Heaven and Earth
by Robert Kilborn for whitehot Montreal
For the first time ever in Canada, celebrated German artist Anselm Kiefer explores the material and spiritual worlds. Robert Kilborn sees irony, skepticism and hope in this powerful exhibition at Canada’s only museum devoted entirely to contemporary art
A massive lead book displays blank pages we cannot read and giant wings that cannot fly. A three-dimensional, kite-like geometric structure hovers like a spacecraft or an angel between dark sea and blank sky in a painting entitled “In the Beginning.” A monumental canvas, “The Milky Way,” renders a bleak and empty field. A large gash in the field holds a puddle of milky water, like a wound in the belly of the earth.
Contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer explores the most fundamental questions of our existence: “Why are we here?” “Is there a God?” “Where is knowledge to be found?” History, religion, law, philosophy, literature and complex esoteric texts haunt his sculptures, installations, and paintings some of which are as much as six metres in size. The artist makes use of highly symbolic materials such as clay, ash, gold leaf, seeds, dried plants and lead. His surfaces are often crusted, cracked, and roughly caked with pigment, suggestive of the vulnerabilities and fragilities of our ephemeral lives and civilizations.
Born in Germany during the last months of the Second World War, Kiefer inevitably addresses his country’s self-immolation. A billboard-size painting, “Ash Flower,” depicts the grandiose interior of a Nazi ceremonial hall designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect—though it could also be a temple in Atlantis, or the Grand Ballroom of the Titanic. Slightly out of focus, as if conveying the real unreality of our damaged histories and limited vision, the painting is cut in half by a giant (380 cm) sunflower stalk. While no doubt symbolizing fertility and the redemptive power of rebirth, the stalk is dry, and turned upside down.
This is not to say that Kiefer’s vision is bleak. He simply rejects political or religious or scientific or artistic certitudes. He embraces Not Knowing like a lover, and the exploration of meaning like a poet. He is an artist who shows us how we really live, between Heaven and Earth.
Anselm Kiefer’s Heaven and Earth was on view 11 February to 30 April 2006 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 185 Saint Catherine St., W., 514-847-6226, www.macm.org.
See more images of Kiefer’s work: