Courtesy of Elephant Magazine and images from the web
“…we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”
― W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Although Anslem Kiefer’s primary site of production is Croissy, near Paris, he moved to Barjac, a former silk factory in the South of France, in 1992. The land supplies many of the materials habitually used in his work. The sunflowers that grow seven meters tall from seeds especially imported from Japan, the thousands of tulips that are dried for their petals to be used in paintings devoted to Arab poets, the trees that are dipped in plaster and coated with clay from the estate. It is a strange place; with its sheds housing huge individual paintings, often covered in arcane text, and its vertiginous towers – a cross between Pisa’s leaning turret and concentration camp sentry boxes – constructed in concrete castes taken from shipping containers. There are overgrown paths and vast glass houses filled with sculptures of planes and books created from detritus and rubble, an underground crypt and a huge concrete amphitheatre reached by a labyrinth of tunnels like a catacomb. The place is mythic, hubristic, obsessive, extraordinary, profound and unique in its imaginative scope. A place of dreams, it attempts to give voice in visual language to the mood and cataclysmic shifts of the 20th century, as well as to the cyclical nature of existence itself. It’s as fantastical as Calvino’s Invisible Cities, as obsessed with the cycles of history as the writing of Kiefer’s late compatriot, W.G. Sebald, and is a matrix of the intellectual and aesthetic concerns that have obsessed the artist for half a century.
Born in 1945 in Donaueschingen, on the Danube, Kiefer always knew he wanted to make art, despite initially studying law. He is part of a generation of German intellectuals that includes Joseph Beuys, Georg Bazelitz, Gunter Grass and Bernhard Schlink who, as they attempted to come to terms with the catastrophe of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, had Theodor Adorno’s words ringing in their ears that to persist with the production of art (primarily in Germany) after Auschwitz – (though Adorno uses the world ‘poetry’) – is to participate in the perpetuation of that barbaric culture and in the denials that rendered criticism of it impossible.
When he first settled in Barjac everything Kiefer created was with materials brought from Germany: books, photographs, old paintings, even bits of lead from the roof of Cologne cathedral. He claims to feel like an outsider in this soft French landscape that has inspired countless other painters, says that he’s never felt prompted to make work about it. Instead he needed to take possession of the place in order to make sense of it. Part home, part laboratory and workshop, he has built roads and buildings, planted trees and vegetation, created enclosures. Then one day he started to dig.
After completing his first tunnel he hit on the idea of the Seven Heavenly Palaces of the Jewish mystics and set about fashioning seven buildings and constructing a series of greenhouses connected by tunnels. What he has created is a sort of reverse archaeology, a psychic map, a form of visual philosophy that materialises the ideas of the Markavah in the Sepher Hekhalot that relate to man’s ascent through the Seven Heavenly Palaces. During this journey man’s hands and limbs are gradually burnt away until all that is left is his spirit. As he descends further he plunges into his own psyche. So, in Barjac, the viewer having wandered in darkness through this underground labyrinth, will come to a staircase that leads to a room flooded with light, where another stairway will lead to another tunnel and so on. There is nothing picturesque here. It is a harsh, elemental, magisterial place, like some archaic burial site. Industrial pipes and ducts connect the underground passageways. Their function is uncertain. As you wander you may glimpse daylight but there’s a danger of getting lost, of going back the way you came, of discovering yourself in a room with a pool and lead walls where no sound reaches and its gravity – the mass attributed to Saturn, the planet of melancholy – creates a sensory annihilation. Elsewhere you might glimpse, if you look up, what could be bookcases, paintings or jars – just lit sufficiently to feel their presence and experience them as abstract objects.
The core of the building is the amphitheatre built from concrete casts of second-hand shipping containers. It stands 15 metres high and has five levels and three sides. The outline was traced on the ground with a mechanical digger, then dug it out. The space beneath, as with the construction of many cathedrals, was filled with sand to avoid the use of scaffolding, before being removed when the ceiling was in place. The soil at La Ribotte is clay and clings to the concrete so that the place looks like some ancient crypt or the Mithras temple below the basilica of San Clemente in Rome, hewn directly from the earth. The amphitheatre is the hub from which, through other tunnels – just as in the Châtelt metro in Paris – the visitor can travel in different directions. Constructed without an architect or engineer, with the aid of only a couple of assistants, Kiefer is aware it will eventually collapse like the bunkers found along the Normandy coast. The metaphor of entropy pervades his work. Various installations are housed in the surrounding spaces. One contains a number of reels of film. This is a paradox. For the normally opaque film is made of lead onto which Kiefer has pasted obscure 30 year old photographs. Another underground chamber is dedicated to the Women of the Revolution. Filled with lead beds. Water stagnates in the hollow body-shaped indentations to form a sort of membrane or skin.
Barjac is not an exhibition venue, a gallery or a workshop but a map of the imagination – a Gesamtunktwerk – that illustrates Keifer’s belief that the etymology of wohnen (to dwell) is derived from the ancient Germ baun/bauen (to construct or build). “Building and living are the same”, he says referring to Martin Heidegger. “Man can only dwell, that is exist, when he builds…..creation and destruction are one and the same”. Poetry and philosophical texts have always been a seminal influence. These have been as various as the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, Jewish Cabalistic texts, Roland Barthes, Nietzsche, and tracts on alchemy. Kiefer’s domain is the liminal; the interstices in history and the psyche. The palette is a recurring motif, a symbol of the potency of art to bridge the external physical world and the internal world of the imagination. As T. S. Eliot says: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
Kiefer has often been accused of being grandiose (which at times he is), and neo-Nazi, which he certainly isn’t. What he is, is a complex, driven artist with a brilliant visual imagination and a fierce intellect. Shaped by the moment of his birth amid the rubble and devastation of the Second World War, just as Hitler’s ‘thousand-year Reich’ was collapsing, his career he has been an investigation of the borders between form and chaos, between matter and spirit, horror and beauty. He is not a populist. “Art”, as he says, “is something very difficult. It is difficult to make, and it is sometimes difficult for the viewer to understand.” In his creative crucible boundaries are dissolved, the solid becomes fluid, space and linear time are dissolved and matter re-configured. W.G. Sebald gives voice to Kiefer’s imagination in his novel Vertigo. “The more images I gathered from the past … the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.”
At present Barjac is not open to the public. But there is hope that it will one day become a foundation. If so it will be a monument to a vigorous and powerful imagination, along with the flow and flux of history and the deepest questions explored by the human mind.