A Bleak Stage: Anselm Kiefer's Next Year In Jerusalem

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.

atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale

Cy Twombly passed away this week. In thinking about his work over the past few days, I am reminded of something pianist Roger Woodward wrote regarding Iannis Xenakis' Keqrops:

It was late November and already bitterly cold in New York as the Philharmonic attendant led me through an open area backstage at Lincoln Center where a reasonable Steinway was waiting at one side. I warmed up with some Preludes and Fugues, passages of sixteenths from Bach's D minor Concerto and then transposed them into a similar tempo for passages in sixteenths from Keqrops. They complemented each other in every way. The Bach seemed new; the Xenakis old, as if from antiquity.

Many have commented on the relationship between Twombly's oeuvre and antiquity. On a simple level this is due in part to the artist's allusions to the distant past in his titles, poetic quotations and imagery. But like Xenakis, Twombly's works unleash a visceral intensity and gestural "crudeness" that abandons more familiar (comfortable) methods of expressivity. The New York Times entitled its Twombly obituary "American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path." Words such as "scribble" and "child-like" may well capture the larger effect of certain Twombly works, but quite often these terms have been used to intentionally undermine the great care with which the artist composed all elements of his paintings, drawings and sculptures. Careful examination reveals the subtle fluidity and cohesion that emanate from his floating wax crayon marks, violent whorls of color, primitive shapes/imagery and texts that straddle legibility and visual abstraction while simultaneously opening up countless extra-visual associations.

Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor)  from   Kewing   via Flickr

Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor) from Kewing via Flickr

And then there is Twombly's sense of scale. Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) - (see image below), a massive triptych measuring 16 meters wide, features vast quantities of virtually empty space extending from the middle to left canvases. One sees Twombly's boats (a motif he regularly deployed) receding out of the explosions of color and text on the right side, and venturing into the empty space that dramatically functions as an infinite maritime expanse - Catullus returning to Italy following his brother's death. Again, to apportion so much canvas area to unadulterated space is a daring choice that beautifully conveys the isolation and smallness of the boats and mankind in general.

Twombly's handling of scale coupled with the clear right-to-left linearity of Say Goodbye Catullus, have always fascinated me as a composer. Scale/proportion strike me as common threads that connect the different parameters of space and time. The composer's "space" stems in part from a piece's total duration, a factor that directly impacts the dispersing of sound materials within. Much of what I've discovered in this area relates back to visual artists like Twombly who, whether creating a sense of linearity or not, so clearly understand how a work's scale relates to the surrounding space and, most importantly, the viewer.

I'll close with Anne Carson's translation of poem 101 by Catullus, written upon the death of his brother. Twombly's Say Goodbye Catullus depicts the poet returning to Verona after visiting his brother's grave in Asia Minor.

Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed -
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this - what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials -
accept! soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell

'Why Stop Time?' - Tarkovsky's Polaroids

The following is the latest in an ongoing series of art-related posts.

Antonioni, too, made great use of a Polaroid at the time, and I remember that during a reconnaissance in Uzbekistan for a film that in the end we never made, he wanted to give three elderly Muslims a photograph he had had taken of them. The eldest, after casting a brief glance at the image, gave it back to him, saying: 'Why stop time?' We were left gaping in wonder, speechless at this extraordinary refusal.

Tarkovsky often reflected on the way that time flies and this is precisely what he wanted: to stop it, even with these quick Polaroid shots.

Tonino Guerra, Instant Light Tarkovsky Polaroids

The slowing down of time is an accommodation that facilitates creation and perception. Regarding the latter, photographs allow for detailed examination, often without even losing a sense of linearity. The turmeric-colored ribbon of flowers in the photograph at left, marks a procession disappearing into the top of the image. There is a remarkable sense of desolation left in the procession's wake, partly informed by the emptied street, partly due to the washed out color of the looming walls, and amplified by the voyeuristic perch from which we view the entire scene. This photograph was taken by the Russian film director Andrey Tarkovsky (1932 - 1986) and is one of many fascinating images presented in the book,  Instant Light Tarkovsky Polaroids.

It isn't surprising to hear the names of Tarkovsky and Antonioni simultaneously invoked by Tonino Guerra in the quote above. Both directors were not afraid to give the viewer ample time to survey a shot, often without the distraction of musical sound or dialogue. The focus and intensity present in their films translates easily to Tarkovsky's small yet engrossing images. 

While Tarkovsky's polaroids are fascinating on their own, it is easy to imagine the collection as a kind of cinematic sketchbook. Latent storylines abound and many shots offer a powerful sense of staging. 

Regardless of interpretation, Tarkovsky's polaroids extend well beyond the simple bounds of many snapshots.  As Guerra states, "These images leave us with a mysterious and poetic sensation, the melancholy of seeing things for the last time...They are something to be shared, not only a method of making his own wish to stop time come true."

When I happened upon this book last week, I also felt like sharing.

Click here to view additional images along with brief captions by Tarkovsky's son.