One of the advantages of living in a city is its occasional cultural events. One of these has been the recent film festival, a highlight of which was the showing of Sophie Fiennes new documentary on the German artist Anselm Kiefer, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, with the added bonus of a discussion with the director after the viewing. For the past ten years Kiefer has been working on a massive sculptural project in the land surrounding his studio in Barjac in the South of France. The film shows Barjac to be a hermetically sealed woodland in which Kiefer has constructed a house, workshops and galleries in which to house his particular obsessions. The film begins with long slow tracking shots taking us into the labyrinth of tunnels Kiefer and his minions have dug out underneath the buildings. Materials and motifs familiar to anyone who has seen Kiefer’s paintings lie seemingly scattered all around: twisted reinforced concrete rubble, folds of lead in the shape of books or lumps of meteorite, broken glass, smashed ceramic pots, mud, dark and earthy colours of red, black, grey broken by beams of natural light filtered through skylights, and on occasional surfaces the scratchy scrawl in chalk or charcoal of words written in the artists’ hand.
For much of this first section the film remains silent other than an evocative musical score allowing the mysterious work to speak for itself. After the meanderings underground the camera takes us up carefully constructed stairs leading outside where towers of concrete and lead stand sentinel, guarding the entrance. We then enter some of the buildings where more paintings and sculptures are housed. Some are large glass houses, bubbles protecting the sculptures from the encroaching landscape of trees and shrubland, others primitive breeze block shacks barely big enough to house the large scale canvases. One is a white room resembling a hospital ward lined with beds whose covers are drapes of lead in the centre of which are indentations filled with water. Above the beds the words “les femmes de la revolucion” and names such as “Cornelia” and “Charlotte Corday”. Are these victims of war? Is this a hospital or an asylum? There are obvious connotations to concentration camps but, as with so much of Kiefer’s oeuvre, this is an over simplification.
The middle section of the film abruptly switches to the artist at work. Kiefer stomps around a canvas laid on the floor slapping glue on it, workers standing by watching, one of whom follows with powdered cement flinging it at the glued surface. Then the artist holding a mechanical switch in his hands attached to chains and a pulley yanks the canvas upright demanding that someone shake the canvas from behind. The cement falls to the floor to expose a beautiful rendition of light breaking through trees. Kiefer implements industrial processes to replicate natural scenes. The roughness of his approach belies the care of his vision. One is reminded of scenes of Jackson Pollock ‘performing’ his action paintings, the difference being Kiefer isn’t performing for the camera, he works with intent and purpose oblivious to Fiennes cinematic intrusion. Kiefer’s work is no artist’s trick. It is real. After watching him work for a while, attaching metal models of battleships to canvases depicting seascapes, we are treated to witness an interview between Kiefer and a respected German art critic. This is the only explanation for the work the film offers, and it is as enigmatic as the work itself. We learn Kiefer’s interest in the sea results from the fact that the chemical composition of blood is the same as that of the ocean, and that an inspiration for his work is boredom, quoting an essay by Heidegger on the subject, “in boredom you are at the base of existence”, and “one becomes conscious of one’s existence when bored.” We also learn that the buildings housing the paintings are a means of stopping the viewer from being able to step back from the work, forcing one to have an intimate relationship with it
After this insight we then switch back to the work itself, and watch Kiefer constructing teetering concrete towers outside. At Barjac Kiefer is constructing a city, a civilisation, but it is an abandoned civilisation of destruction and ruins. The only thing missing from this city are the inhabitants. Who was this civilisation and what happened to them? What is the significance of these idols (the paintings and sculptures) left amongst the ruins? Wandering around these ruins through the eye of Fiennes’ camera lens is a privilege on a par with those first explorers to stumble on the ruins of Mayan cities in the jungles of Central America. If there is one thing we can learn from this film and the work of Anselm Kiefer it is the strength and wonder of the singular human vision. We see what can be achieved by one man with the time, space and resources to pursue this vision. And if anyone dares to ask: what is the point of Kiefer’s work, I answer, you may as well ask: what is the point of anything?