This autumn the Royal Academy will have a major retrospective exhibition for Anselm Kiefer. Back in the eighties, when I was a teenager and first discovering contemporary art, Kiefer was a really big name. In fact there were a group of German artists that seemed almost as well known as the Americans: Beuys, Baselitz, Polke, Richter (these last two had a nice joint show in London earlier this year). In those days Robert Hughes would write witheringly about the latest stars of the New York art scene but considered Kiefer the best painter of his generation. Then came Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory (1995) - familiar I'm sure to readers of this blog - which discussed Kiefer's work in relation to the German forest. But since then it has seemed as if he has faded into the background somewhat as waves of new artists have come to the fore. When I have thought of him, it has been to imagine him still holed up in the south of France, where he moved in 1992, gradually turning an old silk factory and its surroundings into a vast Gesamtkunstwerk. However, watching Sophie Fiennes' documentary on Kiefer recently, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010), it was obvious that he remains a massive presence in the global art world. The film ends with his relocation to Paris and Kiefer looking forward to easy motorway access to Germany and a large studio that had once been the depository for the La Samaritaine department store.
In 2008 Sean O'Hagan went to interview Keifer for The Guardian, apprehensive about the artist's reputation for high seriousness. Kiefer, 'as Schama memorably puts it, 'doesn't do droll, he does the big embarrassing stuff, the stuff that matters; the epic slaughters of the world, the incineration of the planet, apocalypse then, apocalypse now; the fragile endurance of the sacred amid the cauterised ruins of the earth.'' O'Hagan met him in Paris where he was working on ten seascapes simultaneously - ''When I started these paintings just before Christmas, I had the initial concept of painting the source of the Rhine. Now, you can see the Rhine is gone completely. There is only sea." Despite its vast scale, the Paris studio was proving too small for him. Meanwhile La Ribaute, the studio complex and environmental installation near Barjac that Kiefer had worked on for eleven years, was continuing to take shape in his absence. O'Hagan travelled south to see it. 'Surrounded by a high wire fence, and accessed only by a huge steel security gate, it is a vast site that took me an afternoon to wander through. On one side of the hill on which stands his former studio, a converted 17th century silk factory, lies the valley of Babel-like towers, out of whose innards sprout plants resembling giant trioxids. It is utterly unreal and not a little unsettling, part post-apocalyptic city, part sci-fi film set.'
As you can see here in the trailer for Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, La Ribaute was both a factory for producing monumental landscape painting (a forest scene spread with ashes), and an evolving work of land art itself. Philip French described the impression the film conveys in his review:
Fiennes's camera tracks slowly around its bunkers and underground passages with their pools of water, shattered urns, piles of broken glass, puzzling numbers on the walls that evoke the tattoos of concentration camp inmates and so on. Her visual style brings to mind the lengthy contemplative shots in Tarkovsky's Stalker, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice, and we think of blitzed cities, battlefields, the death camps, the post-industrial world and the impermanence of civilisation. The film's title is a quotation from the Bible and one inevitably remembers Eliot's line in The Waste Land: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins."Perhaps the most memorable scene comes near the end where the camera rises slowly to reveal a vista of concrete towers under grey skies. Earlier we see Kiefer directing their construction - he does it all by eye. Two similar towers were built for an installation in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in 2009 and a laser was installed to detect the slightest movement and sound an alarm if it looked like they might be about to collapse (it never went off). Fiennes says in the commentary to the film that this ruined landscape reminds her of modern war zones like Gaza. It is sad to think that she would have been referring then to the 2008 conflict while as I write this there is a new war creating new ruins. Now, again, we are watching footage of twisted metal, shattered glass, tunnel networks and concrete towers: the destruction of real buildings and real people's lives.