Friday, 13 November 2009
Some Exhibitions in London, November 2009. (Kapoor/Kiefer/Jodorowksy/ Montandon)
Anish Kapoor at The Royal Academy (26 September-11 December 2009)
Art galleries now are always white, the huge smooth spaces of their well-lit walls and shiny floors as much a part of any exhibition as the artworks themselves. This is made explicit in the Anish Kapoor show at the Royal Academy – most notably, in the two exhibits (Shooting Into the Corner (2008-2009)/ Svayambh (2007)) involving large quantities of red wax being smeared over venerable wooden door-frames, splattered on the whiteness of those walls in a pile of meaty red waste. Of course, one must always stand behind the white line to view such an ‘unrestrained’ mess. This leaves an odd, dissatisfying disjuncture: the freedom to subvert is managed, something to provide a hook for the show, to draw people in, without in reality moving any of the boundaries between spectator, artist and work which all too often are internalised and taken as read. Anish Kapoor is allowed to fire a cannon of red wax into a corner; anyone else would be taken by the scruff of the neck and marched out for crimes against art (or art galleries).Something similar happens in a room full of variously shaped and curved mirrors which Kapoor calls Non-Objects. To my mind this seems nothing more than an arty version of what one might find in a Victorian fairground, actually stripped of the sense of wonder present in the fair because of its sterile context, because viewers tip-toe round the mirrors wanting to burst out laughing as their shape is stretched so as to become hugely fat or thin or short or tall, but facing disapproving glances whenever anyone goes too far. (This place has, after all, the atmosphere of a secular church, and, like the church, is governed by a system of elitism, money and privilege by which the ordinary spectator is supposed to be awed, a participant only as a passive receptacle for the presentation of that which is ‘above’ their normal experience (though, of course, packaged into its own set of experiences – what one should do and feel in an art gallery).)
The show does have a certain immediate appeal – a protruding white ‘belly’ which appears at first to be an illusion does something to break the white flatness of a gallery wall (as if the building itself has become pregnant, a disquieting notion which bellows the work’s smooth gracefulness of shape), and what looks to be a painting of a giant yellow on yellow sun turns out to be a false wall with a large central hole (the opposite of a belly, perhaps). (When I Am Pregnant (1992)/ Yellow (1999). But such illusions reveal little beyond themselves: they are neat tricks with no secrets to yield, no truths to deliver, no paradoxes beyond the slight thrill of being tricked or confused: trompe l’oeil in the age of minimalism. The same with the hall of mirrors; the same with the sculptures made of colour and grouped under the title '1,000 Names', which hint at something vaguely religious and ritualistic (inspired by Kapoor’s visits to India) but lack the courage to make this explicit (and certainly without the courage to do anything political). Similarly, large sculptures such as ‘Slug’ (2009 – winding marble coils surrounding a shiny red vulva – do impress by their scale (taking up entire galleries), yet evoke no more wonder or fear than a single shot from a Jodorowsky film or even from Hollywood fare such as ‘Alien.’ Placed as it is in the front courtyard of the RA, neatly tucked in from the shiny lights and large scale of a street of shops, ‘Tall Tree and the Eye’ (2009), a sculpture consisting of connected glass balls, resembles nothing more than a giant modern Christmas tree. If, as Werner Herzog claims, we are in desperate need of new images to ensure the survival of our civilisation, they will not be found tidied away in a world of privileged white space and precious, tethered, quasi-subversion. Wander from the spindly broken pots and containers of the ‘excreted cement’ sculptures ‘Greyman Cries, Shaman Dies, Billowing Smoke, Beauty Evoked’ (2008-2009) onto a building site; wander from the sticky red mess fired from a cannon every 20 minutes, during gallery opening hours, to the sticky red mess at the end of machine gun bullets every minute, around the world. Seen in this light, Kapoor’s work seems to do far less than it could, or should.
Anselm Kiefer: 'Karfunkelfee' and 'The Fertile Crescent' at The White Cube(s) (16 October-14 November 2009)
Perhaps my beef with the Kapoor exhibition is as much with the gallery setting as with what is presented within it. Let’s put that to the test: not far from the Royal Academy, in an Old Mason’s Yard (not that you would recognise it as shut) can be found the ‘White Cube’ gallery. This is perhaps the ultimate example of the trend to whiteness – the name of the gallery paying testament to its aesthetic (away with the black, the dirty, the broken, if it’s not contained within a large ‘steel and glass frame’). The immaculate cube certainly provides a spacious arena for Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Karfunkelfee’, four huge triptychs depicting gothic forests, and a smaller painting tucked away in the ‘lower ground floor lobby’ (at the other White Cube, in Hoxton Square, a companion show entitled ‘The Fertile Crescent’ depicts the ruins of Indian brick factories). Yet Kiefer’s work evades the tendency to alluring, polished and unfeeling minimalism exemplified by the sepulchral whiteness of modern galleries; indeed, the seriousness with which he treats his simplified subject matter comes close to caricature. This has its dangers: his work strives for portentousness in a manner not helped by the sort of critical comments hurled his way whenever he unveils his latest piece. The wounds of history, the aftermath of Fascism and the Holocaust, the cruelty of nature with the broken and slender promise of hope as a flower springing from the wasteland: such heavy symbolism threatens to drag down Kiefer’s canvases just as much as the thick encrusted impasto of his paint. But such interpretations, while perhaps true of the less successful work produced throughout the artist’s career, do not do justice to the best of his oeuvre.
What might be best would be, at least initially, to approach the canvasses with less of a worthy desire to make them mean humanistically and politically worthy things, to approach them with regards to the physical handling of material, to the sensuous experience of standing before them. It’s hard to miss the way in which they have been wrestled onto the canvas, a tactile struggle shared with Pollock and Auebach, the thick encrustations of their texture mimicking ‘nature’ (cracked earth, broken surfaces of ice and snow, wasteland, desert, human desolation of rubbish dumps and building sites) in what is more re-enactment and re-living than simple mimesis. This might give an appearance or atmosphere of desolation, yet there is also something approaching exuberance in the violent struggle with paint, the slashes and slabs and stabs. In a recent interview with The Independent Kiefer has this to say: “Children take all as given, and it is for this reason that ruins are beautiful – to me, extremely beautiful. I think the most beautiful movie in the world is the one when planes were sent after the war over Germany to film the ruins – these are for me the most beautiful pictures. It's wonderful because the vertical becomes the horizontal, you know? On one side, something is hidden because it's buried and on the other something is exposed – you see the forms. I love this.” Ruins, then (such as the ones in ‘The Fertile Crescent’), are not just symbols of transience, are not just about the horror of buildings which have outlived their original function, about the terrifying absence of the human: they have an aesthetic delight in themselves, if anything enhanced by the deep-seated fears which they also evoke. Similarly, for all their spiky forbidding, the brambles placed in front of the Karfunkelfee paintings seem meticulously arranged, carefully-smudged and smeared photos coiled round them, even a real snake carefully hidden in shadowed thicket; a semi-recreation, bringing the outside into a space where it becomes aestheticised – in the process losing the full force of its ‘sublime’ impact, nagged by fears which are more submerged, which creep around in less obvious ways than in the German Romantic art which is always present in the background of Kiefer’s works.
As the reviews for the show all note, this pieces offer nothing really new – not that that is the point of what Kiefer does. One senses that he wants each and every painting that he creates to be always-already a monument, to embody history. Odd, then, that this never occurs in a public space – by which I mean a REAL public space, not just a swish. immaculately polished gallery off Jermyn Street with its bespoke shoes and expensive tailors. How would a Kiefer compete with the flashing billboards a few miles away, the buzz of traffic and shoppers and shops? Perhaps the answer is that, though Kiefer is attempting to deal with historical traumas which effect us all, he is not doing so in an obvious or zeitgeisty way – this is not ‘Schindler’s List’ or ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or some film dealing with more recent horrors. One might note, in particular, the absence of figures –something heightened, in this show, by the presence of empty shirts, smocks, hoods, the hint of a path, a large book whose pages, curled as if aged paper, turn out to be made of rusted, weathered lead (echoing Kiefer’s earlier work, ‘High Priestess’). The work is in a sense an escape – to the ‘exotic’ strangeness of what Kiefer saw in India, to the German Romantic dark forest – but it is also an escape to dreams and nightmares which embody the fears suppressed and ignored in the busy, flashing world outside. Rather than taking that world on directly, Kiefer moves his reference points backwards (dealing with Germany’s 1940s legacy of guilt, drawing from older Germanic traditions, painting ruins, those symbols of the past), at the same time as trying to move them out of obvious temporal reference – to unchanging natural scenes, empty of human cultivation – to more primal fears.
We see this in the way that, as with Francis Bacon, echoes of western painting’s religious heritage sound in a human context: in the case of ‘Karfunkelfee’, the triptych form, with large, empty and decaying objects – a large smock, a small metal plane, a book made of lead – taking the place of Christ, the supreme figure of human suffering. This actually subverts a desire for catharsis, to be purged of plague desires and horrors (Grunwald). Only ghosts remain – and maybe not even ghosts, for memories lose their grip as those who held them die. Thus, the hooded smock in the centre of one of the triptychs is the shroud of the corpse that has disappeared, not because, like Christ, it has been resurrected, but because the body has rotted away; the smaller smocks tangled in the bramble below, almost mockingly, recall perhaps massacres of children, lamb’s wool caught in the thicket, and it’s arguably MORE disturbing to discover them this way, than to present explicit horror, than to depict an actual human corpse. For the fear of death is not so much that one will die, but that NOTHING OF ONE WILL BE LEFT: no memory, no trace, no poetic or artistic monument (Kiefer’s desire for monumentality, mentioned above, is nevertheless a desire for a different kind of monumentality to the norm; his monuments are monuments to the decay that follows great destruction, not the survivors of the glory that precedes it). In ‘Narziss and Goldmund’, Hesse writes that "perhaps...fear of death is the root of all our image-making"; Kiefer takes on this notion, but takes it further, ensures that in his works this fear is, at least partially, realized. No anonymous model will be immortalised as a statue in a "quiet dark cloister church, smiling with the same lovely mouth, as beautiful, young, and full of pain", for Kiefer's work has no human model. And that’s why his work still has such resonance – it’s not about doing something new, about some new trend – and it’s not just about an individual fear or an individual’s fear of death – it’s about a fear that, despite the apparent absence of the human, encompasses the whole human race, empathetically and collectively – that (especially given the recent fears of catastrophic environmental damage) not just one man or woman will disappear without trace, but that this will be the fate of all people, that the world will become uninhabitable and uninhabited by homo sapiens. Perhaps at some stage spaces such as the White Cube will be covered in brambles for real, Kiefer’s paint mingling with the dust and dirt with which it has so far only been lightly and consciously sprinkled.
Alejandro Jodorowksy and Pascale Montandon at The Horse Hospital (7-28 November 2009)
The series of watercolour and ink drawings by Alejandro Jodorowsky, in collaboration with his partner Pascale Montandon, are refreshingly located in a less grand setting. Down a side street, one comes across the words ‘Horse Hospital’ painted in white letters on a brick wall, and, a few meters further on, one has to press a buzzer to be admitted into the gallery space. The prices listed next to each work in the catalogue make more explicit that in the RA or White Cube the ridiculous money that goes into the art world, perhaps leading one to be automatically less disposed to like the work – even though it is by Jodorowsky. Starved of finances to make a new film for many years (1989’s ‘Santa Sangre’ is his last notable work), Jodorowsky might, one suspects, have turned his ideas into visual arts out of frustration. At the same time, they allow him a certain freedom, to paint things he couldn’t depict in the medium of film – or at least, not without considerable expense, effort and technological know-how. Thus, painted in a naïve style somewhat reminiscent of children’s book illustrations, we see figures with prominent genitals giving birth, having sex, raping and being raped, being mutilated, dancing, standing, singing; we are presented with bodily space transgressions and penetrations (arms going through bodies, one body sprouting many heads, a rabbi with sprouting extra fingers, headless corpses holding their smiling faces in their laps, green voyeur smiling dogs, plants with thick red lips). Despite all this, and despite what it shares with films like ‘The Holy Mountain’ and ‘El Topo’ – a preponderance of arcane mystical and religious symbolism, a fusion of extreme sex and violence, a love of images which are bizarre, arresting and taboo-breaking – these works are, if anything, less excessive than the films. Without the tie to real humans (actors), physical sets, location shooting, and without the combination of sound, music, speech and image, they are more safely removed into framed, almost whimsical fantasy, lacking the disturbance, the derangement which was always at the heart of what Jodorowksy did as a director. I’d take them over Anish Kapoor, though.