Rubble is the future. Because everything that is passes. There is a wonderful chapter in Isaiah that says: grass will grow over your cities…Isaiah sees the city and the different layers over it, the grass, and then another city, the grass and then another city again.
–Anselm Kiefer, courtesy of Neversmorgasbored
Sophie Fiennes‘ film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, features German artist Anselm Kiefer during a time when he was living and working near Barjac, France before moving to Paris. Kiefer purchased land that was once a silk factory and together with a band of swarthy assistants began constructing and deconstructing a landscape that is “a monument to the human will to self-annihilation and a rehearsal for the apocalypse” in the words of New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis.
From Dargis’ review:
Mr. Kiefer and his team burrowed into the earth, dug tunnels, constructed an amphitheater, painted (and threw dust and broken glass on) canvases and kiln-fired lead sculptures that look like books, turning the sprawl into a massive atelier he called La Ribaute…The movie offers the only chance that most of us will probably have to visit what he left behind, this strange, eerie Kieferland.
Kieferland IS a world quite different from my own. For anyone who is a maker and has seen any of Kiefer’s massive works—usually distressed into altered states that are visually stunning while also overwhelming—the how did he do it? question is always in the back of my mind. I have the same query when I approach the work of many of our most epic (grandiose?) art stars (“startists” like “starchitects”?) including Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Matthew Barney.
So yes, my maker’s curiosity would keep me in a seat at the ICA for several hours while Fienne’s camera wanders this oddly cinematic, unsettling landscape. She pans for 20 minutes before we encounter any of the humans who have created this under and above ground complex of grottos and postindustrial pavilions. And when we finally do see Kiefer and his assistants at work, the camera keeps its distance, neither invading nor engaging with anyone. The musical score is heavy and ominous, mostly music composed by György Ligeti and insistently dark.
The film is ekphrastic and as much about Fiennes’ sensibilities as it is about Kiefer’s. While I usually admire the ambient and the nonlinear, I wanted a better view into the nuts and bolts of Kiefer’s genius for fabrication. While I was surprised and oddly delighted to see Kiefer pouring molten lead by hand from a pre-industrial cauldron or watch him break pane after pane of glass wearing sandals and shorts, the glimpses into his process were few.
And encounters with his philosophical foundations as well as his personal life are kept to a minimum. At one moment in the film two young boys wander past the camera, but no reference is made to them.
From Dargis’ review again:
The boys, like so much in “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow,” are never addressed by Ms. Fiennes, perhaps because to do so might force her to employ banal documentary strategies, like identifying people. Instead she tosses in some introductory text and sets her camera loose. And because she won’t or can’t engage the complexities of the art and the arguments that have long surrounded it (involving, for instance, Mr. Kiefer’s appropriation of Nazi imagery), she embraces a silence that nonetheless clamorously draws attention to itself through the cinematography and some of the same music that Stanley Kubrick used in “2001.” It’s unfortunate that in gliding through these ravaged spaces while dodging time and its traumas, she embraces the role of tourist rather than of the vigorous, questioning participant that Mr. Kiefer’s work solicits and demands.
The film did disrupt and provoke an ongoing struggle for me that also plagues most makers I know: The issue of large vs small in artistic expression. Epic vs lyric. Grandiose vs intimate. So I was bemused by a recent email declaration from my wise friend Harvey Roy Greenberg: “I have of late for reasons I know not why been much meditating on ‘infinite riches in a little room'”.
To be discussed further in a future post.