Anselm Kiefer, the enfant terrible of ambivalently postwar-wartime art, has undertaken an astoundingly architectural series of projects, constructing several towers in vastly different settings. These curious structures exude a sense of timelessness, yet also an undeniable timeliness. Like many of the themes he deals with, they have appeared in his paintings, photographs, books, and sculptures for more than a decade now. The question of whether their most recent, more sculptural manifestations are in fact architecture or not is less important than how he approaches them, and what that approach has to say about contemporary—and not-so-contemporary—architecture.
I’ve followed these towers’ development in three key places, important not so much for their geographic locations as for their immediate topographic situations. I use situation in the broadest sense, indicating the prevailing cultural climate, as well as their physical surroundings and how they are set into them.
First is his laboratory, La Ribotte, at his home-studio in the Provencal town of Barjac. Here, amid more than forty-two “pavilions” and over two miles of tunnels in the course of creation on the estate of a former silkworm factory offered him by the French Ministry of Culture, he’s constructed and swiftly deconstructed a large grouping of towers. Significantly, they are all outdoors. The placid landscape of Provence is punctuated with these ambitious, (foolish?) pride-inspired architectonic shapes. There are shipping container forms cast in reinforced concrete, precariously stacked up to seven stories high. Some are spires, mere metal I-beam skeletons, traces of towers with impracticable stairs leading upward, yet obviously leading nowhere. Some (the earliest ones, I suppose, as they only appear here) are built of cinderblocks or similarly ancient bricklike forms, often in a checkerboard pattern of blocks with gaps of nothingness in between. Others—cast in what looks to be oversized concrete corduroy or from massive corrugated-metal matrices—are more solid, impenetrable on the ground floor, with iron reinforcement rods sticking like protective spikes out the side of each floor plate. Nevertheless, all have at least one window, door, a skylight hinting at a meteorite’s descent, a couple missing walls, or some other opening to the outside world.
This epicenter of his experimentation, developed since his move here from Germany in the early nineties, ties together all of his many languages: there are staircases cast independently, laid on the ground, and set atop one another to form a pictogram of ocean waves (a similar, smoother outdoor sculpture has been installed at one of his collectors’ seaside estates in Southport, Connecticut); some of the stairs have stood up to reach otherwise isolated chambers high up in the towers; the surrounding fields themselves hint at, without visually resembling, the famously barren fields of his massive paintings; the blocks of the few towers built without being cast in modules look as though they were stripped from his mid-nineties Himmel-Erde (Heaven-Earth) series of painting and photographs, bricks that had in turn been recycled from Piranesi’s etchings and explorers’ old albumen photographs of Nineveh. Here he also manufactured the towers cast in miniature that have begun to appear on his monumental canvases, now making their public debut in an endless, echo-filled retrospective at the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Second is the Hangar Bicocca, a relatively new exhibition space in a former heavy industry-cum-hotspot neighborhood northeast of Milan’s city center. This grouping, dubbed The Seven Heavenly Palaces, made up of seven towers ranging from five- to seven-stories in height, sprouted up under the vast canopy of a former Pirelli industrial hangar. While the title, like so many of Kiefer’s recurring and oft-recycled names, hints at their supposedly celestial nature, their wrecked appearances betray a more infernal quality. The catalogue published on this singular work goes into detail about the names, but as with most of the names scrawled on his canvases, and now lit up in neon on these precarious-looking modular piles, I don’t feel they say as much as the visual clues do: stacks of his trademark lead-leafed books, a lead U-boat, and a glass model of Dürer’s melancholic octahedron, all set amid ticker tape–like glass strips inscribed with (literally) stellar numbers and numbered stones strewn about the ground.
All cast within the hangar and assembled on-site, these particular towers differ from their French relatives in numerous ways, most of which I would attribute to their setting. I wandered through them a couple years ago, in the after-hour penumbra of the closed, barely-lit exhibition space, when a lax security guard didn’t feel the pieces (or their visitors’ lives) were worth much care. In catalogue photos they appear under harsh spotlights, like zombie actors returning to a stage without any audience waiting in the dark auditorium. In the partial light of my visit, however, they felt truly ruinous, and before them, between them, I really felt I lived there—as if Kiefer had transported me to the destroyed Deutschland he grew up in, born into a bombed-out town, studying in an eternal night in which no one spoke of what had taken place, and what was still silently going on. That was the first time he made me live in the work, instead of just wandering by, glimpsing the devastation in passing.
Third is the forecourt of the Royal Academy, one of Piccadilly’s more prestigious cultural centers, in the heart of London. Titled Jericho, these two towers stood for a brief period in the early months of 2007. They weren’t in fact identical twins, as one measured five stories, while the other dwarfed it at six. Both towered above the three-story, rigorously meted classical façade of the Academy. While I didn’t have the privilege of walking in and around them before they were taken down to make room for the rusty two-dimensional dinosaur cut-outs the Chapman Brothers had installed by the time of my visit (quite appropriate, given Kiefer’s beliefs about human, geologic, and cosmic time, claiming he has memory of the dinosaurs), I can only imagine what an impression experiencing them so physically would have made. The apertures of his towers’ windows echoed those of the Academy’s; his structures’ skewed, heavy house-of-cards walls served to emphasize the stable, indeed royally eternal elegance of the surrounding courtyard. He told a local paper they are the Academy in 200 years, a poetically rich, architecturally erroneous assessment of the scene.
After hearing his comments about the installation of this most recent pair—the so-called twin towers the press so passionately pounced upon—it occurred to me that he has managed something few other sculptors have allowed themselves over the last thirty-odd years: he has produced and installed projects whose design pays little heed to their surroundings. It is almost as if he were unaware of, or simply doesn’t care about the ubiquitous Kraussian expanded field, the one that has so influenced sculptural discourse since the seventies. Is he perhaps a present-day proponent of that old übermodern Miesian idea that architecture is best composed and constructed independent of its setting? Does he see architecture’s ultimately autonomous essence—or the blind ambition of current iconic attempts at architecture—as distillable into these disgraceful towers, into this high-octane, ancient symbol of human hubris?
He does mention surroundings, but only when cornered into it. When an arts correspondent for London’s Independent asked what he thought, he said was thrilled by the unexpected dialogue the three elements immediately established with one another. In light of the many curious yet ultimately extraneous statements he’s dished out about his work in so many conversations over the past twenty years, it’s easy to get the misleading impression that words and poetic musings are a sufficient substitution for actually looking at his work. This series of towers refutes that, emphasizing how essential it is that we experience where it is they (and we) are, when we are, what we are. It hardly matters that he’s shrinking these powerful pieces down into diminutive modules collaged onto canvas, nor does it matter that almost everything you read about his work says more about his critics’ easy willingness to wander distractedly down a prosaic literary lane, reading Kiefer’s scrawled labels and sifting through Celan and Bachmann and Kabalic texts rather than really looking at his work. All that is indeed great reading, but he’s making visual pieces—and now sculptural, even architectural, forbidding, yet technically habitable projects—that deserve to be examined in their own right.
It may be easy to dismiss what appear to be two ruins slapped up in one of London’s fanciest, most courtly courtyards; the teetering towers in Provence’s otherwise lovely landscape might be perceived as an affront to any true architect’s attempt at designing even a single honest edifice; but the bleak buildings set into Milan’s barren postindustrial neighborhood of La Bicocca don’t allow us any escape. They are witnesses to Kiefer’s exploration of what humanity has done and devastatingly undone, over the past sixty years just as over the past six millennia. This is where we live, this is what we’ve done, and it’s all of our own design.