Two Perspectives on Civility and Destruction: Anselm Kiefer and Thomas Demand in the Bloch Gallery of the Nelson-Atkins Museum
We rely on our memory of art and artifact to measure both our accomplishments in living together and our social failures and calamities. We collect and display artworks, and as we maintain them in physical spaces we keep collective memory. Beyond the art works themselves, then, our treatment of them becomes a site or a study of civic possibility. In Kansas City’s Bloch Gallery at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, a single vantage allows us two, profound views on the keeping of civic memory in art and artifact. As the authors of both images are contemporary Germans, the gallery’s significance may take still broader, historical dimensions in geography and biography. In any case, a gallery in the Nelson-Atkins currently offers a unique opportunity to reflect on how, as keepers of art, we hold social memory. This unique vantage appears in the display of two, large-scale works, by Thomas Demand, b. 1964 and Anselm Kiefer, b. 1945.
Demand’s piece arrived at the gallery in March, 2018. It is Vault, a 2012 color photograph measuring about 2.2 X 2.7 meters. Its calming palette and alluring range of shadow appear through thick glazing, a water-like surface that softens as it augments our gaze, ushering the eye into Demand’s realist details of a quietly lit room. The viewer is brought seamlessly into a modern storage space for artworks, where the works themselves are not visible, but their care and protection fascinates. They are meticulously wrapped, stacked, shelved or leaned against the vault’s windowless walls. The modest, corporate interior is lit and shadowed with incandescent domesticity where the eye feels free to find traces of personal touch: pressed bits of tape, foam paddings, folds of plastic— artifacts of the care for hallowed artifacts.
Another work in the gallery came to the Nelson in 2016 and has dominated its space with awesome size and dark emotion since then: Lichtfalle is a 1999 painting by Anselm Kiefer, 3.8 X 5.6 meters in size. Heavy, ashen impasto — a crust, like burned bark— almost completely covers its canvas. The painting’s top portion, a sky above the wide, encrusted wall, is covered in matte, black paint with a white spatter of stars. The work’s surface is repellent but fascinating. A real, rusted steel cage — a rattrap, in fact — hangs off the canvas, near center. It is filled with inscribed, glass shards that would seem to imitate draftsman’s rulers. The white, thin vectors of a map overlay the whole, immense canvas. These plot-lines crumble and sink into the painting’s ashen ground, their meeting points marked with numbered labels that recall holocaust tattoos. The jagged surface requires our eyes to readjust in an endless alternation between figure and ground, while the map’s decaying vectors and the cage of work-tools remind us that the labor of seeing and measuring this wall may be as unpleasant as it is unfinished.
Demand’s Vault calls us into the protection of artistic legacy. Kiefer’s Lichtfalle makes us step back, then farther back, until our eyes accept the finality of a prison wall and make out battlements where guards would lurk against a night’s motionless sky. They would seem to make two, opposite gestures: one, an invitation into the calm where honored works are selflessly cared for; the other, a rough warning against the calculating arts of destruction and power.
However, the artists take perspective still deeper. How far inside Demand’s safe interior can we enter? How distant are we from Kiefer’s forbidding bulwark? Demand’s realist portrait of a modern office interior lined with human artifacts is, in fact, the record of his own, small scale sculpture: he created the impeccable, miniature diorama of a storage room, out of paper. The place in it where we find ourselves, instantly at rest, curious but reassured, was destroyed as soon as the artist finished taking its picture. Pink, stacked boxes, there, bulging slightly with the weight of some treasured, human good, never held anything. Frames, carefully wrapped in protective sheaves, never framed anything but the works of our imagining. Conversely, Kiefer’s rough prison wall and its nearly invisible sky draw us into visual play as the ground consumes its figures of map, masonry, tower and stars, beckoning us into a spectacle where distances are illusions: its surface takes on galactic proportions and the vectors of its superimposed map encourage us to explore. We become strangers to our own wonder and desire when we realize we are fascinated at the prison wall of genocide. In one, small gallery in a Midwest, American city, two German artists, born mid-twentieth century—near an impossibly difficult memory for civilization — ask us to see not only the craft of civic memory, but also what and how we want while we look at it.
IM-Magazine Arts Writer
Anne provides arts education program services through
Anne Gatschet Consulting, LLC.
She writes poetry and commentary on the arts.