Aesclin Jones reviews Walhalla at the White Cube gallery, and examines what it can tell us about Germany’s cultural heritage.
Norse mythology has occupied a substantial position in modern Germany’s sense of itself as a nation, and is the subject of Anselm Kiefer’s current exhibition Walhalla at the White Cube gallery. The display examines the significance of this mythology to the cultural heritage of Germany, repositioning this rich source of material away from its appropriation by National Socialism. The title is a German derivative of the Norse term Valhalla, referring to the temple for the fallen soldiers of battle. Valhalla would house the noble deceased warriors in the afterlife until the final battle of Ragnarök, in which they would fight beside the god Odin. The Norse mythological poems describe Valhalla as a vast hall of gold and gilded surroundings. The valkyries, winged accomplices of the deceased, would decide the fate of who would die in battle and lead them to the afterlife. However, what Kiefer displays in Walhalla is not the noble death that meets the fallen warriors of Norse folklore, but instead draws on the downcast language of conflict to represent a different side. What Kiefer displays to us in his collection of new sculptures, paintings, and installations, is the scorched remnants of a vacated conflict, something that is very much a display of death on earth, rather than an ascension to the heavens.
As a German artist brought up in the aftermath of World War Two, Kiefer is clearly consciously aware of the legacy of Nazi Germany. Its appropriation of the cultural heritage of Northern Europe aimed to legitimise racial hierarchies, and to bolster Nazism’s claim to sharing a common ancestry with the Scandinavian people. This was a cultural heritage that could unite people better than any party doctrine could hope for, and the Norse mythology was inadvertently tied to the National Socialist interests. For the White Cube, Kiefer transforms the white surrounds of the space into a dark and cavernous burrow, evoking the dire conditions of modern conflict. Indeed, this atmosphere, which creates a sense of peril almost instantaneously, is the great success of Kiefer’s effort.
Leading from the entrance is the corridor that is very much the centrepiece of Kiefer’s exhibition. The abandoned space evokes a military hospital or sleeping quarters familiar to soldiers of World War Two. Each bed is absent of its man, its sheets upended and disturbed. These wiry framed beds form an oppressive walkway to the end of the space. Lit by a single row of exposed lightbulbs, the corridor is covered in lead – the bed frames, the sheets, the wall panels, the weapons of war, all covered in lead. This creates a hazardous environment that precludes wandering hands or any form of interaction with the space.
Kiefer here appropriates Valhalla for a contemporary audience, one familiar with the sights of Aleppo, the further conflicts of the Middle East, and the not too distant footage of World War Two. Walhalla is not an exhibition of ascension, but of the emptied space vacated by those who have died. Kiefer excels in creating an atmosphere of desertion. Emptied beds, recently vacated, suggest the upended flight of soldiers into battle. This is not a place to linger, indeed, this is no hero’s welcome. It is the aftermath of the call to the front, rather than the result of the death and ascension to Valhalla. We are reminded of this abrupt end to life by the photograph of a single solider walking into the distance at the end of the corridor.
Kiefer evokes the cultural precedents of the modern German state, with the names of notables attached to many of the exhibits, drawing on Germany’s cultural past and those whom influenced Kiefer as a young artist. In so doing, Kiefer continues the parallel between Germany’s present and its past, confronting difficult truths. Occupying the 9 x 9 x 9 gallery is Sursum corda, an ascending spiral staircase that represents the point of ascension for those destined to Valhalla. Draping the stairs are the discarded clothes of the valkyries, decidedly domestic clothes, and all the more haunting for it.
Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition at the White Cube gallery confronts the result of conflict in terms of its result here on earth. Evoking the human absence that these mythologies overlook by gilding the deceased with a hero’s welcome into Valhalla, Kiefer highlights the human element which seems so lacking in the Valhalla myths. The culmination of these battles were never gilded, never clear cut. But they forever remain in the minds of those on earth.
Featured Image: White Cube (Ben Westoby)