At the White Cube

Peter Campbell

The exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s new work at White Cube Mason’s Yard (until 17 March) is entitled Aperiatur Terra – ‘let the earth open’ – the reference is to Isaiah 45.8: ‘Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it.’

The Bible is only one of the sources Kiefer has from time to time turned to for texts. He is a master of the perhaps profound but not fully explained. The religious feel of things at White Cube is intensified by the character of the gallery building: a simple prism of white and grey which stands in the middle of a cobbled yard, as many small churches and chapels do in close-built towns and cities. It has the severity and simplicity of rooms specially designed for modern religious work – the Rothko Chapel in Houston, for example. The basement is a fine modern crypt. As spaces these are very good indeed,detailed (white walls, polished concrete floors, steel handrails) with a luxurious frugality that contrasts with and isolates the roughness of Kiefer’s scrawled words, gouged surfaces, stuck-on vegetation and heavy paint.

The ground-floor gallery is filled by an installation, Palmsonntag: a wall of 18 paintings, butted up close, and a palm tree. It lies across the diagonal of the room, is topped with the remnants of a crown of leaves, now crisp and brown, and terminates with a root-bole, round and heavy, like the knob of a club. The paintings resemble sheets from a herbarium where specimens – palm leaves, but other plants as well – have been mounted by a deranged botanist who has attacked them with plaster and paint and labelled them in big writing in crayon or charcoal. Some read ‘Palm Sunday’ in various languages. The simplest, most direct interpretation takes one to the Passion, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem with the crowd scattering flowers and palm leaves before him.

In the lower gallery there are three very large canvases painted with a combination of oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac. They show mud-brown fields over which ploughed furrows or ridges recede towards a vanishing point on a high, distant horizon. Flowers in blue and pink dot the foreground. The paintings are called Aperiatur Terra et Germinet Salvatorem, Rorate Caeli et Nubes Pluant Iustum and Olympe-Für Victor Hugo.

That is the White Cube part of the exhibition. Up Duke Street and across Piccadilly, in the forecourt of the Royal Academy, Kiefer (who is an honorary RA) has erected two towers, one of five storeys, the other of six. The work, called Jericho, matches towers he has erected in his 35-acre open-air studio in the South of France. Each of the storeys is a roughly three-metre cube, made from reinforced concrete casts of the corner of a freight container. A door is cut out on each side of each cube: if you step in on the ground floor you can look up, through round, bashed-out holes, right to the top. Long whiskers of reinforcing rod project from the floor slabs at each level. The cubes are at odd angles and look to be stabilised by monster books of lead sheets which prop up corners, in the way a waiter will prop up a wobbly table with a folded card. There is a model in lead of a warship on the top of the eastern tower.

Artillery ultimately reduces stone to rubble. When reinforced concrete is pounded towards oblivion concrete and steel still cling to each other; this dates the ruins that follow natural disasters and modern war. It gives Kiefer’s towers a point of reference. They function much as storms, ruins, prisons and ravines do for 18th-century exercises in the Sublime.

Much of the visual vocabulary Kiefer has built up over the last four decades is revisited in these works: the scarred field; the desolate perspective; lead (lead models and lead books in particular); bits of plant material stuck on heavily painted surfaces, bleak concrete architecture – all have antecedents in earlier work. In their first manifestation many of them referred directly to the Second World War, to Nazism and the Holocaust. But a newspaper picture of buildings torn apart by the latest suicide bomb in Iraq fits as easily. Specific interpretation is neither encouraged nor useful. Kiefer’s work sticks to your imagination the way tar sticks to a shoe. You may not want it there, but you can’t scrape it off. You hear its zippy crackle follow as you try to walk away. It can make you seem to recall dreams you know you never had: dreams where you cross a clay field at the end of a grey day, your legs hardly able to pull your feet out of the heavy ground; or where you try to find a picture in a lead book, each page of which is almost too heavy to lift and turn. Kiefer’s myths and nightmares, like the creation myths and folktales they sometimes derive from, are tenacious because they build fugally on black intuitions one already has about how things really were and really are. He provides a melancholy, desolate terrain on which imagined events that peck at the edge of awfulness could take place.

These works give pleasure because they heighten and dignify the frisson that gives zest to commonplace thoughts about impending disaster (bird flu, tidal waves, floods) and the savagery of recent history. In the visual arts visions of a landscape in which the pastoral impulse is chilled have tended to be a Northern, and particularly a German speciality. Caspar David Friedrich’s mountains and deserted seashores are melancholy accounts of man’s place in nature. Emil Nolde’s seas and sunsets have no place for man at all.

It is the way Kiefer’s work seems to refer to how things are, without spelling out precisely what those things might be, that makes it such a powerful imaginative prod. In this it is old-fashioned, un-ironic, not cool. It can be contrasted with two recent memorials to the Jewish dead – something Kiefer’s work has often made reference to. Both Peter Eisenman’s Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Rachel Whiteread’s Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust at Judenplatz in Vienna are severe and rectilinear. The Berlin memorial is a field of concrete blocks rising and falling in height. Whiteread’s, at first sight a rusticated windowless building, turns out to be a cast of shelves of inward-facing books. A ‘nameless library’.

The meaning of these memorials was already determined. The designers’ established styles allowed them to escape the impossible task of making direct reference to the deaths they stood for. Their inadequacy was necessary and planned. Kiefer’s towers – also concrete blocks in an architectural setting – dangerous-looking (will they topple?), assertive, both ruined and new-made, are not challenged or circumscribed by a programme. Their meaning lies in the drag they put on the imagination. When words do accompany Kiefer’s work they are like the words on some of Goya’s Caprichos: additions that deepen mysteries, not captions or explanations.