In every segment of so-called high culture, there is a small handful of megastars. Their achievement in their given area of competence (literature, say, or playing the violin) is not necessarily greater than that of others by some objective measure. But they achieve such international eminence that their renown overflows the borders of specialist elites. Their name may come to ring a bell among a certain class of NPR-listening, Sunday Times reading, cocktail-party-chatting professionals as "someone of note."
In the art world, there are few such axiomatic living, working mega-artists — Cindy Sherman, Richard Serra, Jasper Johns, Christo, and if we're feeling generous, possibly Jeff Koons. (I'm leaving out Julian Schnabel now that he's practically a full-time movie director.) And there is Anselm Kiefer, the dean of German neo-expressionism, who is the subject of Sophie Fiennes' new documentary, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.
I begin with this consideration of Kiefer's place in the contemporary pantheon partly because Fiennes' film, for all its cryptic, sphinx-like merits (I'll get to those in a moment) presumes more than a passing familiarity with Kiefer and his project. Admittedly, you will hear the artist speak briefly about his art — in one of the oddest, most stilted on-camera interviews I've ever seen — and you will see some of his most famous canvases take shape. But Over Your Cities provides no frame material, no context or talking heads, no extensive sit-downs with the man explaining his vision or his place vis-à-vis the modernist tradition or the weight of German history, pre- and post-Third Reich. Perhaps anticipating a more European audience, or just a willingness on our part to do our homework, Fiennes drops us into Anselm Kiefer's universe in medias res.
This can be a frustrating experience, since there is clearly so much there. Even without knowing a great deal about Kiefer's art and its aesthetic / philosophical backstory, it's next to impossible not to appreciate the earth-encrusted, elemental quality of his vast canvases, or the rippled density of his book-sculptures fashioned from pressed lead. One wants to delve deeper into his conceptual world — which is controversial for, among other things, attempting to retrieve Germanic myths and a Teutonic tradition of the sublime from its Nazi abuses, trying literally to forge "poetry after Auschwitz."
Nevertheless, what Over Your Cities' taciturn approach does offer is a unique opportunity to experience Kiefer's vast studio / installation compound in the south of France. Built over the ruins of an old factory in Barjac, Kiefer's constantly mutating workspace is more than a hillside art studio. As Fiennes' lengthy, winding tracking shots at the beginning and end of the film display, it is a spatial artwork in itself, composed of lighted tunnels, concrete and metal structures, delineated pathways, all entwined to form a sort of contemporary "ruin." (We see bulldozers at work, carving out part of an amphitheatre area.)
The effect, as you might expect, is rather like walking into an Anselm Kiefer painting, with its sense of messages from our own time being read back, centuries from now, as future archaeological evidence of what we were, and where we placed ourselves in relation to our own history. Fiennes' patient camera carefully describes these secret spaces, using cinema to allow them to emerge from the darkness and, through editing, take their place alongside Kiefer's more traditional artworks.
And so, even if you come away from Over Your Cities with no more factual knowledge about Anselm Kiefer than you went in with, you will certainly come away with a deeper, more experiential, and, yes, a decidedly nonverbal understanding of his work. It's a worthwhile endeavor, so long as you don't mind mastery eluding your grasp.