Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Big Show

U-boats over Mayfair

I was up in London yesterday, primarily to see the Anselm Kiefer show (girls! music!) at the Royal Academy of Arts.  As an amateur Germanophile, I have taken an interest in Kiefer's work ever since a copy of Mark Rosenthal's catalogue of the Art Institute of Chicago's 1987 exhibition passed across my desk.  He is an artist who has taken on the big German themes like no other; from the very beginning he was tackling taboos such as Hitler, the Holocaust and the roots of Nazi ideology in German culture in a very confrontational way. However, until yesterday afternoon, I had never actually seen any of these fabled works in real life, merely as reproductions in books and magazines.

So, wow...  They are BIG.  I mean, I knew they were big, but they are ENORMOUS.  To see something you have previously contemplated at postcard size occupying 18 x 12 feet of wall space is a disconcerting experience, to say the least.  The RA is just the right space for this sort of gigantism, though: it swallows it whole without a problem.  After all, this is the space that Hockney attempted (and, some say, failed) to fill with his sprawling A Bigger Picture exhibition in 2012.

Now, I say I have taken an interest in Kiefer, but that is not to say that I like his work.  I don't think it's work that wants to be liked. Seeing it hanging there, it reminded me of certain people I have known, whose identity is constructed around an abrasive and unforgiving self-awareness; "Sure, I've got problems; so do you, if only you'd face up to it.  Why pretend otherwise?  Don't like it?  Then fuck off!"  It's a lonely space to inhabit, carrying the burden of the entire German past as your personal baggage.

Despite his standing, Kiefer maintains an outsider's perspective.  In fact, he reminds me of those classic "outsider" artists, borderline guys with no formal training or education who have a set of idées fixes, gestures and mannerisms that they repeat over and over, building vast edifices made out of drink cans and concrete, or painting weird, repetitive scenarios out of a personal mythology.  You can imagine him cackling away, building yet another tunnel or tower at his grandiose derelict silk factory workspace down in Barjac in southern France.

My problem (as if Kiefer could care less what I think) is that the work seems big in declared ambition, yet small in achieved substance.  Not literally, clearly: the famous lead books and submarines and vast impasto paintings and sculptural assemblages are all substance: gloweringly and overbearingly so, insistently material.  But it is not enough, surely, to paste layer upon layer of paint and acrylic and ash onto lead sheets and then lightly scribble the names of German Romantic poets and other notables onto the result.  Yes, Novalis, Hölderlin, Heine, Celan, Bachmann... Check.  Yes, I've read them.  And your point is?  I'm not keen on this kind of cultural dot-to-dot game of allusion.  The work exists in an interesting but frustrating place somewhere between conventional depiction and conceptual art; it is that unsatifying thing, painted ideas.

Also, I have to say Kiefer's drawing is of a similar standard to that of Tracey Emin i.e. it is dreadful.  Now, I am not naive enough not to realise that there is a solid point to be made by deliberately drawing badly.  Take that, Sunday painters!  But when an artist of this stature takes up watercolours and paints more or less conventional nudes, even if they are compiled into gigantic bound albums, I think we are entitled to stand back and say:  Whoa, Anselm...  These are bad.  You really can't do this, can you?  Stick to collage!

I did love the lead submarines in the courtyard vitrines, though (despite -- or perhaps because of -- the theme music from Das Boot playing insistently in my head), and there is a site-specific work in an enclosed, round, inner gallery, Ages of the World, that is truly extraordinary, a meditation on the constructs of geological time derived from and imposed on the trash heap we inhabit, and worth the price of the ticket in itself.

But, next up on the German entertainers front:  Sigmar Polke is in town!

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