Anselm Kiefer. Midnight in History

At Milan’s Hangar Bicocca, a masterpiece in contemporary art, Anselm Kiefer’s I sette palazzi celesti, is opened to the public once more. The monument, and an exhibition devoted to the painter at the Lia Rumma gallery, testify to the new leading position that the Italian city now occupies on the international contemporary art scene.

 According to the Milan Chamber of Commerce, the Italian city is enjoying an economic growth in the field of the arts that would seem impossible given the current context of European crisis. In 2011, more than six thousand companies were established in the local visual arts sector, including art galleries, sculpture and architectural studios and museums. The reasons behind what the Italians call Milan’s svolta are to be found, to a large extent, in the fruitful partnership between the private sector and public institutions, and the establishment of powerful bodies capable of driving the production, exhibition and internationalisation of contemporary art. One of the most outstanding examples is the re-opening of Hangar Bicocca, a contemporary art centre in the northern periphery of the city. The centre was first opened in 2004 in a joint move by the Lombard regional government, the Milan Chamber of Commerce and Pirelli (as if, in Catalonia, the initiative were launched by the Catalan Government, the Chamber of Commerce and Seat), who provided a budget of 5 million euros with a view to establishing an art centre with international standing.

One of the first initiatives launched at Hangar Bicocca was to commission a leading international artist, Anselm Kiefer – who had no previous links with the city – to create a permanent artistic intervention for the interior of the exhibition space, a huge factory with a total area of over 15,000 square metres. The material investment in this monument (3 million euros), soon gave fruit of the highest cultural level: Kiefer produced what many experts today rank amongst the five most important works in international contemporary art: I sette palazzi celesti (The Seven Heavenly Palaces).

The Seven Heavenly Palaces is an unusual, outstanding artistic intervention that creates an immediate and disturbing impact: 7 towers, between 14 and 18 metres high, each made from 90 tonnes of reinforced concrete, distributed along the length of an industrial unit in the Bicocca factory. The scene, which resembles a post-nuclear landscape, is like a set for the Russian director Andrei Tarkovski’s great film Stalker. Moreover, Kiefer instils his work with an important message: the seven towers refer to a text linked to the Jewish Kabala  – the Sefer Hechaloth (4th century BC) – which narrates the symbolic path of spiritual initiation through the different states of experience: the Sephirot (the Tree of Life); the symbolic configuration of such values as intelligence, love, beauty, power, tolerance, etc; Melancholia; Yahweh or Ararat, the mountain where Noah’s Ark landed, symbol of peace and salvation.

Kiefer is interested in the image of the tower due to its message, both symbolic and ambiguous: towers give an appearance of stability, permanence, of ownership, but they are also ductile icons, open to the malleability of history and its cycles of construction and destruction. The spatial arrangement of the towers is designed so that viewers can wander around the installation, pondering on the deeper aspects of life, and about the destructive legacy of modern utopias. Kiefer’s ruins allude to a painful past that Germany has tried to bury: the destruction caused by the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust. Like Benjamin, Kiefer believes that it is necessary to face up to the past, with all its miseries, because yesterday’s great failures have a traumatic effect on today’s attitudes. Kiefer does not see ruins only as symbols of destruction, but also of recognition and hope. His recent work, shown recently at the Rimma Lupa gallery in Milan, is a journey into the ruins of our civilisation, to Jerusalem and to Mesopotamia. The exhibition casts light on the features that characterise the great contemporary, global artist: the ability to become submerged in cultural issues of the highest order, with few works – there are just five in the show – but with the widest physical and spiritual scope and great cosmopolitan ambition, seeking to communicate with all humankind by going to the root of our concerns as a species.

Today, thanks to this contact with a leading artist, Milanese spectators have the chance to discuss issues of universal transcendence. Artists like Kiefer serve not only to enhance and reactivate a local art circuit, but also to project the city internationally. Milan and the Lombardy region have understood this strategy well and have reinforced it over the last year by inviting such artists as Marina Abramovic (at the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea in Milan in 2012) and Bill Viola (with the exhibition Reflections, organised by the Panza Foundation in Varese, also in 2012), who have also created specific, permanent works for the region.

[Bonart, December 2012]