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‘Grass Will Grow’ On Abandoned Factory Art Project

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 10, 2011

Known for large-scale projects that incorporate the earth with unconventional materials like ash, liquefied metals, broken glass, and other industrial bric-a-brac, German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer first rose to prominence — and a measure of infamy — with art that referenced history, especially the horrors of the Holocaust and the lingering stain of Nazi rule. His art has drawn concepts from the Jewish Kabbalah, referenced philosophers and poets from Friedrich Nietzsche to Paul Celan and invited criticism for its bold, sometimes brazen evocation of the darker chapters of human history.

Fascinating, right?

None of this information comes to light in Sophie Fiennes’ Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, a documentary that focuses rigorously on process and atmosphere at the expense of context and engagement. Fiennes gave an open forum to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in her previous film, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, and here she supplies only a few sentences detailing Kiefer’s latest undertaking, a vast series of constructions around a derelict silk factory in the South of France. Fiennes isn’t terribly interested in unpacking Kiefer’s art; she wants to enshrine its mysteries.

Much like the recent documentary El Bulli, about the innovative Catalonian restaurant operated by chef Ferran Adrià, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow appeals less to casual aesthetes than to already fervent acolytes. And just as foodies might enjoy gawping into the kitchen of a haute cuisine master, modern art aficionados may well be entranced by Fiennes’ hypnotic tour through Kiefer’s twisted architecture of metal and concrete. Of the two films, hers is the more polished by far: Though Fiennes leans heavily on scenes of hushed observation, her style couldn’t be described as fly-on-the-wall. Instead, she tries to complement Kiefer’s work via pristine widescreen compositions and a camera that dollies lovingly through its unusual textures and spaces.

Those brief opening titles inform us that Kiefer left Germany in 1993 and settled in Barjac, France, a “hill studio” that he converted into a giant installation. Starting in 2000, Kiefer and his assistants broke ground on a series of constructions that include a labyrinth of tunnels and 47 buildings, each housing paintings and sculptures that interact beautifully with the carved spaces and shafts of light. Fiennes catches him near the end of his time in Barjac, which by that time he had converted into something resembling post-apocalyptic ruins. This gives her ample opportunity to explore every square inch of the place, all while observing the finishing touches.

Neither Kiefer nor his assistants are even in sight during the first 15 or 20 minutes, which are devoted entirely to tracking shots around the facility and its myriad wonders. Set to an immersive avant-garde score by Jörg Widmann and György Ligeti, these early scenes resemble the awed docu-tourism of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí in their attempt to render the eccentric contours of an artist’s work as visual poetry. Kiefer’s industrial architecture may be more severe than Gaudí’s — and far less exposed to foot traffic — but it similarly benefits from the appreciative eye of a skilled director.

Once Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow settles on Kiefer and his men actually creating new work, however, the effect is oddly demystifying. It’s one thing to get lost in the grim, dust-choked landscape of a barren forest painted across an immense wooden canvas; it’s quite another to see Kiefer spray white paint across it like powdered sugar on a funnel cake or two assistants treating it with shovelfuls of dirt. Seeing Picasso paint through the other side of a translucent canvas in H.G. Clouzot’s classic The Mystery of Picasso was a revelation, but the sheer scale of Kiefer’s work makes him look like a demented construction foreman. The full scope of his vision is lost in crude brushstrokes.

Though Fiennes offers a long conversation between Kiefer and a journalist as an offhand way to supply some insight into the artist’s mind, Kiefer’s soliloquies on life, the universe and everything obfuscate as much as they illuminate. And by deliberately refusing to engage in a critical conversation about Kiefer’s work, Fiennes limits herself to the pronounced distance of an observer. In that role, she’s most effective when evoking the mysteries of art over the grinding banalities of process. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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