Anselm Kiefer: Walhalla

Art Free
Recommended
5 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Wagner. Hitler. Kiefer. If you want to join the club of six-letter, ends in ‘-er’, mythology-obsessed, visionary-crackpot creator-destroyers you’ve got to think big. Really big. I’m not saying Kiefer is like those two anti-Semitic, delusional, megalomaniac pricks, just that his response to their legacy has always been to adopt their weapons: size, volume,  density, humourlessness, repetition. His work is epic and totalitarian, forged out of industrial materials in art factories. And his latest show is quite something. 

If you’ve had the lead nicked off your porch recently, there’s a good chance it’s down at White Cube. Kiefer’s trademark material is everywhere: lining the walls, forming scrolls on which photographs are printed, splashed in huge eruptive gobs across giant canvases of ruined landscapes. The show is called ‘Walhalla’, the legendary afterlife of heroes slain in battle. Obviously Valhalla is mostly familiar to people through the ‘Ring Cycle’, and you get the sense that Kiefer isn’t wholly sold on Wagner’s take on Norse mythology, which so appealed to the Nazis.

 First up is a dimly lit corridor of lead hospital beds. It’s horrible: grey and dead. It speaks of the Holocaust. Of field hospitals and desperation. Of abandonment and flight. A machine gun pokes out of one bed like a skeletal leg. In another room, a bed is crushed beneath an enormous lead boulder, as lead wings droop either side. Another bed has the stalks of lead sunflowers poking out of it. A lead sheet bulges with water. Tacked to the beds are the lyrical names of mythology: Siegfried, Brünhilde, Lorelei. These claustrophobic, poisoned chambers are the reality of Valhalla . A 30-foot-high spiral staircase is festooned with dresses soaked in wax and paint: the skins of latter-day Valkyries: women whose thanks for getting mixed up in a ‘heroic’ war was to share the combatants’ fate, or worse.

Kiefer’s sense of his own mortality is everywhere. An ‘archive’ installation hints at endless unrealised projects: reams of photos, charred papers, unsown seeds spilling from a safe. A printing press corrodes. Shelves collapse under boxes: it’s a genocide of ideas. 

By the time you get to the airy South Galleries, you feel like you have emerged from an awful dream. Not that Kiefer lets up: vast paintings of rickety towers coruscate with melted lead, peeled back like ruptured armour. In the same space are vitrines of smashed bicycles, more piled hospital beds, Thor’s anvil.

This show is heroic and often quite silly. Which is something else that links old Anselm to Richard and Adolf: the inherent ridiculousness of what he’s doing. Kiefer’s endless rehashing of the war, of guilt, of atonement; his faith that there is only one way forward, but that art can never do enough is what makes him so hard to mock or ignore. It seems difficult to believe that one man could be responsible for all of this, no matter what means he has at his disposal. And that, ultimately, is Kiefer’s point.

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