Anselm Kiefer At The White Cube: Leaving The Studio, And Listening To The Experts
There are two modes of response: cerebral and visceral. Anselm Kiefer’s show at the White Cube doesn’t offer anything particularly new, if you know his work. It just offers more. It offers another opportunity to go down one of these two paths.
Engage with the intellectual, and you will find yourself struggling to comprehend the names, the language, the coded references to art historical canon, the political signifiers, and probably leave with a sense of existential, moral dread.
Engage with the material, and you will find yourself overwhelmed by the scale of his works; the heroic artist overcoming a giant canvas that stretches beyond the horizon line; the bizarre and industrial mediums that seem toxic simply to look at. The result is the same though, an inescapable attempt to grapple with our own mortality and a sense of complicity as a viewer in one of many evils.
Despite this, I always seem to use the word “awesome” when talking about Kiefer. And they are, literally, awe-inspiring. It’s hard not to feel energised, standing in front of these mammoth productions, and to think, “I need to get up earlier, work harder, drink more coffee”.
As valuable (or not) as these thoughts are, this week I began to think about what prompted them. Yes, it was the Kiefer exhibition, but then I realised it was merelygoing to the Kiefer exhibition. That seems like a pretty fine difference, but I think it’s actually massive — especially within my professional context, as someone who makes art.
Basically, I don’t go and see that many exhibitions. That seems like an odd admission for an artist, and I’m sure I see many more shows than the average London resident, but it’s not a part of my daily life in the way, say, a product designer relies heavily on “market research”.
Instead, I (and many of the artists I know) spend an overwhelming amount of their time in the studio, trying to avoid confrontation with the outside world (and the art world in particular). When one of us pokes a head above the parapet, it sort of does feel like that, a parapet. Someone will go to an art fair, a private view, or a major sellout exhibition, and report back to the other artists about whether the risk of leaving the studio is worth it.
For me, some of this can be put down to laziness. But I think a lot of this timorous, hermit-like behaviour is simply a reaction to the world as I see it. The predictable, go-to excuse of “social media” is partly culpable, but this is really only one part of a wider cultural context of bland narcissism and rhetorical vanity which, ironically leads to further retrenchment by many artists.
However, it is the artist’s job to look past the noise and produce some kind of signal. This means a necessary self-belief in the artist’s own perspective (even if it is a belief in an unstable, insecure perspective that has no clear resolution or easy answer), which can be easily compared to (and confused with) the kind of blithe self-confidence of a hastily taken selfie with a minor celebrity, posted to Instagram with resolute conviction that this means something.
I think the difference between the two outputs — byartist and by consumer — is often very difficult to perceive, and so I often just go dark, ignoring both.
Treating your studio as a bunker is easy. The mentality quickly becomes all-consuming, and plays into familiar artist-as-reclusive-misunderstood-weirdo archetypes. It’s not very healthy. When you do leave the studio, you continue the pretend rebellion—the me-against-the-world, us-against-them, narrative. You take the pin out, throw your art at whoever’s in your way, hoping nobody will throw it back at you with constructive criticism.
It is the artists’ job to transmit, but the transmission is pointless if it’s just static. The work has to come from somewhere, not just go to somewhere.
And so, back to Kiefer, and the realisation that I would probably have sat with my own tired, regurgitated ideas in the studio, as usual, had I not made the trip to the White Cube. It wasn’t difficult, getting there. A bit cold, maybe.
And what I saw when I got there was the perspective of an expert; an individual who has been trying to express himself for decades, in steady iterations, battling against the noise, repeating his direct, increasingly urgent signal. All I needed to do was go out and listen carefully.