Traces of War

Anselm Kiefer Walhalla at White Cube

Anyone who is familiar with this German artist’s paintings will have gone to White Cube expecting work on a monumental scale, perhaps undertones of death and rebirth, with references to past historical events. In a nutshell, this is Walhalla, but it goes so far beyond this thematic description into a visceral, physical experience that it makes if difficult to describe.

Before even entering the exhibition, you’re handed a warning. Do not touch anything inside; many components are created from lead which is potentially hazardous if accidentally ingested. Children, this is not a play space – stay close to your parents. The physical presence of the work immediately demands to be paid attention, taken seriously.  

Walhalla has a double meaning in German, the Norse hall of those chosen ones slain in battle (which you may know as Valhalla) and a collection of busts forming a German Hall of Fame populated by dignitaries. Kiefer plays on this duality throughout the work. The physical burden of Germany’s past sits as an unspoken guest in every room of this installation, but we also have a sense of the mystical and steps toward another world, or perhaps a version of our world which is yet to come.

You enter into a darkly imposing grey metal corridor, where 22 rusting hospital beds, some with name labels, and three piles of heavy bedding line the narrow walls. White Cube as we know it has gone, replaced by an eerie bunker, empty of life and full of markers of those departed. There are three more underground vaults leading off this space, two also containing beds and other relics. One shows a huge pair of feathered wings cast out to the side, with the owner of those wings seemingly pulverised by the giant lead boulder which has smashed onto the surface of the bed. Here we have perhaps the ultimate sign of doom, a fallen angel.

My favourite space: a ransacked museum-esque storeroom or repository, messily packed floor to ceiling with half empty boxes, hastily discarded strewn reels of photograph or film, stacks of paperwork and open safes containing remnants of dusty, ashy contents. One can’t help think about the stolen and desecrated heritage from recent wars. Opposite this space is, at last, an open white gallery where a rusty staircase spirals up to the ceiling, where hang those most tangible traces of the dead: dirtied, listless clothing.

The  two other white-walled spaces contain Kiefer’s instantly recognisable large-scale paintings, showing deserted, smoking landscapes and broken buildings. In the far space, more piles of rusty human markers are contained within glass display cases. For all the symbols of lives lived these rooms are markedly empty of inhabitants, apart from us, of course. And here we are not art lovers or culture tourists, we are those middle-class Germans taken to clean up the camps after the war, we are scarred frightened things emerging from a bomb shelter, we are forced witnesses to the end of a civilisation. And if there are no humans left, then what we have here is a God’s collection of relics of humankind; their very own museum. The objects and paintings speak of things we have already become used to seeing and of things that are, unavoidably, apocalyptically yet to come.

There is often a disconnect between photography of artwork and the real thing, particularly when trying to capture installations. Here they are as different as chalk and cheese. I couldn’t photograph the oppressive feel in that abandoned hospital corridor, capture accurately the dank slickness of the slate grey walls or the weighted presence of those empty beds. You have until 6pm today to enter Kiefer’s vision for yourself.

On display until 12th February 2017.

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