If anyone ever organised a poll to decide on the world’s most ambitious artist, my vote would go to Anselm Kiefer. From the moment you step into the gigantic new White Cube gallery in Bermondsey, where the German angst-chancellor is currently displaying his largest-ever London show, you find yourself buffeted by ambition in its biggest, rawest, most unmissable, least stoppable form. The ambition foams at the mouth.
It’s not just a scale thing. Yes, Kiefer’s bus-sized pictures, black and cracked as the inside of an oven, encrusted with large chunks of industrial metal, have the presence of a burnt-out factory.
But the subject they appear to tackle — everything that has ever happened to Germany, and its impact on the rest of us — is also absurdly momentous.
Not all the ambition displayed at this event is displayed by Kiefer, either. What are we to make of the ambitions of the White Cube itself? In the middle of a global economic meltdown, the gallery that brought us Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers chooses this moment to open London’s biggest commercial art space, a setting so vast, you feel you have entered a new street, rather than a new art gallery.
The task of filling these canyons with art big enough and good enough to hold its own here will be, in itself, a mighty challenge. Getting Kiefer in early was, therefore, a smart move. His shows are always mountainous.
So is their sense of history. Likewise the gaps in their rationale. I’m not saying Kiefer’s pictures mean nothing. Quite the contrary. The exciting thing about these huge slabs of heavy-metal art is that they can mean almost anything you want them to mean.
For example, among the unfeasibly big paintings is one that features the entire side of an Alpine mountain, in front of which Kiefer has suspended a set of giant metal scales. The scales are too high to see exactly what is being weighed in them, but some yellow stuff seems to be outweighing some brown stuff. A giant mountain. A giant set of scales. A giant weighing up. This is symbolism straight out of the Wagner book of subtlety. The weighing up of life. The weighing up of fate. Everything that has ever been weighed up, anywhere, is evoked by this outrageously adaptable artwork. Symbolism this big covers all the bases.
And that’s just the beginning. The exhibition’s central space is dominated by a set of views of Tempelhof airport, in Berlin, the largest of which is 17 metres long: twice the length of a London bus. Built in 1927 on land that had once belonged to the Templar knights, Tempelhof was, in its time, one of the 20 largest buildings on earth. Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer, made it central to the rebuilding of Berlin by the Nazis. Since 2008, it has been closed, a crumbling monument to a dark dream.
Tempelhof is such a big and historically loaded space, you wonder why Kiefer has only discovered it now. In the 17-metre whopper, he takes us inside the enormous visitor halls, a truly spectacular succession of recessive spaces. On and on and on they stretch. In the middle of the picture, attached loosely to the canvas in typically home-made Kiefer fashion, hangs a cluster of giant metal sunflowers, mixed up with a squadron of metal warplanes. It’s a reference, I suppose, to Tempelhof’s history not just as a base for the Luftwaffe, but as a pioneering location in the conquest of the skies. The dream has died, and someone has left some flowers on the spot, as mothers do on the graves of their sons.
The sunflowers are also a nod towards Kiefer’s current home in the south of France. And, because they turn instinctively towards the sun, just as Icarus did before the heat of the sun’s rays melted his wax wings and caused him to plummet, they say something about human aspirations, too. Sure enough, in an adjacent image of the outside of the barren airport, a set of giant lead wings has been added to the slab of canvas.
This is, therefore, a show about dashed hopes and corrupted fates, about plans gone wrong and the triumph of darkness. In short, a typical Kiefer agenda. What is new here is the explicit admission of an interest in alchemy. The notes to the show tell us that an esoteric 1926 book called Il mistero delle cattedrali, by an anonymous writer who styled himself Fulcanelli, was the inspiration for this new suite of paintings and sculptures. The mysterious Fulcanelli claimed not only to have turned lead into gold, but to possess the secret of nuclear fusion. The Nazis believed him, and set up a special unit to identify him and capture him. By turning lead into gold, the financing of the Nazi dream would finally be possible.
Kiefer’s spectacular installation can thus be seen as a grand monument to failure. The ruins of Tempelhof airport are the ruins of a ruined hope. The lead wings attached to the tops of the ruined canvases are the useless wings of Icarus. The sunflowers that turned once to the sun are now dead and withered. And the books that contained all the esoteric alchemical knowledge you needed to turn lead into gold are now turned to lead themselves, and useless.
It’s tremendous stuff. A touch ludicrous, of course, but I don’t mind that when the results are so Götterdämmerungly exciting. As with all the best Kiefer shows, Wagner has supplied the soundtrack, Thor seems to be doing the drumming on his anvil and Germany’s momentous 20th-century history has inspired the script and the colour scheme.