In his 1970 reflection on slavery, The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry writes this insight into art, challenging the western, individualistic assumption that art can somehow transcend the culture which nurtured it:
A work of art that grows out of a diseased culture has not only the limits of art but the limits of the disease – if it is not an affirmation of the disease, it is a reaction against it. The art of a man divided within himself and against his neighbours, no matter how sophisticated its techniques or how beautiful its forms and textures, will never have the communal power of the simplest tribal song.
I read this on the train on the way back from seeing Anselm Kiefer’s phenomenal Walhalla exhibition/installation at the White Cube in Bermondsey yesterday. I have not seen, for some years, an exhibition of such power and completeness. Kiefer has created a whole world to experience, with his customary breadth of competence and relevance. At a time when the right are on the rise in Europe again, it served as a mockery of the pretensions of men and the vanity of historical romanticism for a “lost past”. It is however, a vision of our culture that grows from disease, and that is constrained by the disease. In fact Kiefer makes no attempt to go beyond the disease but finds deeply imaginative ways of revealing it to us. The scale of the paintings – 9 of them, all at least 4m x 3m and the intensity of the application of paint, plaster, shellac and metal – induce a vertigo even from 4-5 metres away, and surround you with what I can only describe as a warning. Walhalla of course refers to the Norse place of rest for slain warriors (the ways that this is interpreted is wide and sobering), but also to King Ludwig’s 1842 temple of heroes that bears the same name.
Two or three of the paintings in this exhibition are covered with the names of literary, political and artistic figures attached to the tottering towers that appear in much of Kiefer’s work, referencing Ludwig’s temple. Overall, however, the impression created by Kiefer – and this is perhaps why I felt warned by him – is a post-apocalyptic, post nuclear world that the follies of man could bring about in an instant if we were to give way to our least communal, most power-hungry, libertarian instincts. The installations are no less sobering. 3 of the exhibition rooms and the central corridor are lined with oxidised lead, and much of the sculpture is likewise in lead. One room, entitled the Armoury, is simply overpowering in its level of detail – a storage room full of burnt materials, metal boxes, old wheelchairs, safes blown open, and lead and steel everywhere.
The most throught provoking piece (rather than those that just hit you in the face with theit power) was a staircase of discarded clothing entitled Sursum Corda that described the ascent of the Valkyries to Walhalla. Covered with all sorts of photos printed or attached to lead sheets, and hung with encrusted garments, it represented perhaps the purification of those ascending to Walhalla after war. It was a moment of relief in some ways in a testimony of apocalypse.
Jonathan Jones’ review for the Guardian comes to useful conclusions that I found myself resonating with, and is worth a read. Go and see this exhibition – it is free, and startling. The photos here do not do it justice.
I originally intended this post to be an exploration of the two parts of Berry’s contention above, and was going to contrast this work with the work of the American artist Harlan Hubbard, whose work has also been much in my mind recently, but it will take two posts, at least! Part 2 will be here shortly.