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Anselm Kiefer in the documentary, “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.” (Photo: Alive Mind Cinema)

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Rubble is the future. Because everything that is passes. There is a wonderful chapter in Isaiah that says: grass will grow over your cities…Isaiah sees the city and the different layers over it, the grass, and then another city, the grass and then another city again.

–Anselm Kiefer, courtesy of Neversmorgasbored

Sophie Fiennes‘ film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, features German artist Anselm Kiefer during a time when he was living and working near Barjac, France before moving to Paris. Kiefer purchased land that was once a silk factory and together with a band of swarthy assistants began constructing and deconstructing a landscape that is “a monument to the human will to self-annihilation and a rehearsal for the apocalypse” in the words of New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis.

From Dargis’ review:

Mr. Kiefer and his team burrowed into the earth, dug tunnels, constructed an amphitheater, painted (and threw dust and broken glass on) canvases and kiln-fired lead sculptures that look like books, turning the sprawl into a massive atelier he called La Ribaute…The movie offers the only chance that most of us will probably have to visit what he left behind, this strange, eerie Kieferland.

Kieferland IS a world quite different from my own. For anyone who is a maker and has seen any of Kiefer’s massive works—usually distressed into altered states that are visually stunning while also overwhelming—the how did he do it? question is always in the back of my mind. I have the same query when I approach the work of many of our most epic (grandiose?) art stars (“startists” like “starchitects”?) including Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Matthew Barney.

So yes, my maker’s curiosity would keep me in a seat at the ICA for several hours while Fienne’s camera wanders this oddly cinematic, unsettling landscape. She pans for 20 minutes before we encounter any of the humans who have created this under and above ground complex of grottos and postindustrial pavilions. And when we finally do see Kiefer and his assistants at work, the camera keeps its distance, neither invading nor engaging with anyone. The musical score is heavy and ominous, mostly music composed by György Ligeti and insistently dark.

The film is ekphrastic and as much about Fiennes’ sensibilities as it is about Kiefer’s. While I usually admire the ambient and the nonlinear, I wanted a better view into the nuts and bolts of Kiefer’s genius for fabrication. While I was surprised and oddly delighted to see Kiefer pouring molten lead by hand from a pre-industrial cauldron or watch him break pane after pane of glass wearing sandals and shorts, the glimpses into his process were few.

And encounters with his philosophical foundations as well as his personal life are kept to a minimum. At one moment in the film two young boys wander past the camera, but no reference is made to them.

From Dargis’ review again:

The boys, like so much in “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow,” are never addressed by Ms. Fiennes, perhaps because to do so might force her to employ banal documentary strategies, like identifying people. Instead she tosses in some introductory text and sets her camera loose. And because she won’t or can’t engage the complexities of the art and the arguments that have long surrounded it (involving, for instance, Mr. Kiefer’s appropriation of Nazi imagery), she embraces a silence that nonetheless clamorously draws attention to itself through the cinematography and some of the same music that Stanley Kubrick used in “2001.” It’s unfortunate that in gliding through these ravaged spaces while dodging time and its traumas, she embraces the role of tourist rather than of the vigorous, questioning participant that Mr. Kiefer’s work solicits and demands.

Well put.

The film did disrupt and provoke an ongoing struggle for me that also plagues most makers I know: The issue of large vs small in artistic expression. Epic vs lyric. Grandiose vs intimate. So I was bemused by a recent email declaration from my wise friend Harvey Roy Greenberg: “I have of late for reasons I know not why been much meditating on ‘infinite riches in a little room'”.

To be discussed further in a future post.

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Photo from the town of Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp

Marwencol is utterly compelling. At some level I want to just leave it at that and tell you to do whatever you can to see this documentary (a schedule of cities and theaters where it is playing in limited release can be seen on the film’s website.) But the film is so rich and so complex I can’t just leave a one line tribute to such a fascinating and unforgettable experience.

Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg and his crew hit pay dirt when they found Mark Hogancamp, a man who had been badly beaten by a group of young men outside a bar in Kingston New York in 2000. He was in a coma for nine days and suffered brain damage that included a complete loss of memory and identity. When Hogancamp’s medical coverage ran out, he had to find his own way of recovering his life. The approach he came up with is remarkable and unforgettable at so many levels—the politics and complexities of identity, the nature of art making, the power of storytelling, the permutations of therapy, the sociological/demographic determinates in life, the elemental essentiality of the self.

Outside his rural trailer home, Hogancamp has created a fantasy town he calls Marwencol (taken from names of characters—Mark, Wendy and Colleen). Set in Belgium during World War II, the town is populated by dolls that are accoutred in era-appropriate attire and living through wartime scenarios. Hogancamp creates his narrative with characters that are stand ins for many of the people he knows from his circumspect life in Kingston. He himself becomes a kind of GI Joe Wounded King, playing out adventures in romance and survival against the German SS soldiers that mirror many of Hogancamp’s own struggles. This backyard therapy/fantasy takes on a whole other dimension when Hogancamp begins photographing tableaux of his town residents. These photos are hauntingly evocative without being in the least self conscious or intentionally “arty.” (At one point in the film a downtown hipoisie comments on how Hogancamp has created a narrative without a trace of irony, something extremely rare in the current world of art.) No, there’s no knowing wink with regard to this “installation.” Hogancamp’s creation speaks directly to the Roberta Smith equivalent of Occam’s razor for what makes art meaningful (and a line immortalized repeatedly in my postings here since it appeared in her New York Times article last spring): “Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

The full story is a complex one, with some unexpected revelations that unfold as the film progresses. There is so much to cherish about this film and the remarkable Mark Hogancamp, but one of the most moving aspects of the telling is how pure the connection is between Hogancamp the man and Hogancamp the maker. He blends these two domains with such an absence of self consciousness, emotional distance or downtown tude that it is almost startling. In the current landscape of media distortion, manipulation and depersonalized fragmentation that flattens what it means to be a human being, this deeply nuanced portrait of a life—that still leaves room for the incomprehensible mysteries as well—is an extraordinary achievement.