Before Christmas I went to see the Anselm Kiefer show at the Royal Academy. It was fantastic. It reminded me of how much I love seeing art.
I was wondering a little today about the reasons why I enjoyed the show so much, and why the content of it resonated with me as much as it did. Quite a lot of it is very nebulous really. It’s difficult to put your finger on what’s going on some of the time for the simple reason that it’s about things which are by nature hard to define.
I think probably the single thing I enjoyed most was that he had created this space in which it became a lot more natural to be in awe of our place in the universe, and to reflect on that. Somehow, between the massive paintings of tired looking sunflowers, the paintings of empty barns which look like the attic of your consciousness and the lead books that seem to be weighed down by every thought left unwritten, there was this teasing set of questions begging to be asked. Who are you in the context of all of this thought that precedes you? How has it defined you? Obviously this is a big deal for him, being born in the Black Forest in 1945 very shortly before the end of the war. But then after these questions there is a sense of something bigger beyond that.
I’m interested in how he invokes this reflection. He’s said he uses lead a lot because it seems to him to be the only thing that is able to express the weight of human experience. He bought the lead from the roof of the old Cologne cathedral for use in his artworks. He also has strong relationships with plenty of other materials.
After seeing the show I saw a documentary about him on iPlayer. Some of it was pretty funny. At one point he’s talking with his assistant about a pile of sand that has been dumped in a doorway and is spilling in to the room. ‘Beautiful. You see, when we do nothing it’s always beautiful. Now I am going outside to smoke a cigar.’ It’s a funny moment but it offers an insight in to the mindset of a man who is constantly evaluating the impact of the accidental arrangements thrown up by life as sculpture in their own right rather than as piles of rubbish to be cleared up. In that moment he saw that sand as something that had a worth of its own.
Much of the success of the work is down to this regard for materials, and the sense that he has invested them all with particular values. When looking at his work it seems to have a presence physically speaking beyond the sum of its parts.
Part of why this interests me so much is that I’m very concerned with digital art. How does digital art work in the context of this enquiry in to materials? Can digital art carry that kind of presence? Does this presence exist in the object, in the viewer, or in some tension between the two? It reminds me a lot of Walter Benjamin’s writing on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ when he talks about ‘the aura’ of an artwork. I disagreed with him about that a little at the time. I can’t remember whether I mentioned that in my blog post. I like the aura. There’s still something amazing about seeing, say, a De Kooning for real that you just don’t get in a reproduction.
With digital work this all changes though. What is the aura of something that has been projected? Or that exists on a disc and can be set up in several places at once? Does it come as a result of the decisions made in its making or does that aura need something else more physical to exist? Could factors like timing or projection surface play a part? Something to investigate.