sun 22/05/2022

Anselm Kiefer, White Cube Hoxton | reviews, news & interviews

Anselm Kiefer, White Cube Hoxton

Anselm Kiefer, White Cube Hoxton

The German artist contemplates creation and destruction in the watery depths

The sea: the depths from which all life emerged, and a force of destruction. Anselm Kiefer contemplates its sublime beauty and terror in a new exhibition of 24 panoramic photographs, ranged three-deep on two facing walls. Each grey and grainy seascape has been smeared and splattered with white paint and transformed by “electrolysis”, a process which isn’t further explained in the press release but which sounds suitably and impressively dramatic.

Characteristically, Kiefer takes as his starting point a work of literature, references to which have been elegantly scribed in a looping hand on some of the images. The title of the exhibition, Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love), is taken from a play by 19th-century Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer and retells the classical myth of doomed lovers Hero and Leander: swimming the Hellespont every night to be with his lover, Leander eventually drowns.

It isKiefer_gyneaWork a tale that has compelled artists and writers through the centuries, and here Kiefer revisits it within a broader theme of birth and destruction, for on each distressed surface an ancient-looking gynecological instrument is affixed. All look frankly terrifying and one is left to wonder about their specific uses (pictured above right), but the works themselves fail to inspire the awe the subject requires.

Meanwhile, on the far-end wall, a muddily encrusted painting on which is affixed a large model battleship provides a thematic counterpoint to the photographs, while in the middle of the gallery are five vitrines, each containing one of Kiefer’s books – not quite sketchbooks, for they feature finished works. Here he has overlaid his photographs with mathematical diagrams and formulae which imprison his seascapes within the frame of Euclidian geometry. The Romantic conceit of an untamed nature that cannot be so easily measured, mapped and explained is evoked, along with the idea that to do so would destroy the beauty of it.


Upstairs is another body of related work. An ageing man, Kiefer himself, takes a bracing dip in the choppy waters (see main picture and installation view above). In one he is treading in the shallows, in another he is completely submerged apart from one raised arm (waving or drowning?), while in a third he seems to be fairly bobbing along. It’s not quite Caspar David Friedrich’s lone man facing the awe-inspiring forces of the universe, since, apart from the grainy quality of the work, there is a hum-drum snapshot feel to these images that I can bet wasn’t intentional.

Though Kiefer tackles the big themes as he has always done, unafraid of embracing the mythic weight of the past, this latest exhibition really isn't half as visually impressive as what we have come to expect from Kiefer’s more monumental works. His last White Cube show (at their bigger Mason's Yard gallery), which featured his characteristically huge, clotted canvases, but with uncharacteristic splashes of colour – poppies coming up through the dead-looking earth – certainly possessed the wow factor. These, however, fall far short of that.

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