You are here:   Text > The Sacred And The Secular In Contemporary Art
 
Another exhibition at the Royal Academy during the time that I have been there where I think it is legitimate to think in terms of a sacred, or at least a non-secular, dimension was in Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition held in autumn 2014. Kiefer is self-consciously engaged with issues of history and of myth: thinking about the past through images of sunflowers, ash, baked earth and books, with inscriptions which are drawn from old texts, written out in his deliberate, slightly archaic handwriting. The courtyard was filled with lead ships in big glass vitrines under the title Fates of Nations. At the top of the staircase were lead wings emerging behind a pile of books. The big gallery was filled with an image of the ruins of Albert Speer’s Chancellery. The last rooms were full of work which was done especially for the exhibition on the theme of the Morgenthau Plan, drawn up in the last days of the war by Henry Morgenthau Jr., to turn the Ruhr valley, the centre of Germany’s armaments industry, into farmland. These, once again, were big themes of history, myth, the idea of creation, death and destruction. Kiefer comes across as, in some ways, a shaman, with an interest in the power and beauty, the potency, of myth and alchemy.

The catalogue which was produced at the time of the exhibition helps to give reference to the largeness of Kiefer’s themes and his preoccupation with a mystic and spiritual dimension to life. Indeed, it reveals that he started his journey as an artist by travelling to La Tourette, Le Corbusier’s monastery in France, where he claims to have “discovered the spirituality of concrete”. The way he describes the alchemy of his work is not dissimilar from the way that Anish Kapoor describes his: “When I use objects and substances such as straw and lead I distil from their spirit . . . I discover the spirit that is within these substances. I upheave it and display it.” The catalogue, and particularly the essay by Richard Davey, helps one to understand and interpret the range and depth and recurrence of Kiefer’s use of biblical language and biblical images. After all, the title of one of his early works was Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In his preoccupation with the image of the tree, he repeatedly uses biblical metaphor, as in his opera, In the Beginning, performed in the Opéra Bastille in 2009 and which was self-consciously biblical, or Roots of the Jesse Tree (private collection) and Palm Sunday, a work owned jointly by the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. It is obvious, and not just from the exhibition, that Kiefer is deeply preoccupied with the language and ideas of revelation.

The last of the exhibitions that had a quasi-sacramental aspect was the Ai Weiwei exhibition we held last autumn. I would love to pretend that visitors to the exhibition were deeply interested in contemporary Chinese art. They probably did want to see and understand why it is that Ai Weiwei has such a strong international following. But the reason why people came, and encouraged others to come, was, as with the other exhibitions, not really or purely art historical. The biggest, and the most powerful, of the rooms was the big Gallery Three, the largest of our exhibition galleries, which was filled with the metal bars which Ai Weiwei and a team of helpers had recovered from the schools which were destroyed in an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that led to the deaths of 5,000 schoolchildren. It was an act of remembrance and of commemoration. It was a work which acted powerfully on the consciousness of the spectator in making them think about death, life and loss, particularly the loss of children, through the actions of the Chinese government. This was certainly intended as a political statement. But I think it is also legitimate to say that it was, in some ways, a quasi-sacred experience: taking visitors out of their normal secular life and making them think about the politics of the world, about the consequences of political negligence through the act of commemoration.

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.