Saturday, 26 March 2011

Art & History, by Germans, in France

The recent release of Werner Herzog's Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is the latest in a short but high-calibre roster of German artists working in France over the past ten years. At the forefront is the film director Michael Haneke. Code Unknown presented a matrix of interlaced stories concerning contemporary Parisians; the subsequent Hidden linked social volatility to France's political history. Eighteen months ago saw the release of Sophie Fiennes Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, a documentary about the work of German Artist Anselm Kiefer and in particular his open-air 'studio' in Barjac. Finally, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams investigates the delicate Chauvet Cave with its 32,000 year-old Upper Paleolithic era paintings (including the red hand-print, above).

Clearly these high-calibre artists have found the space and material for their art in France. Haneke's work concerns the pessimism and fissures in contemporary social ties. Necessarily the period piece The White Ribbon concerned Germans and Germany but as a more objective investigation of the stain of history the two Parisian films provided a more suitable frame.

Equally, Anselm Kiefer's work is invariably bound up with the social history of Germany (his breakthrough work,  Besetzungen or Occupation, involved photographing himself performing the Nazi salute in front of sites that had been co-opted by the Third Reich) and continues to draw on history or myth. The relocation to Barjac allows the broader commentary on global industrialisation to breathe free of national stigma. It's also created with the distant intention of allowing natural reclamation of the site (pictured, right).

Thinking of Fiennes' Kiefer documentary looking forward to the decline of civilisation and then a real monument looking back on it in Herzog's Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, I was reminded of the remarkable Channel 4 documentary Life After People. This (in the UK, single-feature) documentary constructed a hypothetical future in which human existence had suddenly and entirely evaporated. Unlike the wistful, suggestive - or, at least - ruminative work of Kiefer and Herzog this programme was more a visual statement of what our understanding of natural processes would mean for the earth in our absence. Interestingly, this made as much of an impact on me as the inevitably artistic conceits with which Kiefer and Herzog present their ideas.

Clearly, pursuit of such objectivity to stiffen the integrity of their art probably accounts, in some part, for these German artists crossing a border in order to realise their goal.

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