Under the hand written sign that says “Walhalla”, the crowd proceeds through a narrow white door frame. A series of unmade beds made of lead and steel occupy the entire space. The dormitory atmosphere leaves no other choice to the visitors than to wander into the dark and take uncertain steps which will hopefully lead them into the adjacent rooms. Each of the six rooms have new installations from Anselm Kiefer displayed in the same, yet, matured tone of his previous work, a development of his chain of thoughts.
Kiefer conducts this exhibition in the same way the dimmed light barely brightens the space impose its presence. Almost invisible, this light will be our guide whether we like or not. The brave ones will wander and delve into their souls, where it hurts and where no ending is in sight, with the underlying company of Kiefer leading the way. For those individuals, the ones that can draw a parallel between the artist’s representation of his memories, his actual pain and their lives, the experience will be moving and ever unforgettable. For the others, the passage from one room to another will be a formality, a numb ballad through war, history and indecipherable interpretation.
The air is dense and the tension palpable as we encounter the towers of the paintings, the vitrines made of fabric, stones and wheat, and the sculptures which appear anchored into the ground. We have entered Walhalla, the majestic hall from Norse mythology, ruled by the God Odin, where the dead who die in combat chosen by the Valkyries, regroup. According to this story, the ones who stride these walls learn and understand the underlying symbolism of the pieces and their meaning, which becomes, as the rooms become darker, more explicit.
Kiefer has used the same materials for his new art work that he used in Milan for The Seven Heavenly Palaces, the latest Paris exhibition at Pompidou and the retrospective at the Royal Academy. He also refers to Jewish mythology which he came across in Jerusalem, blending Kabbalistic elements with alchemy and the significant German history that has marked his life. The wings reappear in San Loreto, at the top of a bed made out of lead. They impose their grandiosity and the notion of flying away from the present moment, the desire to leave aside the surplus of discomfort and eventual traces of pain; the need to break free from reality and human responsibilities. The wings, as strong as they would have to be to escape, cannot counteract the giant boulder sitting in the center of the creased sheets. The references to Kiefer’s tumultuous past and his heavy heritage are tangible, yet his story does not get tangled with the purpose of the installation: to make the viewer face the weight of their pain and to realize that despite their urge to alleviate the boulder, it is cemented too deep and will most likely never move. Living with it is the only option.
Prior to entering one of the smallest rooms of the gallery, built for the exhibition, a feeling of intense claustrophobia hits our core. We instantly long for a fresh breath of air, which hardly reaches our lungs. Emotions spread throughout our bodies as we advance one step closer to the center of the dusty room. Piles of ashes, burned books, sheets of paper and unrecognizable objects have been stacked up to the ceiling. We understand that they are memories of a lifetime which have been used, assaulted and destroyed, but which Kiefer assembled despite what they mean and represent. Our whole lives stand before us, even the moments from the past which we are reluctant to face. Through the means that he knows so well how to create and manipulate, the artist is taking us by the hand and showing us the way to immerse into our inner sorrows. He felt what we feel, he experienced what we experience, and he wanted to run away, just like we are wanting to run away now. We look around and upwards for a way to escape but are somehow paralyzed from taking a step. The feeling of being held down by an invisible force has materialized and as we learn how to breath and observe the chaos around us, we slowly find a way to stay put, comfortable in our own mayhem. This interpretation of a piece of art has, in my opinion, never been so effective and powerful.
Upon finding our way out from this room, we encounter different types of pieces. Sursum Corda, an endless staircase, suspends the garments worn by the Valkyries- female host figures who choose who will die in battle. At the end of the hall, before making a turn to the vitrines, Kiefer’s black and white silhouette, surrounded by lead, marches out of its frame. With his will to reimagine a Norse mythological passage through this exhibition, sharing the steps once used by the Valkyries, he leads the ones that have died in battle to the hall of slain; they are his chosen ones. Us.
Anselm Kiefer at White Cube Bermondsey (23 November 2016 – 12 February 2017)