Sometimes life just shoves you where you need to go. In my case, the taxi driver, skipping the throwaway words that most humans seem to prefer to silence, launched into an impressive rundown of the best galleries and shows in London, useful information during a drizzly, cold January week.
The precision of his east-Europe accented English, the mathematical way his discourse flowed, clicked with me. I followed his advice and walked, the next morning, bundled in feathers, wool and petroleum-sourced fabric, fighting to keep my umbrella from turning into a paragliding tool, towards the white cube in Bermondsey, a name that I had previously associated with houses for people who didn’t have the ambition to live somewhere with pretensions of poshness, or, funds failing, an edgy, grimy neighborhood, but settled, depressingly, for down-at-the-heels comfort. British secretaries serving the polyglot elite lived there once, now undoubtedly having been pushed out in favor of some beta elite, they faced life in another, even more mediocre location. Now, somehow having bypassed the grime stage in a kind of real estate sublimation, Bermondsey has become hip and nice. It remained vaguely depressing, as though that grime stage would have served like a peach-pit exfoliation and, having missed out of that scrub, the thin, barely visible gloss of defeat still shrouded the place.
The white cube itself, misnomer, a brown brick block barely distinguishable from the dirt on which it sat, contained a treasure of violent truth.
The name Anselm Kiefer, sounds familiar, but maybe that’s just my brain falsely connecting some other Kiefer, Sutherland perhaps, to the current situation. Still, name or not, I had no intimation of what I was going to see. The taxi-driver had left me intentionally in the dark on that.
First a hallway, filled with crushed and crumpled hospital beds, old fashioned frames metal, not plastic, covered in ash-grey material, the color of the London sky. The walls were slicked with a material that looked like very old zinc, also an ashen grey, slightly more brilliant though. The lighting almost extinguished, I thought this is what a hospital would look like after the war, after the wounded had died, the doctors had died, the janitors had died. This is what the hospital would like when the windows had all broken, all the dead people rotted, or buried, but not around to fix things. The burnt shell of our planet detached, deracinated from the earth’s surface by relentless, fire breathing winds and blown everywhere for so long that eventually every contour of the planet is covered in a totally uniform layer of the destruction we have wrought on ourselves and on the Eden we were given.
The ability of Mr. Kiefer to communicate the total self-immolation of the human race and its habitat (and the habitat of every living thing) in a desolate hallway of grey crumpled metal is breathtaking. In the exact sense of the words: my breathing became shallow and subdued as if to breath in the hallway would be to allow in the air of a destroyed world, to inhale that very destruction itself and have it become part of one’s being.
In one of the rooms my memory is of a pharmacy or office, also covered in the grey, entropic cinder-flakes. The previously useful place with its previously useful potions and previously useful documents made worthless not because of the dirt or contamination, but by the absence of fallen-man to need any of it, or want any of it. My normal reaction to scenes of human abandonment is curiosity, a desire to touch and examine, look for something valuable or interesting among the detritus. But here, the only wish I have is to not accidentally brush against anything. No danger of art vandals doing damage here. The art itself represents the total and utter vandalization of our own home. No criminal or thug could do a more comprehensive job of destruction or show more contempt for human efforts than Mr. Kiefer has already done. Perhaps the only way to destroy this art would be to repair it, clean it and paint it a nice bright orange color, hardly the stuff museum guards typically worry about.
In another room a spiral staircase, hung with threadbare, torn laundry, neatly suspended on hangers, suggests the death of the last traces of humanity. The staircase, leading nowhere, under a bright sky, serves as a reminder of human might and ambition. The worn clothes tell us about the crazed last days of hungry, ill-dressed survivors. Struggling to retain the vestiges of their humanity, but ultimately succumbing to the simple fact that not only was no survival possible, but doing the laundry was also out of the question. For god’s sake, there is ash everywhere, the water is sludge and the goddamned sun can’t reach the plants, the ultimate source of all life, the conduit that turns light into civilization.
In a large room, well lit now, some oil paintings. I am struck by one in particular that shows the world we have just wandered through, crumbled, pock-marked shells and skeletons of buildings, standing in the grid formation that suggests there were once streets between them. The same tale of utter defeat, the self-inflicted kind but with a difference. A blue, blue, blue sky. A blue that, by itself makes me want to cry. The feeling of my eyeballs separating from the sockets as the tears well up is overwhelming. I have to breathe again, that’s new.
That blue is the promise, shot straight from the artist’s, god’s heart to our own. The promise that although we will destroy ourselves, although nothing but a poison grey ash will remain of the garden we were given, there is still life and hope, perhaps not human life, perhaps not my hopes, but something. Humans can kill, commit suicide but we can’t fuck with eternity.