Apocalyptic visions of civilization. 

Almost a year ago, two of the most relevant artists in the contemporary art world today, focused their exhibitions around a similar preoccupation: the end of the world. Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, exhibited their work with a strong focus on past and future History. Both born in the mid 40s, at the end of the Second World War, one in Germany and the other in Japan, they both represent and embody two different experiences and visions of our recent History.

Anselm Kiefer often deals with epic subject matter, reacting to the absence of collective memory of the German people. The artist, whose work aims to tend to the truth, cannot help but remember his past, event if painful and horrible. One recurring theme in Kiefer’s work is the presence of ruins in paintings and installations that may be the result of war damage or the passing of time, for example the painting Interior (1981), depicting the Mosaic Hall by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. The room, damaged in the Battle of Berlin in 1945, is painted as if it had survived, as a ruin, as a sign of the past to remember. “I like vanished things because I like things that are ruined. That’s a starting point for me”, explains Kiefer in an interview with Martin Gayford in The Spectator. As a sort of a post-catastrophic romantic painter, his work emerges from the aftermath of Nazi apocalypse, exploring memories and visions of the end of the world’s possible futures. As architect David Chipperfield wrote, “Kiefer’s monumental architectural paintings explore this theme of the ruin. Along with railway tracks, the forest and the huge textured landscapes, the architectural ruin has been a recurring image and reference in Kiefer’s work. The ruin reminds us of both the temporary nature of our lives and visions and the lasting persistence of the physical, the built – for despite all circumstances and actions, something remains. In time these remains take on their own beauty, no longer only indebted to the forces that made them but also to the time and climate that has worn them into a state close to nature itself. This is a quality that Kiefer’s work seems to share and aspire to, a deep emotional record, a search not for truth but for memory.”

Hiroshi Sugimoto, explores time and perception focusing on their consciousness. His exhibition in Paris entitled “Aujourd’hui le monde est mort [Lost Human Genetic Archive]” featured a private collection of objects along with his photographic works, that brought to imagine possible scenarios after the end of the world. Echoing the beginning of The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus in handwritten notes scattered in the space – “the world died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know…” -, and drawing inspirations from Duchamp’s ready-mades, Sugimoto invented about thirty different scenarios after the apocalypse. In the ruins of civilization, starting from the points of view of fictitious characters, such as a beekeeper or a politician, the artist imagines if and how to preserve human genetic information for possible future generations. The survivors’ testimonies mirror Sugimoto’s preoccupations about the disappearance of ancient civilizations and the uncertainty of an imaginary future, beginning and ending with photographic works of seascapes. Some fossils of a natural catastrophe symbolizing “tools of registering the pre-photographic era” and a sculpture of the Kaminari-sama God of Thunder, declare an original human presence, inverting time in a short circuit of past and future.


All references, quotes and readings can be found here: Aselm Kiefer @ Royal Academy of Arts /  Hiroshi Sugimoto @ Palais de Tokyo

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