Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Anselm Kiefer at White Cube

A major piece by Anselm Kiefer, Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love) has recently gone on show at Hoxton Sqaure's White Cube gallery. Like so much of Kiefer's work, this is a collection of pieces concerned with history - the pieces are inspired by a Greek legend - and by being a continuous part of that history - they are made in such a way as to draw attention to their ability to degrade and corrode.

The first room has rather a lot going on in three separate areas. Firstly, the far wall has a sculpture hung on a screen, looking at the same time dredged from the sea bed and with cartoonish appendages to show it consumed with flames. Secondly the side walls have 24 large photographs of waves breaking on the beach, the prints manipulated by electrolysis. Each has a large gynaecological instrument placed on it, usually at the point where the spume is breaking. Finally there are a number or vitrines holding large books with further shoreline pints with Euclidean geometrics scribbled over them.

Kiefer's focus on this occasion is the legend of Hero and Leander (via Marlowe and Grillparzer), concerning a man who nightly swam the Hellespont to be with his lover. The images of the sea speak for themselves, as do the age-indicating sepia effects of the printing process.

On top of these Kiefer has placed fetters of modernity, the industry of a martial vessel and the scientific facelessness of surgical instruments. The vessel is useless and mocked in a Python-esque overlay of collage. The instruments are oversized reproductions, like monuments. In the vitrines the ideas chalked over images of the waves are a fatuous attempt to control, contain or simply rationalise the edge of the sea.

Where a lover's bloody-mindedness blinded him to the dangers of the sea, the industrial paraphernalia arranged awkwadly over each photograph is hubristic. Yet Kiefer's attitude to these collages is more ambivalent than one might think. His attitude is not satirical (with the possible exception of the boat sculpture, involving, as it does, a ship of war) but is more compassionate, more of a series of momento mori.

Further to this there is a second part to the work in the upstairs gallery. It is significant that one has to go further into the gallery to see this, as the photographs show a man (Kiefer himself) who has moved on from the beach to swim in the sea. The livid, rust-red prints, subject to the same printing processes do not show him in haste to an unseen point or to return to shore. Rather, in the foreground of the body of water, he seems to be enjoying the experience of having a swim.

I like this idea of trying to show the relationship with the environment, a historically contextualiused impression of treating the sea with a healthy respect or ignoring its awesome power to their peril. With bittersweet serendipity, it's also a very current exhibition, as a nuclear power station staggers from a sneeze of nature off the coast of Japan. To me the treatment of the pieces in such a way that their intrinsic, material potential to decay is highlighted is an unnecessary step. My imagination understands this potential without having the tiresome, sleeve-pulling insistence suggesting that it's likely to be proved if I stick around long enough. On a straightforwardly aesthetic level, I'm not a fan of images or, particularly, sculptural installations under glass. Still, the exhibition provides plenty of grist for thought, to mix metaphors (which I also think it does).

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