13th Inverness Film Festival

4 – 8 November, Eden Court Cinemas

For the 13th year of our festival I decided we would take a look at people who are brave enough to move away from their comfort zones and embark on an adventure, whether that be by choice or circumstance.

Paul MacDonald-Taylor, IFF Festival Director.

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The Inverness Film Festival is always an invitation for adventure and discovery and this year’s programme had both in abundance.

Opening night the Scottish premiere of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria delivered an unexpectedly moving journey through the streets of Berlin, seen through the eyes of its female protagonist. Filmed in a single take of 138mins, the absence of editing and immediacy of real time effectively places the viewer amidst the unfolding narrative. The heart and soul of this film is Catalan actress Laia Costa’s remarkable performance, captured in all its expressive subtlety by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography. From the immersive opening sequence in a Berlin nightclub, the viewer is drawn into Victoria’s world through intimate close up and roving camera, taking the viewer along for the ride. Victoria’s chance encounter with Sonne (Frederick Lau), who just might be the love of her life, begins a chain of events that moves the story fluidly between heist movie, thriller and love story. The improvisation of the cast and faithfulness of the camera to the central character give the film a raw, visceral quality and an emotional density one might not expect from the synopsis.

Throughout the film Nils Frahm’s music tempers our reading of the accelerating action. Right from the start there is an underlying suggestion of melancholy in spite of the delight and excitement of Victoria’s first meeting. The film unfolds as real life unfolds, unpredictably, full of change and loss, testing our mettle and defining who we are. It is incredibly refreshing to see a film lead by a female character given the latitude to reveal multiple aspects of herself. By the end of the film we see Victoria emerge into daylight and isolation, a contradictory resolution in some ways but one that feels truthful and plausibly real. Winner of 11 international film awards including the Silver Bear Outstanding Artistic Contribution Berlinale 2015, Victoria is an audacious piece of filmmaking that never allows the potential gimmick of a single take to overshadow the unfolding drama or undermine the emotional journey the audience shares with its characters.

still22 Corn Island, Directed by George Ovashvili

My pick of this year’s festival must also include George Ovashvili’s Corn Island, a beautiful and simply profound film about a young girl on the cusp of adulthood and her grandfather, tending their crop on a tiny island amidst the unstoppable flow of the Enguri River. It is an incredibly gentle film of multiple boundaries that unfolds according to nature’s laws, rather than the potential drama of human conflict we might expect. Although the sounds of an uneasy ceasefire between Georgia and Abkhazia are never far away, the story focuses upon eternal cycles of life, growth, harvest and inevitable decay. It felt restorative to become so absorbed in a film of such hushed stillness. Corn Island leads the viewer into that unique meditative state, found in Nature and in the case of this particular film, in Art. The water, sunlight and changeable weather (for good or ill) are tangible presences in the film, together with the main characters who are, as we all are, just passing through this life. The age old question of who owns the land is represented here as a state of being, rather than being defined by personal possession or the maintenance of geographic, authoritarian borders.

The skills of cultivating this precarious but fertile soil are passed from 70 year old Abga to his granddaughter Asida, creating a seemingly idyllic territory that can only be inhabited in a passing season and can at any moment be entirely swept away. The river brings life, change and patrolling soldiers- it also brings a stranger and the glimmer of a burgeoning relationship between the young man and Asida. As the island becomes a field it evolves as a place to explore human states of youth and age, innocence and experience. The film’s imagery is exquisitely composed, totally captivating and richly associative in meaning. We see Asida framed in relation to the golden, ripening corn or the girl and her grandfather lying on the ground and gazing into the sky, divided by a generational line of shadow. As the timber frame of their hut is constructed it creates an abstract frame against the sky which is also Abga’s window on the world. The peace and simplicity of living entirely as nature dictates could be romanticised but it isn’t. We are left in no doubt that the threat of poverty and potential starvation is what motivates staking a claim on such perilous territory.

The tentative, sometimes fearful vulnerability of adolescence is conveyed by Mariam Buturishvili’s strong, virtually silent performance, perfectly matched by Ilyas Salman as her grandfather Abga. Few words pass between them, yet the sense of connection and communication is effortless. Like building barricades against the rising tide, Abga tries to protect his granddaughter from the encroaching forces around them. Sound is used beautifully to convey Asida’s growing awareness of herself and the gaze of others, manifested in the recurrent cry of a bird. Her awareness of being seen, by the soldiers on the shore and the stranger in the boat is also the call of something within, an awakening or longing which we see transfixed by moonlight. There is a pervasive, comforting sense of natural order throughout the film which finds its resolution when Abga becomes one with the river, signifying an end but also a beginning. As we see an older man return to stake his claim in the final scenes, we are left to wonder; is he the young stranger? Has he married Asida and will they tend this island together? Satisfyingly the film leaves the human denouncement to the viewer’s imagination.

IFF has a strong tradition of showcasing emerging directors, both in its feature and short film programming and some of this year’s debuts proved to be highlights of the festival: Robert Egger’s The Witch, The Lesson directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanovi, Alonso Ruizpalacios’s wonderfully offbeat comedy/drama Qüeros (winner of Best First Feature Berlin International Film Festival, a well-deserved award for Best Cinamatography at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014 and winner of 5 Mexican Ariel Awards including Best Director and Best Film) and László Nemes’ harrowing but intensely powerful debut Son of Saul, awarded the Grand Prix prize at Cannes earlier this year.

75The Witch, Directed by Robert Eggers.

Robert Eggers’ The WitchA New England Folk Tale is a thoroughly intriguing film of unnatural forces and the man-made horrors of religious fanaticism.  It is the ambiguities of what is seen and perceived by the central characters which make this film so psychologically interesting. Set in a 17th Century New England pioneering community, a devout family leave the relative protection of a colonial plantation to live in exile on the edge of a vast, unknown wilderness. The attendant spirits they bring with them are guilt, shame and the mantle of original sin, which define their relationships with the environment, each other and with themselves.  Like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which explores the otherness of a threatening landscape in the context of colonialism and white European “civilization”, The Witch establishes in its opening scenes a palpable sense of mystery, menace and fear in the fecund imaginative ground of the forest. It is a place that even in the light of day provides a focus for the founding community’s subconscious fears and desires- a place which heightens the sense of alienation from the country of origin, from the body and the self. Belief in humankind’s “corrupt nature dwelling within” and the declaration that; “we will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us”, chart the demise of familial love and loyalty.

The adolescent central character Thomasin played by Anya Taylor-Joy becomes a scapegoat for the family’s ill fortunes, residing in the forest. Accused of witchcraft by her younger siblings, the family turns in on itself with devastating consequences. As supernatural elements suggestively and progressively infiltrate the film, hysteria collectively follows. The real horror of The Witch is a cauldron of grief, exile and puritanical self-loathing. There is an added element of alienation -the experience of loss through immigration, felt in Kate Dickie’s performance as wife and mother Katherine. Although packaged rather clumsily by its trailer as a Horror film, like Jenifer Kent’s The Babadook – which is about grief made manifest, The Witch is a film about the power and psychology of the human mind in response to extreme circumstances and beliefs. Those points of transition between belief, perception and reality provide all of the films high points, both literally and metaphorically. Belief is always extraordinarily real to the believer and The Witch successfully plays with this idea, with Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography moving beautifully between the illuminated darkness of Old Master candlelit interiors and the haunted natural light of farm and forest.

The lessonThe Lesson, Directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanovi.

The Lesson directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanovi is a story which feels immediately relevant in light of European social and economic crises. Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva) is a respectable teacher contained in a straightjacket of morality, estranged from her father and his trophy wife, distant from her selfish husband, who plunges them into debt and the threat of repossession and living beneath the ever present portrait of her dead mother. As debt and desperation take hold, her powerlessness is projected into the classroom as hard-line control. Authority is progressively eroded but scrupulously maintained by deadpan appearances. Nadezhda’s story feels like that of a nation. The rules keep changing, interest keeps getting added to the loan and the moral deficit just keeps growing. Forced to turn to loan sharks and crime to stay afloat, we see flickers of panic and anxiety in her eyes beneath an immovable mask of middle class respectability.  Every encounter with public authority; the bank, police and the bailiffs reveals indifference to her plight as she fights to maintain her dignity, pride and righteous indignation. Interestingly her character isn’t entirely sympathetic, oscillating between adult responsibility and childlike jealousy; defacing her stepmother’s photograph with a black marker in protest at the displacement of her father’s affections. Wielding her powerlessness the only way she can, in the end the audience is left with a black screen/ board and the brittle, chalky sound of her continuing lesson.

14e64fd09afbd270d7f4064ff53501daHe Named Me Malala, Directed by Davis Guggenheim.

Some of this year’s short and feature documentaries also had a significant impact on me. Among them Davis Guggenheim’s feature He Named Me Malala, a portrait of the activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai. Shot by the Taliban in 2012 for promoting education for girls in her native Pakistan, she has since co-founded the Malala Fund, assisting girls around the world to access education. The public face of this exceptional young woman is inexorably bound to her cause. Who could forget her inspiring speech to the UN on her 16th birthday, campaigning for the right to education for every child? This documentary shows different facets to her character; her life in exile, at home and at school, her strong relationship with her father and her experience as one of millions of refugees fleeing extremist ideology. The film takes up Malala’s own statement that she is many and that her story is not unique. In having to flee the Swat Valley where she grew up, unable to return on threat of death, we are introduced not to her fame as a confident advocate of positive change, but to a schoolgirl -worried about fitting in, acutely aware of what has been forfeited in being in a foreign land and fighting for equality. When we see her standing on the border of Syria and Jordan asking the question of who is looking after the interests of child refugees, she asks one of the central questions of our age. Although the film is ultimately uplifting, it also made me incredibly angry. Angry that this young woman will probably never be able to return to her home, that equality has still not been achieved, that access to education is so taken for granted in the developed world and that all we appear to be teaching our children is rabid consumption. “Education gives you the power to question things, to challenge things” it seems that in the UK we don’t use it nearly enough for this purpose. When asked who shot Malala her father replies; “It was not a person, it was an ideology”. At the heart of Malala Yousafzai’s story is forgiveness and an entirely different vision of Islam to what we see nightly on the 6’oclock news. See this film if you can- it will probably make you angry as well, but it will also give you hope.

I always look forward to short film screenings. I am constantly amazed by the ingenuity and creativity sparked by little or no budget and that human experience humorous, dramatic or life changing can be communicated in an economy of minutes. It’s a direct platform for spotting emerging filmmakers which is always exciting, especially watching them hone their craft in consecutive years and seeing shorts in cinemas is such a rare pleasure. This year short documentaries Mining Poems and Odes and The Third Dad were definite highlights, together with David Lumsden’s post-apocalyptic vision of Scotland Boat (UK, 16mins, 2015), the visual pop-inspired assault of Rob Kennedy’s  What are you driving at? (2013, HD video file, colour, stereo, ratio 16:9, 4m 13s), the mesmerising bias-cut of Duncan Marquiss’s Late Cinema (2013, 16mm transferred to SD digital, colour, ratio: 4:3, 4m 18s), both part of the CABAC/ LUX Scotland showcase and the work of local filmmakers; Scott Willis’s wittily accurate animation Guide to Fetal Development (UK, 1 min, 2015) and the innocent delight of Katrina Brown’s First Ascent (UK, 16 mins, 2015).

From the opening sequence of glowing sparks cascading in slow movement Callum Rice’s Mining Poems or Odes (UK,10mins, 2015) I was visually hooked. Immediately the viewer is immersed in an otherworldly state where poetic images, words and ideas are brought into focus. Robert, a poet and ex-shipyard worker addresses the camera / audience directly, aggressively punctuating the visual narrative in a way that mirrors the raw, energy and creative impetus of parallel trades; the “solitary” and “silent” worlds of welder and writer. Although “the helmet’s off now” and “words are the tools”, Robert’s life experiences and memories are inexorably entwined with his emerging craft and that of the filmmaker. He describes the fabrication yard as “the perfect thinking laboratory”, “looking into the darkness and seeing “your own eyes” in “the reflected glass”.

The clarity of this 10 minute documentary and its central protagonist are bracingly articulate and perfectly aligned with the creative process of “mining”; “going into the dirt to find the right word and elevate it to poetry”.  What this short film conveys so powerfully is “the job of working on yourself” and “the production of the human spirit”, nurtured by others. The most poignant realisation is in Robert’s account of a subterranean great unsaid of male friendship and paternal influence; an almighty arm and an” alright son”, gentler and truer than the love shown in any other facet of his life. There is a strong sense in this film of human creativity in its broadest sense and of masculinity; a natural ability and societal tendency through brute force to do harm, coupled with the conscious unwillingness not to. In the living example of his mentor Archie, Robert sees and perhaps more importantly feels the authenticity of becoming his core self – the writer he needs to be.

Theresa Moerman Ib’s journey to find her father in The Third Dad (UK, 10mins, 2015) was at times unbearably poignant and confessional.  Beginning with the words; “A man isn’t dead because you put him underground” from Graeme Green’s The Third Man, the act of filmmaking becomes an expression of grief, loss and self-awareness. Haunted by the decision not to have contact with her father until he stopped drinking, Moerman Ib’s film is a lament, a memorial and a creative act of redemption. She asks a question which resonates throughout the film; “How do you go to someone in their darkest hour when they haven’t chosen you?”  It is a sorrowful echo of the absent father that permeates this film; “poet and photographer who abandoned his dreams” and “who gave [her] life but couldn’t survive his own.” The need to find him is as much a search for herself as for a lost parent, shifting through archival footage/ home movies of emotionally scarred celluloid, editing memories and feeling- the filmmaking process an act of self- preservation. Moments where the voiceover and images converge transcend the personal, we see “a shadow- an outline” that can never be “coloured back in”, a shadow which is also that of the director standing over her father’s grave. Perhaps it was my own Father’s death a few weeks before that prompted such a strong reaction to this film, coupled with the need to concrete over my feelings in order to keep watching- even in the womb-like protection of the cinema. I understood in that moment that for the director to project that intimate relationship on screen, shaped by guilt and loss, was no small act of bravery.

Carnival-of-Souls

The most unusual cinematic experience at the festival this year was Carnival of Souls a stripped back sound adaptation of Herk Harvey’s 1962 obscure B/horror film in a production “inspired by adventure radio serials and sensory deprivation methods.” Donning a sleep mask and headphones the near dark experience was fuel for the imagination, with binaural audio giving a virtual sense of spatial depth, placing the viewer within the story. What excited me most about seeing this cinematic soundscape in my mind’s eye wasn’t necessarily the choice of film adaptation, but the heightened possibilities of sensory experience that removal of one sense could bring to the others. Having watched films back to back for consecutive days there was something very satisfying in closing my eyes and going down whatever imaginative pathways the soundtrack prompted. In some ways it was a safe choice of adaptation; the wonky, surreal amusement park music, larger than life accents and the familiarity of the breakdown arrival at an almost empty boarding house, placing the audience in relative safety of expectation. An opening projection taking the audience down to the end of the pier combined memories of the British seaside, carousels of spooky wide eyed, open mouthed horses and the faded paint of travelling sideshows with my outdoor Drive –in B film experience in Australia, all mixed in with Cocteau and Bergman inspired mid-west American horror! Like tabernacle organist Mary Hervy’s journey in limbo between life and death, this cinematic sound experience also felt like a kind of heightened bodily suspension in time. Commissioned by Film Hub North West Central with an advisory group of blind and partially sighted audience members and directed by Bren O’Callaghan, Carnival of Souls heightened my awareness of how the body reacts to sensory deprivation, the pleasantly weird state of being part of an audience but physically in your own auditory bubble and the exciting possibilities of sound design. Hopefully more of these productions will follow, exploring different aspects of the sound craft of cinema and making us see film differently.

Another special event screening Made in My Tounwww.madeinmytoun.com, part of the BFI Britain on Film tour curated by Shona Thomson, featured films from the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive and a post screening discussion with panellists Shona Thomson, the Highland Council’s Stuart Black and Film Officer and Lawrence Sutcliffe, Highlands of Scotland Film Commission and Film Historian. My favourite short was Glasgow Trams c.1902, a silent, black and white, 2 min 50 second film attributed to Mitchell & Kenyon, an aged fragment of mechanised movement drifting through time. It was interesting to explore the context of each short film with the panellists and audience. Hopefully thematic tours of archive film screening in cinemas will become more frequent here. Although archival film content is becoming more digitalised and available online, there is no substitution for seeing it on a big screen and exploring different ways into film through face to face discussion.

day1-1Our Little Sister, Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda.

The winner of this year’s IFF Audience Award, designed by Isle of Harris Based artist Steve Dilworth, was crowd pleaser Brooklyn by Irish Director John Crowley, starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Zegen and Julie Walters. My own crowd pleasing pick of IFF 2015 would have to be Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our little Sister, although it was a shame that the director did not apply his characteristic understatement to the soundtrack. However it was an absolute breath of fresh air to see such a warm and optimistic film about broken families. Our Little Sister is a lovely, charming and intimate film about family bonds and feminine independence.  Based on the graphic novel Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, Koreeda gives cinematic voice to a story which revolves around three sisters and their half-sibling, who they take in following the death of their father. To a Western audience there is also a largely unappreciated aspect of Japanese culture at work in this story; the dominance of female Manga writers, who we don’t often see adapted for the screen, certainly not  in terms of a realist family drama.

Having toured the world in the confines of a darkened room for four days and five nights I emerged from IFF 2015 exhausted, but significantly enriched.

www.invernessfilmfestival.com

Ai Weiwei

Royal Academy of Arts, London. 19 September – 13 December 2015.

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Ai Weiwei in his studio in Caochangdi, Beijing, April 2015.

My first real contact with Ai Weiwei’s work was his vast expanse of Sunflower Seeds (2010) in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, a work which reverberated in ever expanding ways. The sheer scale of the installation was deftly articulated by the handcrafting of each porcelain seed, challenging the idea of mass production and accepted ways of seeing millions. Every seed was rendered resoundingly human, each one felt like a voice and the potential germ of an idea to change the world. On a global stage, Sunflower Seeds spoke of cultural nourishment, taking an everyday object and multiplying its value in a labour intensive process of recreation. The relationship of the individual to the many, the state and to the self was explored and amplified by each unique seed, combined in an undeniably aspirational mass of potential growth. It made me feel deeply humble and it also made me inwardly smile. There was an intensely powerful sense of human connection that commanded the whole space. Experiencing that field of fertile imagination made you feel part of something greater, whatever experience you brought to it, it was inspirational in being aspirational- a rarity in Contemporary Art . When I heard there was to be a major survey of the artist’s work at the RA this autumn, I made a beeline for it.

I arrived in the Annenberg Courtyard early and was confronted by a massive grove of rearticulated trees, salvaged from the hillsides of Southern China and visibly bolted together. Financed by a crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign this man-made mini forest was, in and of itself, a work of many voices. Among the trees sat a marble faux leather armchair, an invitation for contemplation coupled with the contradiction of a “useless” object; cold, clad in raindrops and of little comfort to the sitter/viewer. There was a flurry of noise and movement as a scrum of photographers (who unbeknown to me had also come early for a photo call with the artist) spilled into the courtyard. Suddenly there he was, walking towards us in silent dignity, extremely present but equally unassuming. Each photographer was vying for the perfect shot; “Here Sir!”, “put your arms out”, “to me” “just one more”, “to me”, “to me!” “Here Sir!” The artist calmly addressed each request in turn with a kindly, obliging attitude and a certain degree of world weariness. The heaviness of dead wood towered above him and I saw the same tonality mirrored in the surrounding architecture. I wondered at that moment what he was feeling and longed to ask, on a day when after five years and a hundred shows, he had finally been able to be present at his own exhibition. Freedom is relative when you still have family, friends and colleagues living in in your home country. Potential exile would not be without consequence, nor is the daily fight for freedom of speech demanded by choosing to remain.

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Ai Weiwei in the Annenberg Courtyard, Royal Academy of Arts, London. 15/09/15.GC.

The crowd of lenses swarmed closer- too close in fact and another public figure might have pushed them away in annoyance, but the intrusion on personal space was simply met with a beautifully timed diffusion of humour. Ai Weiwei came closer still to face the cameras in their own space; hands transformed into the claws of a tiger, playful and childlike, a smiling, open handed gesture that provided the perfect front page shot. Satisfied and sensing the end of the moment the photographers respectfully retreated. The artist moved inside and then emerged once more for a photographer who got the wrong time for the call; obligingly posing for this lone individual, then disappearing into the building. He was not at the press viewing that followed. “He wants the work to speak” said co-curator Tim Marlow and it most certainly does.

There were many times in this exhibition where I found myself reflecting upon the responsibility of the artist, the attribution of value to objects and the cost in human terms. To me Ai Weiwei is to China what Anselm Kiefer is to Germany- digesting the entire history of his own country, coming to terms with its raw human material and the universal weight of human history in the process. He’s an artist whose Ethics are his Aesthetics. Every destructive, violent or silencing act by the government provides material to be transformed in awareness, creating a new perception of reality and a wealth of possibility. When his Shanghai studio was razed to the ground by the authorities, he transformed the rubble into a visual statement of resilient protest, Souvenir From Shanghai (2012) with an ornately carved traditional bedframe at its core. It’s a work that echoes ancient cultural traditions, revolutions and obliterations, transcending the personal. The power of Ai Weiwei’s work lies in its essentially empowering nature. He makes the audience realise their own power and the strength of ideas whose time has come.

Whilst a lot of contemporary Western Artists and their followers are artfully use the privilege of freedom to say nothing, Ai Weiwei actively uses the internet and the substance of his work to expand our idea of what human expression can be. Being inexhaustibly subversive, eternally optimistic and actively creative is part of his inheritance and integrity as an artist. Conformity and protest are in constant dialogue, amplified via the tools of our technological age. While our increasingly global consumerist culture celebrates the cult of Me; my opinion, my expression, my Twitter outrage, my right to say whatever I want in cyberspace without responsibility or consequence, Ai Weiwei’s work is infinitely more generous to his fellow human beings. Perhaps more than any other contemporary artist, he makes the viewer acutely aware of freedoms taken entirely for granted and underutilised or misappropriated in the service of “I”. There is a different concept of the individual to be found in his work, relative to others, always questioning, part of striving towards a more expansive way of perceiving the world.

The aerodynamic free form of Grapes (2010), a bountiful composition of 27 wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), feels very much like a portrait of the artist and of Creativity made concrete. The acrobatic movement of these orbital pieces of furniture defy their humble functionality and gravity, the entire weight of the sculpture balanced on a single stool, supporting all the rest as they take flight. The energy of this work is immediately arresting, the fluid realisation of discarded material reimagined and re-appraised in terms of its social and cultural value. It is a richly figurative work to the power of 1 x 27 ad infinitum, the force magnified by overlapping connections between each piece of furniture as part of a larger movement. These individual elements fused together create a beautiful, dynamic and undeniably hopeful presence. Ai Weiwei’s “useless” furniture harks back to the crafting of beautiful objects as part of Chinese funerary rites, often in prized materials such as jade, marble or now extinct timbers. In much of his work there is an insistence on craftsmanship, continuity of technique and ancient tradition, radically altered to present the original object and the very fabric of its material in a new light.

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Ai Weiwei, Table and Pillar (2002) Table and pillar from dismantled temple of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). 460 x 90 x 90 cm. Tate, London.  Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Remembering the tactile is a cultural imperative in his work. Created by hand without nails or glue Table and Pillar (2002), combines a reclaimed architectural element from a dismantled Qing Dynasty temple with a piece of domestic furniture. The hybridised object challenges received images of China as an economic powerhouse of faceless mass production, rendering form with consummate skill and clarity of expression. Table With Three Legs (2011) is another beautiful example, one object exquisitely transformed into another, turned on its side to reveal the inner vessel we sense it always was or could be. It is an object of quality, consciously made.

The conscious act of making also finds expression in Ai Weiwei’s Chandelier (2015) made of crystal and Forever bicycles, materials drawn from the living memories of ordinary people and ironically reflecting the opulence of the Great Hall in Tiananmen Square. Weighing two and a half tonnes and hung beneath the hallowed /domed architectural space of the RA’s Wohl Central Hall, it is light that is all pervasive in this work; “both the object that gives off light, but also the form the light creates by itself, in the illumination that it creates and how illumination alters the surrounding environment.” Activism is ultimately a creative act, for Ai Weiwei; “Everything is Art” and “Everything is politics.”

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Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars. 600 x 1200 cm. Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei.

One of the most moving works in the exhibition is also one of the most politically charged, borne out of a citizen’s investigation initiated by the artist following the Sichuan Earthquake disaster in 2008. Comprised of 18 tonnes of rebar, pulled from the wreckage, purchased by the artist as salvage and straightened by hand, Straight (2008-12) acknowledges the thousands who died in an act of naming. Seismic waves of rusted metal on the gallery floor are flanked on either side by the names and birthdays of more than 5000 dead schoolchildren. The installation is a lament, a memorial and a document of information suppressed by the authorities. The “straight” truth of exposing the corruption that allowed schools to be erected without proper reinforcement is entwined with a sense of natural forces of change which cannot be halted. The central sculptural work feels like a section of the earth’s crust, a ripple of aftershocks that we are not permitted to abstract in our minds. The presence of documentary photographs and the 15 minute film Straight (2015), revealing the devastation in terms of human grief and loss doesn’t allow the viewer the luxury of abstraction. The “biased effect in the building” signifies an entire country and this work responds very directly to corruption, abuses of power and media silence.

The artist’s own experience of violence, arrest and detention is remembered and psychologically purged in his S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-13) Dioramas; “Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entrophy and Doubt”. (Fibreglass, iron, oxidised metal, wood, polystyrene, sticky tape, each 377 x 198 x 153cm.)Detained in a secret location for 81 days with two guards constantly monitoring him at a distance of 80cms; eating, showering, sleeping, going to the toilet, being interrogated, with the dominant hum of air fans replicated in the boxed confines of each room/ the gallery space, Ai Weiwei’s life becomes Art. The viewer voyeuristically steps up to look down into each reconstruction, or bends awkwardly to peer into each theatrical space, smaller than life size. As you touch the metal to balance on each step, you are conscious of the act of looking, the complicity of it in a room surrounded with golden wallpaper in a decorative pattern of surveillance cameras, handcuffs and the artist’s face reflected in the body of a Twitter logo. Originally exhibited at the Venice Biennale 2013 in Chiesa di Sant’ Antonin, here the attendant architecture heightens the sense of passively looking at scenes of the artist’s incarceration and sharing, in some minute way, an all pervasive feeling of powerlessness. This work aligns with Ai Weiwei’s family history; of his Father, the late poet Ai Qing, persecuted by the Maoist regime, interred in a work camp in north-western China and exiled. It is a narrative echoed many times over in Remains (2015), the porcelain reconstruction of bones from people who did not survive the labour camps. The struggle for freedom is ever present; across generations, in the artist’s own story and in the stories of countless others. Out of these visual narratives an alternative image of China emerges; of the humanity, dignity and resistance of individuals, human remains rendered with care in a precious, fragile material that challenges mass identity of victims and mass mentality of the viewer/audience. The value of human life is central in this work, bound to the artist’s choice of material.

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Remains (2015) Porcelain. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.

The question of cultural value and authenticity is potently explored in Ai Weiwei’s use of ceramics, inexorably entwined with China’s history. In many ways the central image of his photographic triptych; Dropping of a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), the moment of suspension where the vase hovers above its own destruction, is replicated throughout the exhibition in complex and deeply unsettling ways. How do we decide what is valuable and what leads us to make such conclusions in life/ Art? In the wake of Mao’s 1966 Cultural Revolution or in recent waves of redevelopment which have destroyed architecture and artefacts in the service of modernisation and economic “progress”, how do we decide what we value, morally, socially and culturally? Ai Weiwei’s work actively embraces these essential questions. The artist’s painted urns raise the pertinent 21st Century question of which object is more valuable; the original artefact or the work of a world renowned contemporary artist/ activist/celebrity? At every turn the audience is brought face to face with their own complicity in making judgements and attributions of value, individually and collectively.

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Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases (2006) Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) with industrial paint. Dimensions variable. Representative image, courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei

The minimalist language of Ai Weiwei’s cubic metre forms such as Ton of Tea (2008) reduces a culturally loaded material to its quantitative value, literally and metaphorically compressing the physical material and thousands of years of human history within it. The abstract of the cube in Western Art History also comes into play in this room, together with the playfulness, ingenuity and craftsmanship of an ancient curio box, the experimental containment of molten glass and the personal/family history of Cube of Ebony (2009) reminiscent of a box given to Ai Weiwei by his Father. Reassembling his inheritance with wit, knowing and pathos, the artist constantly questions how and why events, objects and people are celebrated or obliterated from history. The display of the English and Chinese versions of Phaidon’s The Art Book (2014) where we see the artist’s own obliteration from the historical record is a deeply personal case in point. Rather like the UK government’s visa restriction on the artist, freedom is a fragile and entirely relative state.

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Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010).Marble. 39.2 x 39.8 x 19 cm.Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.

Ai Weiwei’s intent to; “Transform your feelings into clear language” can be felt throughout the exhibition and it is one of his great strengths. Although this is often viewed through the lens of a Western concept of the individual, his work and intentions are greater than the preoccupations of our Age might suggest. Moving freely through the installation Fragments (2005) is an uneasy experience, knowing that the assemblage of reclaimed materials; Iron wood (Tieli wood), table, chairs, parts of beams and pillars from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) form a map of China which can only be seen from above. This small kernel of knowledge grows as you follow your own imaginative path through the space, burgeoning awareness of how lack of borders, restrictions and censorship are so entirely taken for granted where the viewer stands, in a city such as London. How do human cultures encourage us to thrive or to wither and how do we decide what we value most? The ideal of grass in Cao (2014) sculpted in white marble, presenting an image of nature eternally renewing itself, aligns with the human element of an empty pushchair and the rude slap of internet slang. This is an exhibition of simplicity, complexity, humour and above all else, Hope. Like the image of a sunflower seed, used as a visual symbol of the artist by his followers to avoid online government censorship; he is one, he is many and so too is the viewer.

www.royalacademy.org.uk

Beka Globe- Between Land, Sea and Sky.

Chapaval

Chapaval by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

Recently I had the great pleasure of visiting the Isle of Harris where I recorded this interview at The Mission House Studio with one of the UK’s leading artists/photographers, Beka Globe. 

GC: What were your first impressions of Harris when you moved here?

BG: We came up on holiday first, when I was about 10. We stayed at the Harris hotel, then at a self-catering place down the Golden Road. I remember the house being really tiny –V lined and it was right by the water. Mum putting the washing on the line, blowing a hoolie! I was delighted to be on holiday in Harris in November because we were off school for two weeks. I just remember sandy beaches, the wild landscape, being in the back of Dad’s old DS Citroen – its suspension was quite bad so it was a bit sickening to be on the road! When we moved up here it was a lovely hot summer in 1983. We had the freedom to play around which was great. When we lived in Gloucestershire we had freedom too, I used to play in the fields and copses, where there were trees in the middle of fields, I’d make dens. So I carried on with that type of thing. I would make my dens on the rocks, I used to make my little play house. Then there was an island where we were staying at the nurse’s cottage. When the tide was out, I made a little bridge of rocks going to it- that was my little island. I made that into a little house as well. I remember it being really friendly, the old folk- all of that.

GC: When did you first pick up a camera and what drew you into photography? 

BG: My Dad had a camera and I remember when I was very little, he would develop prints in the dark. ‘Can I come in Daddy, can I come in?’ ‘Well, you can come in, but once you’re in you have to stay in- you can’t just open the door and go!’ ‘No, I’ll stay in!’ I remember watching Dad developing a picture, and it could just be my imagination I don’t know, of old Jim next door with a pumpkin. I remember the image coming through in the red tray in the red light and I thought Wow!

GC: There’s something magical about that process.

BG: It really is magical.

GC: It’s still magical, even as an adult.

BG: Yes it is. I do miss it in a lot of ways, but in a lot of other practical ways I don’t miss the darkroom. I must have been about five or six at the time, my sister would have been around too. When we moved up there wasn’t much to do on Harris. I picked up my Dad’s camera at the age of twelve and made my darkroom in the airing cupboard upstairs. I don’t know why I got into it, but my Dad had a camera and I could go out, it was a grown up thing. I went out with the camera and it gave a purpose for going for a walk.

GC: Did it change the way you looked at things, perceived things?

BG: Yes, it does, straight away- the moment you have a camera in your hand. Even if there’s a camera in your pocket you look at the world in a different way. Even if you don’t have a camera with you, or when I have the camera with me and I don’t take it out, you do look at the world in a different way. It’s nice really.

GC: How does that change?

BG: Without being romantic about it or anything, when I go out on my own and take a picture, you’re just aware of everything around you. The purpose is to produce a picture- it might take a little while to get into the groove of it. It heightens the senses, your hearing. I don’t have a sense of smell. I kind of wonder if one sense is taken away you get better at another one.

GC: I was looking at the prints in the gallery and they’re incredibly tactile. There are points where cloud and water meet each other, where earth is meeting water -there’s lines of force, a dynamic within the composition. Is it those kinds of elements that are heightened with the camera?

BG: I think it’s where the tide comes in on the shore; it’s an ever changing strip of land, there’s so much going on in that area all the time. That’s what really interests me. Maybe it’s the fact that I live on an island. I love the sea, I couldn’t imagine living far away from it. It does have this pull, this magical quality about it. Even when you’re on a beach looking at the sea, there’s nothing there but the ocean- over there is America, there’s such a massive body of water between and it’s always changing. From gales to flat calm, to the light that shines on the water, I just love the texture and patterns that it makes.

GC: For me your photographs are really painterly, the way that you print them. It gives depth, real depth and texture. There’s something so tangible, like the one downstairs (Shelibost Sky) with the smaller cloud patterns and elements disintegrating at the edges.

BG: Yes. It’s what this place is. I’m really lucky to have such an amazing landscape on my doorstep.

GC: Your upbringing here- how did that affect your way of seeing when you went overseas, to America and New Zealand? Did it affect what you were drawn to?

BG: I think I was looking for something totally different out there. I will look out the Maori portraits for you. I wanted to get out into the world and see what was going on in other places. These are back in 1999, of hunting wild boar. These are all films I developed myself. I’ve always loved big whites and big blacks. I remember at college; ‘You’ve got to have blacks, you’ve got to have whites and all the tonal range in-between.’ Like the dog there, it should be darker, so that you can see the hairs on it. They were so technically orientated.

GC: Having that foundation of technical knowledge allows you to have your own voice. You can choose what techniques to use.

BG: Yes, I think so. These are of the pig hunt. It was a great experience that has stayed with me. It’s an activity that brings the whole community together for a shared purpose.

GC: Have you shown any of the New Zealand images before?

BG: No, the Maori portraits I photographed, I said it wouldn’t publish them. My idea was to do a whole lot of Maori portraits. It was almost a documentary of the tribal markings but through a portrait, that’s what I intended to do. Everyone I photographed I gave a picture to as a thank you. True to my word, I haven’t used them for anything. I think some photographers have gone out there and used people. Then these tattoos have appeared in tattoo magazines, completely out of context. These tattoos are part of the spirituality of the people and that was where I was coming from…I think there’s nothing like going to the other side of the world and putting some distance between, to make you look at your life back here in a different way…

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Roddy, Hebridean Portraits by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: People will be familiar with your land and seascapes but not with your work as a portrait photographer. Can you tell me about your Hebridean Portraits series?

BG: There are about 120 taken over about 20 years, 80 or so are good. They were photographed using medium format, so you’re looking down, people aren’t noticing what you’re doing so much and you’ve got to get it right because its film. I’d like to make a book of them to complete the project.

Nellie

Nellie, Hebridean Portraits by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: Do you have particular favourites?

BG: One I took of Roddy my neighbour 20 years ago, he’s in a home now. One of the guys doing peats, it’s time disappearing, a lot of the people I photographed are dead now.

GC: Your St Kilda photographs also have that sense of a way of life disappearing.

BG: The ones I took of St Kilda- I wanted to have the zone quality to them, like Adams. I wanted them to look as though they had been taken with a plate camera, back in the 1880’s, like they were disappearing into the past.

GC: For me the birds also feel like that, departing from the rock. You’ve got this ancient, solid, immovable mass and all of that energy of birds in flight above.

BG: It’s an awe inspiring, beautiful place. I would love to do a series of all lighthouses in the UK. I remember listening to the Shipping news-following that voice around the Hebrides and the UK, to photograph all those areas would be a fantastic thing to do. I used to hear ‘the Hebrides’ -that’s us! Where is everything else? Where’s German Bight? North Utsire, south Utsire, where are they, what are they like? A lot of these places are inaccessible; you would have to go to them by helicopter.  It would be great to do a photographic exhibition of them.

GC: The scope of your photographic work is quite amazing. What was your initial training at Napier University in Edinburgh like?

BG: I went straight from school. It was old school developing and printing. The teachers were really good, I was pretty happy there. There was no digital then, it was hard work, but I enjoyed it. I was the youngest in the class. Some were in their 30’s. It was a board spectrum of people who’d been around the block and come back. I think I could have taken a year off, travelled around the world and had a bit of life experience- it may have done me some good.

GC: Do you feel it was a good grounding in photography, in crafting images?

BG: Yes. I wouldn’t know what college to go to now. It was like a little family, it was a separate building, like an old church. There was 25-30 in our class. There were 40-50 people in the building at one time, a nice atmosphere, I enjoyed it.

GC: When did you feel you’d found your feet as a photographer?

BG: I don’t know. I did the Acts of Faith exhibition photographs for Dad in my final year at college.

GC: Which are incredible by the way.

BG: Thank you. I didn’t tell the college I was doing them.

GC: Why not?

BG: The photos were part of my graded portfolio, but I didn’t tell them that it was an actual, proper catalogue.

GC: Can you remember what your thoughts were about making the catalogue- what were your thoughts about capturing certain aspects of the work?

BG: In different areas. I wanted it to document this is where Dad is, this is the making of the work, these are the final pieces. It just seemed normal to do it that way.

GC: It’s a fantastic document of his work of that period.

BG: Sometimes I think you can be so close to something that you don’t really see it for what it is…People say you’ve spent such a long time in one area. The reality is that with a family I haven’t time to sit in one place. All I’m trying to do is to create, not just a well composed picture, but a feeling, the feeling you get from it. I don’t know if I’m succeeding. I feel I am a little bit.

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Campion 2 by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: Do you have a sense of what you’d like to explore in the future? The Hebridean flowers felt like a shift.

BG: With the Hebridean flowers, I wanted to photograph them all in natural light. All back lit, I wanted the feeling of being a fairy in the bottom of the garden, underneath the flowers, photographing it almost from below looking up, like an insect eye view. You know when you have a tooth, you either put it under your pillow or make a fairy house, put it in the fairy house, make a present for the fairy and then there’s a little coin waiting for you. I would love to have them all on a large scale- just the feeling of them, of being amongst the flowers.

GC: There’s a feeling of the wonder of early photography in them, of illumination. There’s something eternal in them, they transcend their place. Do you have any favourites?

BG: My favourite is this one. (Campion 2) Plants are such sexual things, this is so prickly and spikey and this is soft, it’s almost like a womb, so opposite- but together.

GC: You’ve got that delicacy and detail, and then the diffuse light in the petals which shift out of focus. It’s elevated and ethereal – it makes me think of the Divine in Nature, in a flower or a blade of grass. Not in a religious sense, but a spiritual sense. What are some of the other key works in the gallery for you?

South ScarastaSouth Scarasta by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

BG: This one of South Scarasta because it’s so quiet. Someone said that it looks quite Japanese. I love it because it feels otherworldly somehow, like you’re not here. You’ve got all the texture in the foreground and the mountains in the background- so black. I really like this one too- the Pebble there.

Pebble Pebble by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: There’s something primordial about it.

BG: It feels like you’re enclosed in there. It’s almost like a primeval land, the mist coming over it- this could be the egg about to hatch. It’s not a nest as such but…

GC: There’s something elemental and protective about the stone.

BG: When you’re down in there, it was blowing a gale at the time and the waves were pretty horrendous. When you’re doing such a long exposure you have to find a spot that’s safe and not too windy- the practicalities of taking the shot. It was quite scary, I was hedging my bets, you’ve got to watch, I wanted to be close in, but wide. You’ve got to be there rather than zoom in. This one here – this is my Mount Fuji, Chapaval. There’s so much going on there, the sea coming in, it’s always changing, this bit is calm, the sky, the way it sweeps you into the middle.

GC: And into the depth of it tonally, it pulls you right in.

BG: They’re very dark, my pictures. A lot of photographer’s wouldn’t want to go this dark.

GC: That depth is part of their quality I think.

BG: This one, very simply- it’s a windy beach. There’s so much going on.

GC: It’s an image that the viewer can step into. You’re part of the foreground. You can touch it.

BG: I was literally right there. I want to be right there, rather than just zoom into it and use the wide angle. Maybe I do that without thinking about it too much. A tutor once said to me, ‘the best zoom lens you’ll ever have is your feet’ and that’s one thing I’ve always done. Don’t be afraid to get too close to the subject.

GC: I think that translates to the viewer being able to put themselves into the image imaginatively. I think the viewer is naturally drawn into your work; part of it is the composition and the investment of the blacks, investment in the marks. They’re incredibly rich texturally and heightened tonally. This one over here (Sheilibost Sky) is really interesting because it is almost disintegrating at the edges, like something elusive that you can’t quite grasp. I think human beings are always drawn to that in nature, it’s the fleeting moment, fleeting movement, fleeting life. Which is what the shoreline is, it’s a bridge between worlds.

BG: I guess photos are just a moment in time and that moment is always changing.

GC: I think they’re more than that-more than just a moment. In terms of human experience and timelessness, the way that curve draws you into it, such a strong line. The tangibility of texture in it, everything is moving, its alive not a dead still. They’re living elements, when you having them hitting each other- wave hitting sky, hitting earth, simultaneously. (Borve Break) It’s like an eruption- very powerful. This is a quieter image, but still a meeting of elements. The shoreline is a loaded place spiritually.

BG: A lot of people come to the sea to grieve, to have their ashes thrown in the sea, to play in the sea. The sea looms large for humans everywhere. It’s a very spiritual place to be.

GC: It’s also very humbling, the enormity of it.

BG: Especially when you’re in the sea.

GC: How vulnerable you are.

BG: You have to respect it.

GC: This one is like a meditation. (Looking at Seilibost Dune)

BG: In here is black but I wanted there to be subtlety in it too.

Seilibost Dune

Seilibost Dune by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.

GC: Can you tell me about some of your influences, you mentioned Sugimoto and Ansel Adams…

BG: With Adams it’s the zone system, a tonal range. A master printer, beautiful print quality, that’s what I admire in him. Sugimoto, his seascapes- totally sea and sky, so simple – to have that guts to photograph- that’s it, water and sky. Some of the exposures he left longer than others, some of them feel like you’re flying over them, just amazing! I admire the fact that they’re so simple. I would like to be as simple of that. If I was to own a photograph it would be one of his.

GC: When you look at an Adams or a Sugimoto they are unmistakably that artist. What would you say makes a Beka Globe?

BG: I think there will always be a lead in with my pictures, the blacks and the whites, how I print them. That would probably be my trademark. I don’t know. They are my individual pictures. It’s a feeling. Ansel Adams, I don’t get a feeling from his pictures- like a longing, even though I admire his images and technique. But with Sugimoto’s pictures I can look at them for a long time and be drawn into them emotionally.

GC: So the technical aspect and the heart of the image combined is something to strive for?

BG: Yes, I appreciate the heart in Sugimoto’s seascapes. That’s what I aspire to.

GC: The feeling of place, the moment?

BG: Yes and hopefully I’ll get better and better. I’ll just keep going. You have to keep experimenting and playing. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than take photographs

www.missionhousestudio.blogspot.co.uk

Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude

The Courtauld Gallery, London. 23 October 2014- 18 January 2015.

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Featuring some of the “most radical and unflinching depictions of the naked human form in modern times” this current exhibition of thirty eight drawings and watercolours by Egon Schiele at the Courtauld Gallery is a fascinating, explicit and contentious show.

Turn of the century Vienna was an epicenter of societal collapse and cultural rebirth; the city of Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and Joseph Hoffman. New languages; musical, visual, architectural and psychoanalytical were being developed in a climate of traditional world order conservatism colliding with revolutionary Modernist ideas. Human sexuality, desire and morality were being examined as never before. Instinctual, unconscious drives as the central motivation for human behavior and as a wellspring of creativity demanded a new framework of philosophy, morality and aesthetics. The young artist Egon Schiele actively sought out his mentor Gustav Klimt, a founding member of the Vienna Secessionists and from 1910 began to develop his own response to this milieu.  Radical times provoked radical Art; for Schiele a new language of the human body that is no less challenging and confrontational today.

Although we like to tell ourselves that there are no taboos left to be broken in the contemporary world and that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of Western democracy, the prolific growth of the Dark Net as a repository of desire and fear in our technological age would seem to suggest otherwise. Moving around the exhibition I was conscious of the reverential space of the gallery and a certain lack of context around Schiele’s images.  That Egon Schiele was a gifted artist and draughtsman is indisputable, however his work casts up a host of ethical questions, not least of which is his depiction of underage female models and the doll-like passivity seen in many of his images of women. If he were alive today he’d be the subject of screaming tabloid headlines and now as in 1912, when he was arrested and served a two month sentence for “contravening public decency”, the man and his art would no doubt be attracting scrutiny from the authorities. There were times when viewing this exhibition that I started to question the artist’s justification for his work:

I still believe that the greatest painters painted the figure…I paint the light that emanates from all bodies. Erotic works of art are also sacred. Egon Schiele, 1911.

What is so fascinating about this exhibition is the way that it confronts the viewer head on with their own beliefs and assumptions about Art, the role of the artist, gender, sexuality, maternity, death and desire. Schiele’s drawings and watercolours of male and female models, including self-portraits, are beautiful and disturbing in equal measure.  Often explicitly raw, sitting on an uncomfortable edge between eroticism, Art and pornography, they also provide valuable insight into the human condition; our fears, desires and vulnerabilities.

Male Nude (1909, Watercolour, ink, pencil) presents the viewer with the back view of a male body concentrated on the torso turned away from the viewer, the face entirely hidden in a dark, flattened recess of the picture plane. The sitter’s hand is positioned over his shoulder as if cradling himself. It is an anti-heroic image of masculinity and humanity, a young but ravaged body, intensely vulnerable;  the antithesis of muscular, beauty seen  in the sculptures of Ancient Greece and defining ideal human form throughout the History of Western Art. Made in the year he dropped out of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Art Schiele visually smashes the plaster casts of antiquity, turning his back on the traditional framework of reference for the nude in Western Art and embracing the Zeitgeist of Fin de siècle Vienna.

Reclining Male Nude (1910, Watercolour and charcoal) presents the figure pushed to the top of the composition, cropped and perched aloft in negative space. As in many of these early works the choice of palette is expressive rather than naturalistic; the model’s flanks in orange and green, his feet defined in blue and purple. The placement of the figure, together with use of colour creates a psychological edge to the image and a pervading atmosphere of unease. Male Nude With Legs Spread, Back View (1910, Gouache, watercolour, pencil) pares the body down to raw flesh and visible vertebrae pushed through the skin, our attention drawn to the stark mortality of bare bone. In Male Nude (1910, Watercolour and charcoal) the green/grey emaciated body on flesh coloured ground is severe and impersonal, face cropped, extending the study beyond the individual to the fragility of all human life.

This idea is also explored in Sick Girl (1910, gouache and black chalk) a subject that extends back to Medieval Dance of Death images and the recurrent theme of Death and the Maiden in Austro-Germanic Art. The actual figure of Death is absent, however the expression in the child’s eyes, wells of all consuming blackness, leave the viewer in no doubt that she is waiting for death. Her naked body is reduced to lines that articulate the tension held in her angular shoulders, her hands raised expectantly over her mouth. It is a particularly disturbing image due to the way that Schiele adorns her pubic area with a halo of heightened white. Her nakedness immediately suggests innocence without this mark. The inference is that Death as the ultimate and final human experience is about to take her ,destroying life and innocence. The Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch who was a great influence on German Expressionism also explored the subject of the Sick Child, together with the psychological state of puberty and its attendant anxieties. Schiele’s Sick Girl hovers uneasily between innocence and experience, disease and death.

Schiele’s Mother and Child (Woman with Homunculus) (1910, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) is a highly ambiguous exploration of maternity and desire which subverts the traditional subject of Madonna and Child. The female figure is turned away from the viewer, her rump exposed, a  sideways glance to the client, black stockings and a crimson nipple suggestive of her trade. The child is twisted behind her back turning towards her as she is turning away, her attention focused on the male gaze beholding her. “Homunculus” meaning “small human being” or “little man” could apply to the child she is physically rejecting or ironically to the “little man” she perceives looking at her. Her gaze like the display of her body is both seductive and calculated. She is, over and above any maternal instinct, depicted as a sexual being.

Nude Pregnant Reclining Woman (1910, Gouache and black chalk) is another fascinating image of maternity and gender. Dr Erwin Von Graff a gynecologist at the Vienna University Women’s clinic granted permission for Schiele to draw pregnant women and newborns at the hospital. Here the artist depicts a heavily pregnant woman, legs parted, her coloration of her skin painted raw and her face a featureless mask as if her entire identity has been subsumed by the growth inside her belly. The positioning of the pregnant female body is unexpectedly exposed and intimately claustrophobic.

Schiele consistently challenged societal norms throughout his work. Seated Female Nude with Raised Arm (Gertrude Schiele) (1910, gouache, watercolour and black crayon) depicts the artist’s sister, her face shielded and turned away, torso exposed; a study of female form, every line beautifully poised in hues of green, pink and blue.  His portrait Sneering Woman (Gertrude Schiele) (1910, Gouache, watercolour and charcoal, white heightening) presents an image of sociability inverted by the hostility of his sister’s expression. The large fashionable hat that would have been worn in public is at odds with the intimacy of her bare breasts and body language; arms folded as a barrier, lips pursed and eyes narrowed to an aggressive sneer.

Squatting Female Nude (1910, Gouache, black chalk, white heightening) reduces the female body to a head and limbless torso reminiscent of ancient Venus figures, but with hands twisted uncomfortably behind the back and rouged nipples grounding the body as an earthly object of desire. Standing Nude in Red Jacket (1913, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) extends the erotic charge of colour further with the limbless torso framed by an open red jacket, red nipples and genitals. The economy of line in this drawing is extraordinary, however it is a beautiful sum of erogenous parts rather than a whole body, a self-possessed individual or an attempt to explore the complexities of female sexuality.

d1ccd554-c028-450a-bd39-b4f4ec365c9e-275x420 Woman with Black Stockings (1913)

Shiele’s portrait of his lover Wally Neuzil Woman with Black Stockings (1913, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) in spite of having freed limbs is no less passive, the model raising her skirt, lifeless and doll-like. Although this is a supremely balanced and highly skilled drawing, there is no vitality or erotic sense of the sacred present. None of Schiele’s self-justifying “light” emanates from her body. However well executed, it is merely an emotionally vacant image of a woman in sexual servitude of male desire.

Standing nude with stockingsStanding Nude with Stockings (1914)

In contrast Standing Nude with Stockings (1914, Gouache and black crayon) places the female figure at the centre of the composition; hand on her thigh, poised, angular and assured rather than submissively posed. Schiele’s lines are muscular and supremely elegant, displaying incredible fluency of draftsmanship and arguably a greater degree of equality between female model, male artist and the viewer. Another 1914 work Side View of a Semi –Nude  (Watercolour and pencil) displays a more monumental and semi abstract treatment of the body, the folds of fabric ,model’s exposed flesh and the curvature of her stockings rendered with care and precision. Like the adjacent work Friends (1914 Pencil and gouache) where the bodies of two women are melded together in a structural framework of lines Schiele achieves an enviably balanced composition. The two female figures command three quarters of the picture plane, without the psychological imbalance of being shoved into a high corner or severely cropped.

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Kneeling Nude with Raised Hand (1910)

The effect of the whole exhibition is much like Schiele’s Kneeling Nude With Raised Hand (Self Portrait) (1910, Black chalk and gouache) where the gaze is turned upon the self and the artist steps directly into the viewer’s foreground, hand raised to stop us in our tracks, his semi abstracted body in red, green and orange sensitively bleak and timelessly confrontational. Between 1910 and his death at the age of 28 from the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic Schiele created an intense and uncompromising body of work.  This first major UK museum exhibition devoted to his work for over twenty years and the ethical questions it raises about the role and responsibility of the artist, gender and sexuality are still strikingly relevant.

www.courtauld.ac.uk

Anselm Kiefer

Royal Academy of Arts, London. 27 September – 14 December 2014.

The language of birds

The Language of Birds (2013) Anselm Kiefer

The first major retrospective of Anselm Kiefer’s work in the UK is in a word, overwhelming.  Since first seeing his work in the flesh as part of the You Dig the Tunnel I’ll Hide the Soil exhibition held jointly at the White Cube, Hoxton Square and the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall in 2008, I have been in awe of this artist’s ever expanding capacity to confront the complexity of being human. I will never forget stumbling over uneven ground through a darkened space beneath Shoreditch Town Hall and into Kiefer’s installation of lead beds, ashes on photographic film reels and water inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The potency of malleable, poisonous lead and reels of human memory entwined in that decaying, labyrinthine space left an enduring imprint; a dark core of the imagination, pregnant with possibility. Whenever the opportunity presented itself to see his work I have followed; to Karfunkelfee, (White Cube, Mason’s Yard) and The Fertile Crescent, (White Cube, Hoxton Square) in 2009 and Il Mistero delle Cattedrali (White Cube, Bermondsey) in 2011 which occupied the entire 11,000 square feet of gallery space.  It takes a special kind of artist to command such a space and Il Mistero delle Cattedrali was one of the finest exhibitions I’ve ever seen, a revelation in terms of just how complete an artist’s vision can be when technique and ideas resoundingly equal each other.

Since the 1980’s Kiefer has created work on an industrial scale in a steel wool plant in Buchen and brickworks in Höpfingen, Germany, before moving to Barjac in the South of France in 1992 to create La Ribaute, a 200 acre studio complex on the site of an abandoned silk factory. Large scale greenhouses, barns containing house sized paintings, underground spaces, tunnels, towers and pavilions are laboratories, installation spaces and sites for what the artist describes as “reverse architecture” placing works back in the landscape. His other creative laboratory at Croissy-Beaubourg outside Paris, a 36,000 square metre former department store warehouse, is now his main studio/production space. Compared to these monumental spaces the RA does feel restrictive in addressing the sheer scale of Kiefer’s prolific oeuvre. However the exhibition provides a fantastic opportunity to view work of a more intimate scale such as Artist Books and Watercolors in relation to larger scale paintings, mixed media, sculptural and installation work, including new pieces created specifically for the exhibition space.

The effect of each successive room in this retrospective is cumulative and increasingly expansive; we can see the evolution of the artist’s work and iconography, his profound literacy and ability to transcend the self. The ego or artistic persona which defines so many contemporary artists and their work is absent. Kiefer has always understood that he, like the rest of us, are merely a blip in cosmic time and this context enables him to strip away creative practice to its most essential elements.  1000 years into the future if the human race still exists, his work will still speak as powerfully.  Its genius and true material is questioning and struggling towards meaning, a constant state of flux with creation and destruction as equal partners. It’s an Art which celebrates the connections a human mind can make, the mystery of life, death and its cyclical nature. It is ash and diamonds, immediately visceral, beautifully poetic and alive with contradictions.

Kiefer’s belief in Art as alchemy; placing “the phenomena of the world in another context” and in human “potential to achieve a higher state” are remarkably consistent throughout his work. “The real alchemist [Kiefer insists] is not interested in material things but in transubstantiation, in transforming the spirit”, a statement which relates directly to artistic intent. Born into the rubble of post war Germany Kiefer first dared to ask the question of himself; of what he would have done when confronted by the collapse of civilization and the contradiction of a culture that produced Dürer, Goethe and Beethoven being equally responsible for Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald. Although his early imagery is clearly self-referential and culturally specific, the progressive distillation of the artist’s visual language powerfully communicates universal human concerns independent of time and place. The art critic and writer Robert Hughes described Kiefer’s work as testing “the moral imagination”, a quality which has been invested in its creation from the very beginning. Kiefer’s creative practice acknowledges that every age must come to terms with mythology and that “history is like clay”, it can be moulded, appropriated or wilfully distorted.

In his early work we see him grappling with what it is to be an artist, specifically a German Artist; a poisoned chalice after the appropriation of high Art and Culture in the service of Hitler’s Third Reich. In his Occupations and Heroic Symbols series Kiefer confronts what fellow German artist Joseph Beuys described as post war “visual amnesia” developing his own personal iconography of transformation, often depicted wearing his Father’s uniform.  In Heroic Symbol I 1969-70 (Oil and charcoal on linen, 260.5 x 150cm) the image is consciously bisected, presenting a duality of creativity and destruction. In the lower half of the painting the artist stands in the midst of a fire, smoke rising from an element of immolation into the white cloud above. The act of making a Nazi salute (banned in Germany in 1945) grounds the painting as an action of not forgetting the past. In the upper section of the painting, positioned in open blue sky is the sketched figure of the artist, a second self, hovering above the barren grey landscape with the true linen ground showing through, hands on hips, determined and resolute. Immediately reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog which positions the lone figure on a precipice, the figure of the artist, framed by cloud in a clarity of blue, rises physically and metaphorically above the salute. His nightshirt/smock suggests an aspirational dream space; however this isn’t a lofty expression of Romanticism but an artist standing on an ideological knife edge, deeply grounded in his cultural history and materials. Although some accused Kiefer of being a Neo Nazi when his Occupations and Heroic Symbols series were first exhibited, the painted surface of Heroic Symbol I is cracked and the composition actively dualistic. We are not presented with Fascistic certainty or a visual language of Neo-Classical absolutes and ideals. Kiefer’s methodology, like his imagery is intensely fluid and reflects the timeless human drive of trying to make sense of ourselves in relation to the world around us. His choice and handling of materials in later large scale paintings, sculptural and installation work, transformed by natural forces of sun, rain and seasons or by violent human action; a flamethrower, axe, hose pipe or acid, reflect this endless creative drive towards meaning.

Kiefer addresses the mythological and psychological associations of fire and forest, a wellspring of Germanic identity and storytelling in Man in the Forest (1971, Acrylic on Muslin, 174 x 189 cm). Here the artist stands in a nightshirt, holding a burning branch, the upright density of slender trees of the background bled into the foreground of the painting. The branch may be a torch or equally a cleansing fire to set the whole forest alight and burn it to the ground. Aglow with light washes of red and green a profound, surreal stillness pervades the work, casting the artist as protagonist and the viewer as witness. The human figure is positioned in a clearing, dwarfed by the forest of trees, becoming an everyman.

Nothung

Nothung (1973)

The textural and symbolic grain of the forest is explored further in Kiefer’s Attic Series of the early 1970’s. In Nothung (1973, Charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted cardboard drawing) we see an interior forest transformed into architecture, with heavy beams overhead suggestive of a Great Hall and an upright bloodied sword thrust into the floorboards. Kiefer uses linear perspective to draw the viewer into the space, a wooden bar across the altar like central panel of wall and two windows bled with rain to the left. This stain of blue extends into the roof around a banner of hand drawn text; “Ein schwert verhieß mir the Vater (Literally translated as “a sword promised me the Father”). Text is often used by Kiefer as a provocation, supporting or contradicting how an image is read. The reference to Nothung Siegfried’s sword from Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle; Der Ring des Nibelungen has its origins in ancient Norse mythology. However the idea of Siegfried as a pure Aryan hero of the German Fatherland and Hitler as self-proclaimed Father of the German people is inescapable and creates an image of the artist’s studio as a distinctly confrontational space. Kiefer’s exploration of his own identity in relation to the past is beginning to transcend the personal to reflect on the culture we chose to create and what it nurtures within us all.

In the triptych Parsifal I, II, III (1973 Oil and blood on paper and canvas) we are drawn deeper into the bare studio/attic space in a Grail-like quest. Blood stained joins of vertical panels echo trees in the forest, cast between order and chaos. The first panel depicts a white cot beneath a window with a single bar of shimmering light extending over the floor, dissipating into the foreground. The language of spears driven into the floorboards of the mid-section, broken swords and handwritten text creates a complex web of personal and collective associations. The viewer is effectively led into a space which like The Painter’s Studio (1980, Chalk, graphite pencil, acrylic and oil on photograph (1971) 58.5 x 68cm) and The Painter’s Studio (1980, Oil, acrylic and emulsion on photograph 58.5 x79cm) is transformational. In both images of The Painter’s Studio the architecture is seen engulfed in flames; there are no certainties or artistic props. We see steps leading upward to the closed door, marked with the recurrent symbol of an artist’s palette drawn onto the photograph in black like a cipher. No answers are presented but profound questions are asked both of the artist and the viewer about who we are, we’re we’ve been and where we are going, individually and as a species. Although the Attic Series is heavily laden, steeped in the cultural construction its own architecture, it also presents a dynamic testing ground of ideas and aspirations. The ordered timber structure links back to a forest of the collective mind, a place of refuge, rebirth, memories and nightmares.

The fertile imaginative ground of the forest becomes embedded and transformed in Ways of Worldly Wisdom: The Battle of Hermann (1980, Ink, acrylic paint and collage on paper, 290 x 500cm). A legendary and heroic figure tainted by Hitler’s cult of militant Nationalism, Arminius/Armin or Hermann defeated the Romans at the battle of Teutoburg Forest and was popularised through theatre and public sculpture in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In Kiefer’s Ways of Worldly Wisdom woodcut portraits of German writers and thinkers are cast within a darkly gestural web or inferred framework of propagandist deceit. The forest is present in the background and in the grain of collaged woodcuts. This visual tradition of image making in Germany extending back to Dürer’s Northern Renaissance and the work of German Expressionists such as Nolde, Pechstien, Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff ,whose work was branded ”Degenerate” by the Nazi’s, is referenced in all its ambiguity. Woodcuts of the Die Brücke German Expressionist artists embraced the integrity and physicality of the image making process, of marks gouged from a raw block of wood and stark truths in black and white. Equally there can be no greater expression of High Culture or Fine Art than Dürer’s encoded and superbly executed woodcuts. However this cultural inheritance is also charged with knowledge of appropriation and the language of cultural supremacy.

The artist’s book; The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975, Illustrated 56 page book with ferrous oxide and linseed oil on fragments of former paintings (oil on burlap) linen bound, 65 x 45 x 8cm) reduces the learned/Art object or repository of knowledge to an open page of blackened pigment, like charcoal remains of an ancient text saved from a great fire. Although such a work has specific historical associations, later sculptural works expand the frame of reference to a cosmic scale, introducing monumental stacks of lead books invested with the entire weight of human history, stacks of canvases, metal, rubble, pigment and ash like funeral pyres, the accumulation of millennia.

ages of the world

Ages of the World (2014)

Ages of the World (2014, Mixed media) a sculptural installation created for the domed Wohl Central Hall of the RA’s main galleries, is a superb example and a highlight of the exhibition.  Referencing “our planet’s evolution, the Romantic aspiration of Art, the poetry of ruins and the relationship of the individual [with] the deep time of the cosmos” the central structure is a vision of ordered chaos which the viewer orbits, following the curvature of the room. What immediately strikes the senses and draws the viewer intimately close are the smell of earth, oil and pigment and the bent heads of giant dead sunflowers laden with seeds protruding into the viewer’s space from lower evolutionary layers of time. Rocks and debris the ashen colour of comets, rolls of canvas and stacked paintings we cannot see, like closed books retaining their secrets, create an overwhelming sense that all humanity’s profound ignorance, knowledge and aspiration is contained in this single work. Kiefer creates an ironic dialogue with the surrounding architecture of white marble busts housed in gold leafed niches and the spherical vault of ceiling above. Two large scale photographs/ mixed media works hung like banners flank the main structure which from every angle appears as random composition perfected. The two dimensional images of accumulation and layered time  inform our reading of the work, but it is the towering sculpture itself which creates an overwhelming sense of what we are in human and cosmic terms. The effect is breath taking, laden with emotion and strangely uplifting, finding comfort of the mind in the mysterious enormity of the universe. Kiefer powerfully reminds us that “Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth. It never can, but it can get quite close”. Ages of the World is about as close as any artist or audience can get.

One of the surprises of the exhibition is a series of intimate, erotic watercolours on a ground of plaster, smooth as ivory skin. Cathedrals of France (2013, 18 page book with watercolour and pencil on plaster on cardboard, 75 x 58 x10cm) combines the ecstasies of the saints and exalted gothic architecture with a more earthly male gaze. Kiefer’s treatment of the female figure, bent back upon itself, surrendering to a cloud of blue or legs apart, juxtaposed with a vaulted doorway are obviously sexual. However this blatancy is tempered by the playfulness of a woman with a tiny cathedral in the palm of her hand or a reclining nude, contemplating a phallic tower on her lap, a curious prop rather than an object of male power. There is undeniable energy in these watercolours that reflects the mythology of Pre-Christian Roman Goddesses, transcending their holy and repressive architectural setting. Like the writings of Georges Bataille and Rodin’s intimate drawings of the female body Cathedrals of France could be viewed as pornography, however Kiefer’s fluid medium and invocation of Dionysian physicality resists this interpretation. These paintings present the duality of human desire and sexuality, both sacred and profane.

The extraordinary layering of materials in Kiefer’s monumental paintings incorporating straw, earth, flowers, ash, plaster, ceramic, metal, paint, charcoal and photographs are excavations of concentrated energy and precision, formal construction and accident. Photographs embed the moment within a painting and are often a starting point, gradually worked over with thick impasto pigments and found materials, cycles of time and natural elements. The sharp, heightened vanishing point perspective coupled with caked semi abstract surfaces in many of Kiefer’s early paintings encompass Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of the human condition described in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, having its origins in the Athenian theatre and philosophy of ancient Greece. Human drives towards reason, order versus restraint and instinct, irrationality and passion are always in a state of flux determining governance of an individual or an entire society. When Kiefer depicts the Interior of Speer’s Reich’s building (1981, Oil, acrylic, paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311cm) he inverts the idea of Neoclassical pillars, shining white marble and geometric order appropriated by the Nazis for their own ends in the decaying, blackened interior. How we see, our ethics, are our aesthetics and vice versa. Imagination, visual language and morality are inevitably entwined. Architecture is our physical built environment but it is also a construction of how we see ourselves.

Interior

Interior (1981)

In The Stairs (1982-83, Emulsion, shellac, straw and scorch marks on photographs (on document paper) on canvas, 330 x 185cm) the heightened perspective of the colonnade symbolically dwarfs the human aspiration of the ascending staircase. This idea is extended in To The Unknown Painter (1983, Oil, acrylic, emulsion, aquatic latex, straw and shellac on canvas, 208 x381cm) to the stalk-like figure of a lone individual/ artist seen in relation to the surrounding architecture beneath an oppressive ceiling of black sky. The full emotional weight of history can be felt in these paintings, however there is always light and transformation present in Kiefer’s work, methodology and in his use of impermanent materials.

Ash Flower (1983-1997, Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth and dried sunflower on canvas, 382.3 x 761.4cm) presents a more linear, ethereal vision of human architecture in the central towering stalk rising above the dimensions of the canvas and extending into the cracked curvature of earth in the foreground of the painting. Here at the base we see the ambiguous structure of the flower merged in circular form with the man-made rectilinear ceiling space receding to infinity. Bloom and roots stand tall in three dimensions against the two dimensional ashen surface, extraordinarily delicate and resilient, naturally following the movement of the sun and the cyclical nature of the seasons. In spite of devastation the figurative sunflower, a recurrent object and symbol in Kiefer’s work, remains central to the composition and the artist’s existential world view. Even the dead head of the flower contains the possibility of new growth.

Ash Flower

Ash Flower (1983-1997)

The three dimensional/ sculptural element of Kiefer’s paintings is immediately striking, tactile and invites closer inspection.  In his homage to the poet  For Paul Celan, Ash Flower (2006, Oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac and burnt books on canvas, 300 x 760 x 40cm) the high horizon line and perspective of ploughed furrows creates an immensity of space, punctuated by three dimensional burnt books which protrude from the surface of the painting and into the viewer’s consciousness. Blackened twigs stick out of the earth like the broken remnants of a human forest. The artist actively challenges perception of the painting as a two dimensional art object and rallies against the passivity of received images.  In the same way that poetry distils language, creating spaces for the reader’s imagination to wander into and timelessly remain; Kiefer’s visual language is similarly refined.

In the artist’s mixed media work For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Renowned Orders of the Night. (1987/2014, 240 x 500cm) lead becomes the canvas and we are presented with a densely caked, glittering surface that feels like an excavated slab of earth glinting with diamonds like a vast salt plain in the sun. What is precious and everyday are bound together in the light emanating from this predominantly grey work, rich with association. Kiefer moves beyond personal, literary references to encompass a more universal, poetically distilled sense of meaning in creativity. The sparkling surface could be interpreted as salt, a precious material for ritual purification, preservation of organic material and essential for human life. We may see in the pock marked surface a lunar/celestial association with stars, of looking to the heavens for navigation, spiritual guidance or poetic points of recognition and brilliance in an otherwise grey world. We may also see scattered diamonds; carbon atoms arranged in a face centred cubic structure or one of the most highly prized and valuable objects known to man.  The felt sense here is of precious objects of precision whose true value can only be seen in the context of deep time; a truth of diamonds, poetry and painting.

Kiefer’s The Secret Life of Plants For Robert Fludd I, II, III (1987/2014,Triptych, Mixed media, each panel, 190 x 140cm) creates a cosmic expanse of cracked earth, dark matter, glowing diamonds and the tracery of constellations; of what we are and what we aspire to be, expanded out of ruins and into the realms of possibility. Like Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi  (1617-1621) a volume split between human life on earth and the divine realm of the universe, Kiefer’s Art is a bridge between the two, sharing the English Physician’s spirit of enquiry. Fludd produced vast encyclopaedias including writings on alchemy, Kabbalism and astronomy, subjects traditionally considered unscientific and aligned with universal mysteries. Like all great artists Kiefer assimilates cultural, societal and mythological codes that reach back to the origins of Art in Shamanism.

osisrus and IsisOsiris and Isis (1985-87)

Kiefer’s monumental painting Osiris and Isis (1985-87, Acrylic and oil emulsion with additional three dimensional media, 381 x 560.1 x 16.5cm) displays his enduring fascination with ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, Egypt and South America.  Here we see a vast pyramid with a circuitry board at the summit displayed as another artefact, linked by conductive copper wires to shards of pottery numbered as in an archaeological dig. It is the image of a ruin but also of potential rebirth, linked to the story of Isis gathering together the parts of her husband’s body strewn across the ancient Egyptian landscape in order to raise him from the dead. The presence of the moon invokes natural cycles of light, dark and tides of history. The human belief in progress and permanence is laid bare by the passage of time and the presence of earth, clay and dust into which we will all return. The gradations of the stepped architecture, realised in drips and rhythmic impasto are extraordinary and like its companion piece in the space For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Sand From the Urns (1998-2009, Acrylic, oil, shellac and sand on canvas, 290 x 560 x 7cm) it commands the entire room.

One of the most beautiful rooms in the exhibition is devoted to Kiefer in colour. Undoubtedly living and working in France has provided the light, distance and perspective necessary for the artist to transform frozen fields of “Blut and Boden” (Blood and Soil) into fertile fields of wheat, moving in enormous swathes of decaying yellow, green and ultramarine, reminiscent of the vitality and fatality Van Gogh. In the Morgenthau Series Kiefer references the 1944 plan by the US Treasury Secretary to convert a defeated Germany back to a pre-industrial agricultural country. There is joy and melancholy in these works, a yearning for the sublime in nature and within our own nature.  Kiefer reveals “creation and destruction [as] one and the same”, death and resurrection mixed in with the palette. L’Origine du monde(The Origin of the World, 2013, Acrylic, emulsion, oil, shellac, metal, plaster, gold leaf, volcanic stone and sediment of electrolysis on photograph mounted on canvas, 280 x 380 x 30cm.) references Courbet’s 1866 painting of a woman’s genitals seen in the rusted steel trap with a volcanic rock suspended inside. The terror and fecundity of Mother Earth, combine with Vincent’s colours of gold and ultramarine bisecting the sky and uniting the History of Western Art with our most basic human drives. Stalks of real wheat flail, part and fall, but the all-pervasive feeling is of life and vitality in the choice and handling of materials and in the ideological trajectory of the work. Kiefer is without doubt one of the most important and insightful artists alive today and this retrospective is a rare opportunity to be overwhelmed by a Contemporary Art exhibition.

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