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Directed by Sophie Fiennes
Produced by
Fiennes, Kees Kasander & Emilie Blezat
Released by Alive Mind Cinema
English, French, & German with English subtitles
France/The Netherlands/UK. 105 min. Not Rated

If you’re the kind of art tourist who has already seen in person, or on film, environmental sculptures like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, Harvey Fite’s Opus 40 near Woodstock, NY, or Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles, you’ll want to visit Anselm Kiefer’s La Ribaute in southern France via the special access in Over Your Cities the Grass Will Grow.

There, in 1993, the German artist took over an old silk factory and over 135,000 square miles of adjacent outbuildings and emptied lots, and began creating an abandoned city, like a futuristic science-fiction film set. The documentary starts out like Indiana Jones on an archaeological dig in a necropolis, following Kiefer’s underground tunnel system, where pottery shards and glimpses of sky recall the pueblos of Mesa Verde.

Dark corridors eventually lead up long staircases to ground-level galleries with thick stone walls. Some are covered with complex diagrams marked with numbers and mostly German (not translated) words. Kiefer later explains the digits are NASA star designations, but he also muses about their possible kabbalistic numerological interpretations. Other rooms surround large sculptural reliefs that he has formed using similar metals as Richard Serra, molten lead and oxidized steel, but Kiefer’s works are not as abstract. Amidst the overwhelmingly rugged masculinity of the workers (none with safety gear), rough-hewn materials, and noisy construction equipment, the walls are incongruously marked with the names of influential French women, such as writer Madame de Staël and assassin Charlotte Corray, each above a metal cot (sarcophagus? shrine?). Also scrawled is the word “shekhinah,” the feminine attributes of the presence of God. One inspiration for his project was the legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, demonized by rabbis and adopted by feminists, powerfully rising over ruined cities.

These explanations don’t come until half-way through the tour when Kiefer sits for an off-site interview with a German journalist, though he never talks to the camera. Instead, he explains as he directs a team of male assistants and a construction crew, pointing out his sculptural references to classic myths, like warriors growing from dragon’s teeth to fight Jason and the Argonauts. He then creates monumental-size books weighing over 600 pounds, destroys them with acid and ash, and surrounds them with dust and broken glass for a post-apocalyptic effect.

As director Sophie Fiennes films, Kiefer finishes and then abandons the site to return to his warehouse studio in Paris. The final view of his creation looks like Isaiahs prophetic warning of divine judgment. In addition to the beautiful camera shots from the underground skylights to sunsets set against the tilting concrete towers, the electronic music by György Ligeti adds to the spooky ambiance. Unanswered is how the heck Kiefer funded this project.

When giggling boys scurried around Kiefer in a library, I thought of the common gripe against modern art, “My kid could do that!” He reminded me of my sons when they used to fill the living room with toy trucks building complicated constructions, and then, with grins and glints in their eyes, would gleefully smash everything and walk away. Twenty years later, I’m still finding Lego pieces in odd corners. Kiefer enthusiastically channels the creative and destructive energy of boys (mankind? male artists?) within an intellectual context and on a fantastic, adult scale that has to be seen to be believed, and this film is probably the best way to visit his vision. Nora Lee Mandel
August 10, 2011



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