Strange vibes in Anselm Kiefer’s Walhalla paintings, White Cube, London, 2016-2017.

Rev., November 26, 2016.

(Note: again, this is a musing, not a review, based on virtual consideration of installations shots; however, in my day, I saw in person many Kiefer exhibitions, therefore retain some bearing with regard to his installation gambits).

Anselm Kiefer’s latest exhibition, Walhalla, at White Cube in London, raises a few question about the artist’s ability to sustain the vibe of agency, and make the art authentic, or whether or not he is lapsing back into rationalization and repeating himself. According to my model, all art must be about either cult, intercessional, votive or apotropaic matters (as well as compound agencies, agency arrays and dynamic countering, reagencying, or reverse agencying actions thereof), and only comes to life when the art touches on the live wire of one or any of these human impulses, and fails if it retreats into the shelves of rationalization by which modern mankind pretends that the fishbowl is safe and all is ok. In fact, reviews of the show were split along these lines, some, woken up to the dangers of the world after Brexit, thought that Kiefer had touched on a theme that requires some better treatment, while others felt that he had in fact begun to flounder in his freedom and was just repeating himself.

The main point of contention in this issue is the paintings, Walhalla. They picture some towering structures, tilted at various angles, like the ruin of an ancient city, on fire. To an eye accustomed to blur out detail until the image clicks as some sort of iconic trope, this would make the paintings apocalyptic paintings. By that reckoning the paintings represent the city, or modern life, or our world, or global civilization in the 21st century, and it is on fire. By this reading, Kiefer falls in line behind any number of precedent examples of apocalyptic painting, and, indeed, I have addressed this theme by way of Lawrence Gipe’s treatment of apocalyptic themes in his recent series, a part of which was shown in Lincoln in April, 2015 (unposted piece, August, 2015). His series was in fact based on a European apocalyptic series, in northern France

kief-1And it should be noted that in the singular or comic-book nature of the figuration and drawing of such things, the cities are reduced to emblematic buildings, and do topple in an ersatz way, both of which reflect on Kiefer’s tower, the 14th century

kief-2And Kiefer’s towers

kief-3But there is also another tradition of apocalyptic imagery, in the culture and that is translated through by way of media. Actually, the images that these paintings most directly echo, on strictly formal terms, are recent pictures of the environmental depredations wreaked by ISIS upon its retreat from lands taken in Iraq

kief-4And then, since there is no chance that these so recent images inspired Kiefer, the precedents of those images, in so far as ISIS borrowed from Saddam Hussein’s playbook, the burning of the oil fields at the close of the Gulf War of 1991


And of course, then, any number of apocalyptic images, going back through Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and on and on, could be added in into the apocalyptic tradition. In painting, however, the tradition is bit less certain, and I would say at present that it winds its way back by way of Picasso’s Guernica to the tradition of large scale apocalyptic paintings made into a genre by Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath

kief-6And practiced as well by Turner, his fifth plague of Egypt

kief-7and his Houses of Parliament on fire would be a modern example.


This also touches on a counter tradition in another field, movies, whereby there is also a more limited tradition of warning pictures, the primary one in my library of references being the picture of the Burning Church in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

kief-9These paintings, then, could be filed in in any of the above treatments, and in all cases the paintings read as a warning of future troubles. They speak to the fact that human beings living in the present, not knowing how the present is going to turn out, always overreact to any turn of events that seem to negate any sense of progress having been made (as, for example, in the liberal’s current nervous breakdown following the election of Trump), and so when fear is activated and made salient TMT (terror management theory) says that immediately fear of death clicks in, and that is then responded to by attempts by art to either express that fear, or tamp it down. However, in modern formalist criticism, the artist is only granted the right to absorb the vibe of the moment then give voice to it in a material or conceptual form to speak to critique an aspect of culture as is. That is, a work can be about fear, or a critique of fear, or even an expression of fear, but it is almost never read as an actual magic apotropaic object that has the power to ward off evil, and, like a horror movie, reduce fear by way of the expressive catharsis of simulations of it, or to actually act against the fear. Another aspect of apotropaic art is when it is compoundedly joined to a border herm and therefore serves as a border scarecrow to tell the person who sees it, do not enter. My argument is that, while modern culture continues to belabor the point of an artist “expressing himself” or “expressing herself,” in fact art does serve its traditional, even primitive functions today, every bit as much as it did 20,000 years ago. It may not be that the makers or recipients of the art believe in the powers of the art in a magic way as formerly, but it is, I think, true, that the performance of these acts of agency provide some sort of placebo effect relief that ends up by way of reagency serving the same purpose, in reducing the lability and the frantic insecurity of the modern mind built mostly on rational thought. Therefore, it has to be asked, does Kiefer’s Walhalla paintings serve any other function, is do they have agency, apart from the general rationalized notion that they express his concerns about the state of the world.

The answer is, tentatively, yes. This is not to say that I am claiming that Kiefer is a new magic artist, who has distilled to intuition pure examples of ancient cult, intercessional, votive or apotropaic devices, manifest in contemporary art, he was an artist of the postmodern age working with the notion of representation as it engaged the issue of the icon and the inheritance of Nazi Germany in German culture after the war, and his goal was only an iconoclastic one, to negate the meaning of the symbolism of the past, which had done so much evil, and then to deconstruct the whole apparatus of Germanic heroic romantic culture going back two centuries (but he did this in a direct negating way that nonetheless had to make use of the contested imagery in the first place, and this was often misread by absolute iconoclasts as nonetheless a tacit continued support and enabling of the power of this imagery—Joseph Beuys has felt the same charge). How, then, could we get to the point where it might be said Kiefer’s latest work represents a specific agency, divested of its postmodern representational devices?

One way is to pick up where we left off, with the picture of the burning city compared to the picture of the burning church in Rosemary’s Baby, as the exemplum of a type of popular art in print and painting that one sees in genre situations. The painting is not just in RB as scenery, it, as I have worked out before (see), plays a part. It is the first painting inside door of the Castevette’s apartment, after Rosemary has broken through the closet to come looking for her baby, knife in hand. She stares at it with a sense of déjà vu, as shown previously. What this means, situationally, is that for the Castavettes it is at the far end of the range of their influence, and if they feared someone coming through the closet, then they put it there to announce, like a scarecrow, one is entering into a godless realm, where dependence on churches is gone, emblematized by the burning church. It is also true that supporting this apotropaion herm painting at the border of an evil sacred place, it is supported by a host of Goya’s witch paintings, all of which are the routine genre paintings of a zone of culture entirely bereft of standard genre values.

But Rosemary stares at the painting because she has seen it before, in the dream of the rape by Satan. It was on the wall in the back in the strange French chateau room below the decks of the Kennedy yacht, and as such as a cult painting hung up in the cult space of the coven (faintly above third person from the left). Since it was hung there to profile the rite to be undertaken, it is a legend picture bespeaking the emblematic nature of anything to occur in that space, that is, desecration, destruction of the holy, burning down the culture of good, for one of evil, and the rape is one (making the church also a type of Rosemary’s marked, painted body).

kief-10But then, even more amazing, as she is walking into that dream space, it is inferred that she is entering, in fact, a bedroom in a mansion in hell itself, because she passes exactly that painting, but in her bypass it is no longer a painting but a furnace, actually burning, that is, the church in the picture is actually on fire. This animation makes of it an acheirodiptheria (sic), that is, a painting that kills, a painting that comes alive, for it to then punch out into the reality of the room, and make everything come alive. It becomes assaultive, breaking out of itself into actual space (all this covered in an unposted entry, 2014).

kief-11Without going through the whole installation of the setup of Kiefer’s show, it is hard to work out how it all works. But what if reference to the tradition of the burning painting allows one to consider that, one, a generic picture of an apocalypse is, in fact, intended to serve as a border warning, do not enter here, unless you can handle it; and then, as you view them, it grooms and seduces you, to begin to see them as real, and when animated, it drops you down into the literal space of the gallery, for one to then experience the drama of an encounter with Kiefer’s haunted voodoo objects. Thus, they warn, then they induct, and then they lead you in. More precisely, the paintings next to the installational objects, let you establish an image in the mind, and then they, physically, actually, become real, in the sense that they let you down into the literal world of what might be in the towers


By contrast with conventions in landscapes in motel painting, or in the trope of painting in popular culture, the winding road does not mean trouble coming your way from outside, it functions rather here to come out at you, and, after letting you into the painting, leading you back out, and letting you down in the physical space, but transformed to existing in the world of the painting, psychopomp-ously


In this regard, the vitrine pieces can be viewed a relics pulled out of the painting, as it were, not unlike the objects pulled out of dreams in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the physical objects are magical manifestations of things in the pictures, and by confronting them, and seeing them, you are no longer in the real world, but in a world beyond, lead to through going into and coming out of the painting


This makes the paintings much more reasonably readable as agentic devices with a purpose of casting a spell on you so that you can take in the installation part of the exhibition with an alive sense of the uncanny resonance imbedded in them. So, on one level, as a type of painting, there is agentic potential of magic in this new body of work. Or, at least, that is a reading.

kief-16However, do I think this? Alas, I would love for Kiefer to have scaled back his practice to the point where it could present us with straight up agency-related works, without any of the mist of rationalization, but he is an artist of the postmodern era, his mind is filled with the model of the artist in that era, he is not a contemporary new magic artist, so I am going to say, no, I do not believe the paintings function in this way. Or, at least, they wont for most, they will remain “paintings,” that is, screens for visitors coming to the cult space of Kiefer, to see into, as an xray, Kiefer’s mind musing on the world situation today (though there is little double artist worship is cult behavior, I tend to think of it as rationalized, displaced exploitational cult behavior, not true cult behavior). So, then, the question is, how do they function?

Which brings us to the the flip side, coming back out of the magic cult place, to the artist as reflective expresser of his views in the world, and that is that the towers in the pictures are NOT a burning city, and not a reference to burning oil rigs or churches, but they are, specifically, the burning towers that he has shown as art works several times previously before. They are also the towers that stand in storage on the backlot of his studio complex in Barjac, France.


In addition to cluttering up the countryside, but in a way that seems to interest tourists as either an example of a folk art environment which traditionally clutters up the countryside, or as an amazing wonderland junk complex, in the tradition of the barons of aristo-art, artists living in their Makart palaces, in both capacities the towers represent a strange sort of personal impulse by the artist to expand the cult space of his art, and the art world his art makes, and act as a kind of gesamtkunstwerk advertisement of his global purposes.


But, then, he has taken them travelling. They have been exhibited by themselves as works of art in an installation

kief-19They have served as stage sets for the Bastille opera


And they have come to town as one-off installations in a city scape, as, for example, London, 2009


The travelling circus aspect of them itself adds to the complexity of their semiology over time. It might even be said that by resituating them in different situations Kiefer is sculpting social space to see what new meaning or agency he can extract by context change from the work as a whole.

This, schematically, sets up (for the purposes of my treatment here), five schemas of reading for these towers: 1) the studio backlot look, which is an environment, which makes them look like a fortress city from medieval Europe; 2) the installation, which highlights stacking, and the fact that they are containers stacked up; 3) the stage set, which makes of them a haunted city, characterized, in the theatrical tradition, of unresponsive monumentality; and 4) public art, when they are a totem pole of sorts. In the first sense, they have been compared to a Steampunk San Gimigiano, referring to Italian fortress cities


in the second, the foregrounding of containers bespeaks not only the artifice of life today, but, combined with the first sense, seems to say something about the container-based camps for immigrants set up in Calais in 2015, and disbanded recently; the third reading refers to monumentality as a symbol of power, and the responsiveness of government and as public art they read as countermonuments as well. Just in this cursory review, then, they refer to power, political power, three times, and then to personal, social and civilizational issues too.

It is the space between the images of the towers in the paintings, burning, and the realization that they refer to the towers seen on his studio backlot, that I picked up a vibe of doubt or even self-iconoclasm, Kiefer wondering if even his discourse is faltering, and his status as cult artist has not begun to turn into a trap. He is, by this reading, wondering if all his use of the tower has not itself come to naught. This thought of a self-grumbling at the work is reinforced by the fact that he compares, by title, the work to Vahhalla, but not the hall of the Norse gods of old, which would continue his critique of German culture importation of Norse lore to reinforce the Aryan mythology during the war, but to the ersatz Pantheon built in the 19th century in Bavaria, full of busts, just the sort of thing he likes to tweak, but… he cannot believe that anyone takes that seriously anymore, it is a tourist site, comparable, perhaps, he suggests, to his towers, and his status as baronial artist, and, by this, his towers too and even his critique of the hero cult is ersatz and meaningless. Here is the Pantheon at Bavaria


And again

kief-24And here is his towers, also part of the Euro country landscape

kief-25only, in his imagination, imagining what might be going on in that ‘city’ or that Forum, he sees hospital like settings for the dead or dying, memorial beds, not busts


On this level, the works lose their agency, and curdle into self-doubt, a rationalized way of thinking. If this is the case, this would account for the slightly ersatz nature of the work that I picked up on.

But, then, on the second level, as containers only, an installational gambit, they would in a more traditional way of a Venice Biennial work, or the like, just a material accumulation of objects made use of in real or unexpected ways in the world at large, and resituated in an art gallery, in bulk, with the belief that it magically, therefore, will “comment” on that use in the world, and cause the viewer to report this to the powers that be and by petition get that problem changed (all magical thinking that sustains the biennial circuit). The way that this device, the container, is being used in Europe right now is as container- home for immigrants in camps, such as at Calais, disbanded in 2016.


Kiefer must have been surprised to see an idea he had years ago become real in Europe ten years later. Perhaps the appearance of the container camps made him rethink or even revitalize his idea, in this case the real world giving him new ideas. But, is this the Kiefer style? It really is the biennial device, a convention, and Kiefer usually does not submit to this ersatz magical thinking in the art world. The other problematic aspect of this is that by stacking them up into an almost city he might almost be construed as making fun of the plight of the immigrant, and even give voice to anti-immigrant stands, as a comment in the nature of, what are we going to do, let them build cities out of containers? Thus, the pursuit of meaning by way of the material, the container, only seems to lead off into the outer space of rationalization.


There is a similar problem with the enlistment of the towers in a Robert Wilson type contemporary opera in Paris. Contemporary opera is certainly the most elite of contemporary art forms, and Robert Wilson is the godfather of this special zone of total rationalized escapism. In this shot, with small figures huddling up against a hulking structure, in a city of them


the shot reminded me of the supermonumental paintings of Francoise di Nome, of Strasburgh.


As to the issue of how Di Nome came to an art like this, as I imagined it, his imagination was disappointed at the collapse of the Strasbourgh republic, in a state of despair or loss of hope he felt that responsive government in the middle of Europe had died, and then, construing the wiggle room that Strasbourg found for democracy in the decay of the Holy Roman Empire, as opposed to the rise of the modern states, he imagined his mind back to ancient Rome, to make its ruins emblems of unresponsive power in an imperial system, where the plebs are just reduced to a mob placated by bread and circuses. These paintings then are ultra baroque despair pictures, representing the idea that while little people can do little things in the world, by and large the universe, and especially the government, is unresponsive.


To circle back to the theatrical, di Nome even did theatrical backdrops, here a panorama for the sacrifice of Abraham


That is, politically, there is a black hole in the center of Europe, made there by past histories just steamrolled to extinction, and reinforced by amnesia since, and, by vibing on those lost threads, di Nome devised a painting expressive of that black hole, showing that black hole, and Europe as  a black hole.


It might be that by way of this reading of his towers we get to Kiefer’s despair at Europe too, and that would be his despair at the leadership to makes things work, but it is hard to say. Di Nome’s paintings are anti-intercessional pictures, they intend to comment on intercession, but comment only on the gulf between subject and object, and the fact that, in royal Europe, intercession has stopped. They have agency, but it is flickering. It is possible the same is true for these paintings by Kiefer.

But perhaps these uses are too arcane and obtuse, and lead us astray from the big, blunt, upfront purpose of Kiefer’s art, which would be better expressed by his public art installations, as at the Academy in London in 2009


Here, its presence only comments on the monumentality around it, but more in the manner of tweaking it, that is, momentarily questioning the purpose and point of monumentality, but, then, after all, engaging in it, in a new way, as well. As such, and because it penetrates to the ideal superstructure space of public sculpture, it bespeaks of the idealism of social life, if in a modern form, and simply loosens up the eye and mind so that you pay attention and see the monumentality all about, and wonder about it, and its purpose, its expression of power, its cult quality, its defensiveness, all of which connects to classical discourses.

kief-34All in all, then, with the paintings in this show (that then goes on into a hallway, and then a steel walled gallery, and then on to Sursa ordem, another installation), they seem to exist as thematic statements, a precis, a prospectus picture, allowing the mind to raise all sorts of questions, based on the semiological adventures of its base forms, and then wonder what it all means, they loosen up, they lead in, but they do so in a concierge way, not in an apotropaic way, and, as such, I believe I am correct in wondering if they are entirely worked out, because it does seem like, as I have demonstrated here, one goes into the paintings and tend to get lost, not in a good way,  in them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s