with the hard truths of Germany’s recent past. Repeated throughout, for example, is the motif of aviation, in the form of aircraft, satellite dish, and leaden wings, that allude loosely to the 1927 Tempelhof Airport – the keystone of the Nazi reconstruction of Berlin – and to the militarisation of Germany, and imperial eagle. Present also is the recurring conceit of the unbalanced scales, with Kiefer’s ancestors weighed in the balance, and found wanting.
This is sombre stuff, and it’s also how Kiefer made his name, applauded by critics for facing the facts head on, and thereby ‘laying to rest the ghosts of German style, culture, and history’. But Kiefer’s genius (and yes, I did say ‘genius’) lies in his ability not to get bogged down in this detail, relating specific historical reference points to the grand scope of human experience. It is this continuous movement from the temporal to the mythological – from the local to the archetypical – that makes ‘Il Mistero delle Cattedrali’ a #mustsee. Words/ Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst