Walhalla. The name is written above the gallery entrance in the artist’s own looping scrawl. The same scrawl that he uses to etch historical and cultural context and significance onto many of his paintings. In Quaternity, 1973, his text allows three feeble fires on a wooden floor to become the holy trinity. In Der Kyffhäuser, 1981, it turns a dark, dank industrial environment into the final resting place of a Holy Roman Emperor. Now, it is the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey that has been rendered a place of myth and legend by the ambivalent brush of Anselm Kiefer. It will remain so until the 12th February, completely free of charge, for any intrepid explorer who wishes to venture inside.
For nearly fifty years, Kiefer has been creating painted and sculpted spaces that not only captivate with their monumentality, but bring down upon their viewer a vast emotional weight of urgent seriousness. The German artist’s latest exhibition at The White Cube is no different. The name Walhalla speaks of the grand feasting hall of Norse mythology, where fallen warriors of renown are taken to sit alongside mighty kings and heroes of legend. It is there that they await Ragnarök: the final doom of the gods, and the flood that will birth the world anew. In Kiefer’s vision, however, there is no feasting. The gods and heroes are mere names painted on lead and scratched in paint, and the doom approaching is our own. As you walk from room to room, rusting remnants of human presence and human destruction can be seen: machine gun barrels poke out from underneath leaden bed sheets spread over cots that clutter a dim corridor, and dirt-encrusted clothes festoon a towering spiral staircase as it reaches for a non-existent heaven. All is dark and heavy, lit only by naked bulbs that are almost drowned in the gloom.
Stepping out of this environment and into one of the large, brightly lit rooms that house Kiefer’s vast paintings is therefore, at first, a relieving experience. Here the paintings hang like melancholy sentinels, watching over the bizarre metal-wrought sculptures that fill the rooms. These fabricated forms simultaneously baffle and intrigue, made more captivating by the mythical and historical contexts they are given; but it is the paintings that are truly awe-inspiring. They depict vast apocalyptic landscapes, in which decaying (or perhaps newly emerging) fields of nature are stained and cauterised by molten lead that drips from darkened skies. Sky and flight have long been used by Kiefer as symbols to signify the potential for escape and transcendence from a ruined world or a ruined identity. However, that potential is always sabotaged by its own nature, as it is in this Walhalla enclosed within The White Cube. All that can be seen of humanity in these seemingly infinite expanses are strange, teetering towers: ghostly in appearance; perhaps remnants of modern society and its ideologies in the wake of its impending hubristic downfall.
The scale or implication of Kiefer’s vision is entirely left to the viewer’s interpretation, and many readings can be made, but explicit and unequivocal in these works is the artist’s preoccupation with the inexorable ties between past and future. In this exhibition, he is presenting us with a possible afterlife for modern times – an escape from our flawed existence – yet at every turn we are confronted with decaying relics of our own history. One small room is piled high with shelves and large books, with reels of Kiefer’s own photographs draped over rusted industrial machinery. Indeed, he is purposefully including his own history and his own actions in this grand epitaph.
Kiefer recognises that we can neither escape the past, nor try to forget it. Moreover, he is suggesting that any future we do forge will be entirely made up of everything that has come before it, and under the weight of that history we will all be made to stoop. Walhalla is a grave eulogy for crushed idealism in an age of uncertainty, and it is one that should not be ignored.