Monday, August 08, 2011

Kiefer’s Barjac: Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow

For the better part of the 2000’s, the German artist Anselm Kiefer’s studio would not have been OSHA compliant. Safety goggles and closed-toed shoes probably should have been required at all times. Fortunately though, he was encamped in an abandoned factory outside of Barjac in Southern France, operating without interference from workplace inspectors. Redefining conventional notions of artistic medium, Kiefer used the buildings and surrounding landscape as his canvas for a grandly conceived multi-disciplinary installation. Sophie Fiennes documented Anselm as he added the finishing touches to his Barjac project in Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum.

In many ways, Grass is much like Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, artfully recreating the experience of exploring an otherworldly environment here on Earth. Shot in CinemaScope, Grass's long tracking shots of the Barjac tunnels, corridors, galleries, and arcades would more readily lend themselves to a 3-D fix-up than flat tent-poles like Clash of the Titans. Indeed, watching Fiennes’ film is the closest most of us will come to walking through a Dali landscape. Particularly striking are the scenes of his enormous concrete towers, leaning precariously like ancient Jenga constructions.

Sister of actors Ralph and Joseph, Sophie Fiennes (born Sophia Victoria Twisleton Wykeham-Fiennes) takes far too observational an approach, when her subject matter begs for more background commentary. Despite the walking tour style explorations of the Barjac site, viewers never get a comprehensive sense of the overall shape of things. Even more problematic, we get very little by way of an explanation for Kiefer’s bold undertaking. When the artist happens to mention around the midpoint the Biblical story of Lilith, the outcast woman living in ruins, originally inspired his so-called “Gesamtkunstwerk,” it comes as a revelation, altering our entire perception of the project. Frankly, given the nature of the work, the more context viewers get, the better they would be able to appreciate it.

Indeed, far too much of Grass is devoted to scenes of Kiefer and his associates deliberately breaking panes of glass (while he alarmingly putters around in flip-flops) and moving huge paintings about his hanger-like workshop with cranes. While it quickly gets repetitive, at least it proves Kiefer is still very much a hands-on artist, not simply delegating the fabrication process to a staff of artisans.

While there is an extended interview sequence (seemingly captured as part of Kiefer’s regular routine as a semi-celebrity figure), his interlocutor never really draws out the reserved artist. Still, Fiennes and cinematographer Remko Schnoor capture some striking visuals, which she marries quite effectively to the music of György Ligeti and Jörg Widmann. Indeed, Ligeti, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor whose compositions can be heard in several Kubrick’s films, is an especially apt choice, given Kiefer’s early work directly (if somewhat ironically) addresses the National Socialist era of German history.

Grass is at its best when immersing viewers in the imposing grandeur of Kiefer’s Barjac Gesamtkunstwerk. However, it should have deigned to directly tell the audience more of the what’s and why’s of it all, rather than simply showing the how’s. Fascinating and frustrating in nearly equal measure, Grass is better experienced on the big screen, so those fascinated by Kiefer’s work and such site specific architectural installations in general should check it out at Film Forum, where it opens this Wednesday (8/10).