“We’ll start with this,” says Anselm Kiefer, not precisely pointing out what he means. “It’s broken.” He reaches for a sponge, wet with watery paint, and begins to fling the liquid at a panel, laying on the ground before him. His flinging looks both precise and slightly imprecise, a mix of chance and calculation. Another panel, a triptych painting of trees and pathways, fills much of the wall behind him, suggesting depth and surface, nature and machination. Intent on his work, he keeps his own back to the camera.
This scene comes some 20 minutes into Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, following a series of evocative but also elusive compositions. As the camera pans across, pushes to, and pulls away from examples of Kiefer’s art, Sophie Fiennes’ documentary doesn’t reveal or even begin to frame its subject. Observing Kiefer, it invites you to contemplate the choice he’s made, named at film’s start in a title card, to leave Germany in 1993 for ” La Ribaute, a derelict silk factory near Barjac in the South of France,” and then, beginning in 2000, to begin constructing a range of installations over the 85 acres—rooms, houses, bridges, tunnels, and towers, even an ampitheatre—all comprising a Gesamtkunstwerk.
The film’s version of these structures is haunting. The restless camera implies that even when complete, the art continues to shift, the teetering look of stacks of cement blocks or books, for instance, referencing their essential instability, as structures and also as incarnations of ideas, and maybe ideas per se.
Transience is a familiar theme in Kiefer’s work. The film doesn’t offer background, but the 66-year-old, German-born artist has a varied background (he left his law studies to take up art, studied with Peter Dreher in Karlsruhe and Joseph Beuys at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, he’s worked as a photographer and designed books), and he’s famously used a wide array of materials (straw, glass, wood, dried plants, rocks, plaster, wire, lots of lead). Kiefer’s approach to his work is intellectual and philosophical, always political: he’s engaged occult symbolism and mysticism, the Kabbalah, questions of individual and collective identity. His art reflects his inquiries rather than any sort of answers.
Just so, Fiennes’ film presents images as questions. The process of creation is ever close to destruction: Kiefer directs his assistants, but doesn’t come to conclusions. A backhoe digs through dirt, a drill opens up a deep, deep hole (soon filled with concrete, to secure a ladder positioned to seem emergent), a pile of dirt is splashed with smelted lead, then burned with a torch. Again and again, the film shows burning surfaces, breaking glass, splattering paint. It shows teeth and numbers, rivulets and handwriting. The pieces form a larger piece, not a whole, but more.
The film also shows conversation, or more exactly, an interview, during which Kiefer more or less patiently walks Klaus Dermutz through his thought progressions, steps forward and steps back, verbal circles that redefine what he’s just said. “You gave the paintings their own houses,” Dermutz ventures, sitting across from Kiefer at a table, a huge studio full or unfinished paintings and sculptures stretching into the background of the shot. “Yes,” comes the response, “Because I believe that the images need their own building to take effect, their own place to be effective, so they can explode into the world.” As he begins to talk about the distance the buildings provide, allowing viewers to “move closer or further away,” the film cuts to a closer shot of Kiefer. Asked about specific light in the installation, Kiefer doesn’t quite help his interrogator. “All light is interesting,” he says. “Light plays a big role in your work,” Dermutz tries again. “There’s actually no light in tunnels, rather light has been excluded, allowed only in small portions.”
This isn’t to say that Kiefer seems a difficult interview, only that he’s inclined not to generalize, to sum up, or to overlook always mutating details. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow insists on that process, approximating what it might look like, incorporating it into its own form. “For me,” Kiefer says, “the book and the sea have a connection. With the geological effect of the constant lapping of waves, the sea grinds rocks into sand and transforms whole mountain ranges into sand.” The film leaves you to sort out the connection of such transformation to books, though recurrent images of books arranged for the installation—pages brittle, bindings unfixed, stacks precarious—suggest they have their own sort of volatility, changing shapes, vulnerable to elements even as they are themselves representations of thought and inspiration, recording and freeze-framing. The film shows exteriors, handwriting, doorways and pillars and light. And indeed, all the light is interesting.
If the film offers space as a metaphor, if its mobile frames indicate experience, emotional and moral and, again, political, it doesn’t impose meaning. It may follow Kiefer’s provocative lead, but isn’t bound by his accounts. And so: if books and the sea remind “us” of “our origins,” he says, they also move us to consciousness of same. As Kiefer ponders consciousness—seeming to embody it, acutely—the film solicits your own. If, as a child, he says, your own boredom might produce consciousness of your existence (“You don’t experience yourself when you’re not bored”), as you mature, you also become aware of what you don’t know. All the scientific and technological progress,” he muses, “runs parallel to us,” leaves us lost, wanting, and facing a void. “What about beauty?” asks Dermutz. As he begins to answer, two young boys walk through the back of Kiefer’s frame. “Yes, beauty,” he says, “That’s why I keep going.”
Going where might seem an obvious question, but then again, it may be irrelevant. In 2008, Kiefer left Barjac, leaving the installations to a caretaker. The film records the beginning of the packing up, an ending that seems more formal than essential. Referring to the Book of Isaiah, Kiefer notes that “grass will grow over your cities,” that time and space remain in motion. The camera pulls out. The structures stand but also seem already to be lurching.