Anselm Kiefer and the weight of German history

Stumbling upon director Sophie Fiennes’ “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” you might think German artist Anselm Kiefer is referencing a nuclear apocalypse in his architectonic installations. Opening today (6 January 2012) at the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7, this meditative documentary is about how an artist works more than it is a biography of the artist.

In a sense, that makes this documentary performance art and Fiennes is able to create an atmosphere of somber mystery. We travel through what seems like a maze of tunnels and dusty hallways. It made me think of Southern California’s own ghost towns, so solemn, subdued and teetering on the bring of decay are these constructions.

Kiefer was born in Germany a few months before the war ended. Imagine how the emotional and physical damage to the country and society must have made an impression on the young boy. His artwork calls attention to the xenophobia that led to the deadly machinations of Hitler’s Third Reich. In 1969, his graduation project was photographs of Kiefer making the Nazi salute in various European cities and caused quite a stir. Kiefer explained much later in an interview for “Art News” that it was a way of asking himself : “Am I a fascist?”

Both a painter and a sculptor, he incorporates non-traditional materials like straw, ash, clay, lead and broken glass. He is inspired by the poems of Paul Celan. Don’t expect bright colors. What we see seem to be all in different stages of decay.

Fiennes filmed Kiefer at his studio complex in Barjac. Barjac is a Renaissance town in southern France that is in a valley between two rivers. Beginning in 1992, Kiefer took over an old silk factory, creating a network of glass buildings, installations, storerooms, subterranean chambers and long corridors and hallways. Surrounded by the natural woodland that he seems to have made no attempt to landscape this 35-hectare (about 86 acres) studio are and its environs. The results resembles a deserted or nearly deserted city.

Kiefer has, since about 2008, left Barjac for Paris–transporting his work to a warehouse outside of Paris and leaving behind a curious creation.  Brian Appleyard for the London Sunday Times wrote that the Barjac complex in itself was a great work and although a caretaker looks after “Uninhabited, it quietly waits for nature to take over, because, as we know, over our cities grass will grow.”

Fiennes’ documentary is more about the complex than about Kiefer himself and in a way, while we do hear Kiefer speak, she lets his work do most of the talking and isn’t that what an artist is about?

In German with English subtitles. Running time is 105 minutes.

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