Born into a Palestinian family in Beirut and living in London and Berlin, Mona Hatoum makes work – installations, sculpture – that confronts the world. Directly; indirectly. Sometimes more so, sometimes less.
Remains to be Seen, The first piece in her current show at the White Cube in Bermondsey, takes up most of the space in which it is displayed. Pieces of concrete attached to steel hawsers: the skeleton of a building. The kind we are used to seeing on news reports from Syria and the Middle East, except that those buildings have been so torn and twisted, damaged to the point where it becomes difficult to imagine them as they once were. Here everything is arranged in perfect formation, so that we are asked to see both the original and the aftermath simultaneously. As Hatoum has said of her work, it is about conflict and contradiction, both evident within the object itself.
I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.
The other installation which struck me most forcefully was Remains of the Day, which was originally created for the 10th Hiroshima Art Prize exhibition. Less room for ambivalence here. Charred remnants of a home are arranged around the sides of a room: chairs on which people have sat down to dinner; a child’s cot; a toy truck; a life burned to cinders and ash.
It’s difficult, visiting the current exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s work at the White Cube, Bermondsey, not to be overwhelmed. It’s not just that the individual pieces – sculptures, paintings, assemblages, vitrines – are, in themselves, large and powerful (the power to some extent deriving from their size) it’s the way in which Walhalla takes over the gallery more or less in its entirety. Step past the woman handing out the obligatory Health & Safety guide lines – If you accidentally touch the works, it is recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly … Small children must have their hands held as a number of works have hard, rough edges at a potentially dangerous height – and immersion begins.
The central piece, from which the exhibition takes its name, runs the length of the central corridor, bare bulbs overhanging rows of folding beds, empty save for heavy sheets of crumpled lead. The aftermath of a disaster, a terrorist attack? Are we in Aleppo? Mosul? World War Two or is it Three? An institutional dormitory, the gallery notes suggest, military sleeping quarters or battlefield hospital. As we weave cautiously in and out, damp and already somewhat depressed by the foul weather outside, I catch myself thinking, not too flippantly, of some not-too-distant outpost of the NHS.
At the far end of the corridor a much enlarged black and white photograph shows a single figure walking away into a barren winter landscape. The artist, making a break for freedom, free to give us his interpretation of the world? The hero of some dystopian novel, the last man left standing? Perhaps both …
Keen as ever to gouge out the horrors of his country’s history, Keifer’s paintings yoke together Nazi architecture and Norse mythology, portray vast landscapes in which towering buildings are being eclipsed by flowering clusters of blueish grey, corrosive and beautiful.
One room is given over to a single piece, a spiral staircase rising up into the roof, discarded clothing and strips of film hanging from its railings; its primary inspiration, according to the gallery notes, the ascent of Valkyries as they lead those killed in battle to Valhalla; to me, the Holocaust, genocide of European Jews in World War Two.
Step into one room given over to a single installation and it is like stepping into Kiefer’s storeroom –as the title says, his arsenal: trays and boxes of paper, paintings, a myriad of things; old broken prams, machinery; strips of film that hang everywhere, film rendered, like so much else, into lead; a safe containing papers that have been burned and all but destroyed, another that remains locked and impossible to open; a version of Thor’s anvil that is displayed in another room. All of this, Kiefer seems to be saying in this exhibition, all of history, memory, mythology, is my life, my work … your world.
The exhibition continues at the White Cube, Bermondsey, until 12th February.