Like any Anselm Kiefer exhibition, Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom shouldn't fool anyone into thinking that his chosen subject matter is in any way uplifting or happily carefree. His source material may recall the healthy, floral swathes of French volcanic land in Auvergne, but the finished canvases illicit a vastly different sensation. Mao Zedong's oft-misquoted statement in 1957 may have lightly referenced a desire for increased cultural diversity, but the actual consequences of his leadership cost millions of lives and silenced millions of tongues. In every way, Kiefer is a master of disguise.
The placement of such an exhibition in the heart of Hong Kong is strange and defiant all at once: while the Special Administrative Region (so-called the SAR) in China experiences an unusual degree of political and socio-economic autonomy, it is nevertheless a fully compliant gear in the machine of Chinese sovereignty. Not quite as vocal as Ai Weiwei, for one, but certainly not mute in regards to his travels through the country in 1993, Kiefer strikes a delicate balance between subverting diplomatic dialogue and instituting contemporary production values.
At some points, his mammoth canvases of flower fields reveal traces of faces in distress. Others might offer a glimpse of Chairman Mao himself, but forcibly removed from the lyric movement of nature. Each work struggles to achieve peace in and of itself, as the innocent ebbs and flows of a pastoral landscape fail to break through the deadened, turbulent greys, neutrals, pale yellows, and blacks. Kiefer's mastery of the palettes are steadfast reminders of the searing contradictions pitting ideological force against biological decay. To further depress the mise-en-scene, two sculptures infused with steel, plaster and lead each depict a single bicycle mangled by the weight of giant books. Every element of this show would sadden even the lightest spirit, but with a valid and sound purpose: words are not cheap, nor are their meanings. Political landscapes are painted with literal brushes, and the final product is manifested in real time and space.
Kiefer reins in every spare negative space in the gallery to engulf his viewers in a state of oppressive entropy, a withering of optimism that often masquerades in words (like those of Chairman Mao). With little ceremony, Kiefer strips bare his own suspicions of the enigmatic nation presenting a series of works that reveal no explicit visual cues to its people or histories. More importantly, the exhibition sympathizes with the seemingly neverending injustices to the human spirit which continue to plague those still living under similar conditions. In essence, Kiefer uses his visual content as a mental conduit. Half a century has passed between Mao's declaration and the present moment, but if the ideology should mature over time, what instigates this nagging feeling of unease and displeasure?
Having made clear how displeasing viewing the work could be, Kiefer infuses his works with such rigor and passion in each movement on his surfaces that the final thought upon departing is not hopelessness, but potential.
Shana Beth Mason is a critic formerly based in Brooklyn now active in London, UK. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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