Entering Anselm Kiefer's Next Year In Jerusalem at the Gagosian Gallery is akin stepping onto a bleak stage set. Massive gray paintings, many depicting barren, imposing landscapes loom along the walls of the L-shaped space. Some paintings rest inside terrarium-like cases with thickets of branches resting between the glass exterior and painting surface. Confinement isn't reserved for the paintings. The floor space is filled with sculptures that eerily hover or sit in glass tanks. The base of each encasement looks like a scorched desert floor. The sculptures, comprised of identifiable objects - clothing, a tree stump, the fuselage of a war plane - have a petrified appearance, as though they've been left out in the elements for decades. In short, the gallery is a wasteland.
The clear allusions to death, decay and warfare gain an unmistakable context when one comes upon the centerpiece, Occupations. A menacing, industrial-looking steel shed is packed with seventy-six lead-mounted photos hanging floor to ceiling. Open doors on the sides of the shed reveal the contents and allow the viewer to see inside. The sheer number and tight alignment of the photographs impede one's ability to fully examine what's inside. Many of the pictures are completely invisible. However, when looking into the shed from either of the short sides, you see a figure (Kiefer himself) photographed making the Hitlergruß or Nazi salute.
The photos used in Occupations were first created by the artist in 1969. Kiefer posed in formerly occupied locations and sometimes wore his father's German military uniform. The content of these photographs place the steel shed in a new light, bringing to mind a train car or gas chamber. The other sculptures and paintings in the show take on similar associations. The disintegrating, ghostly rags of one sculpture (see photo at right) could be the clothing of Holocaust victims. Reels of film spilling out of a plane fuselage (the film features images of other Kiefer works) bring to mind Nazi propaganda movies.
It is striking how unnerving Occupations seems, both when experiencing the show and after. All of the qualities mentioned in reference to the other works in the show - the rusted, carcass-like state of objects, the confinement and tight proximity of the sculptures to each other and to the viewer, the brutal, mountainous landscapes depicted in the paintings - all of these qualities are intensified by the presence of Occupations.
The importance of remembering the horrors of World War II is clear. Kiefer's photographs of himself seem to further allude to issues of association undoubtedly encountered by many Germans born at or just after the end of the war. But beyond the important political elements and an abundance of additional Biblical and other references, Kiefer's manipulation of space both within and between works plays into the stage set atmosphere mentioned earlier. It makes for an unusual experience that is often disconcerting and even a bit uncomfortable. Regardless, it is an experience I highly recommend.
Next Year In Jerusalem is on display at the Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, New York, NY and runs through December 18th.