New Age Kiefer Documentary Disappoints

Sophie Fiennes' documentary "Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow," about Anselm Kiefer's subterranean earthworks at Barjac in the South of France provides little valuable material about the German artist. It's an amateurish New Agey cliche, replete with spacey music by György Ligeti.
Kiefer (right) and assistants working on massive canvases at Barjac, a highlight of the documentary by Sophie Fiennes.
Kiefer (right) and assistants working on massive canvases at Barjac, a highlight of Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, the documentary by Sophie Fiennes.

What do you know about Anselm Kiefer, besides his art, that is? I expected that Sophie Fiennes’ documentary about his legendary subterranean earthworks at Barjac, in Southern France, would explain a lot. But it provides little valuable material. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010), currently showing at Film Forum, is a desultory clutch of mostly silent tracking shots that fails to come together coherently, as if after she got to the editing room the director realized she didn’t have what she needed, but went ahead anyway.

The best scenes show Kiefer and his assistants at work — painting, dusting, and hoisting superb forest scenes on huge canvases, melting and pouring lead for an apocalyptic alchemical installation, stacking slabs of stone and metal to resemble ruined towers. Also worthwhile is an interview with the artist in his studio. He displays his philosophical streak, but also its intellectual limitations — that is, he is pointedly Faustian and far-ranging in his references, but his ideas are no more revelatory than those of any intelligent and cultured person. Bruce Nauman noted sarcastically that the true artist must reveal mystical truths. His irony makes sense except in cases where mystic revelation is the subject of an artist’s work. Then you want a little more than random scientific factoids, apercus, and aphorisms.

Kiefer and Fiennes.
Kiefer and Fiennes.

Regrettably, these few scenes are a small portion of a 105-minute film that mainly slowtracks through colossal installations, giving artsy partial views and close-ups that convey more the languid technique and facile eye of the camera operator than a cogent presentation of Kiefer’s monomaniacal project. Spacey music by György Ligeti cannot redeem these amateurish cinematic longueurs, and the soundtrack becomes a grating New-Age cliche.

I am a huge fan of Kiefer’s work – the recent exhibit at Gagosian contained splendid canvases and eerie assemblages in vitrines — and I enjoyed this flawed filmic visit to Barjac, but I found the whole thing disappointing. The review in The New York Times has it all wrong.

Kiefer, who worked at Barjac from 1993 until moving to Paris a few years ago, has expressed his desire to open the complex to the public. There have been reports that a German-French foundation may fund and operate it, but its fate remains uncertain.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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3 Responses

  1. I was looking forward to this documentary. What a great artist only to be cut short of his genius.

  2. why would you expect wisdom in words from a visual artist?
    sort of like being shocked that fortune cookies are not true?

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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    Gary Tinterow’s Contemporary Art Agenda for the Metropolitan Museum

    In a wide-ranging interview, the chief curator of modern and contemporary art discusses collection sharing, acquisitions strategy, renovation of the Wallace Wing, negotiations to lease the Whitney’s Breuer building, and more.

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