Perilously they stand there, up to fifteen meters high, more than ten wobbly towers, built of rough concrete wall slabs. The artist Anselm Kiefer stacked them up here himself, along with some assistants and a crane. Die Himmelpaläste he calls them. These towering towers, on a lawn behind the former silk factory in Barjac, southern France, are built layer by layer – like badly damaged blocks from a box of blocks.
The towers don’t move, but because the floors are stacked so askew, with a lead sunflower sprouting here and there, they seem to swing and dance.
From the guide, we must not get closer than a few tens of meters away. Sometimes one of them collapses, she says, and the waste is then left behind – because construction and decay is an important theme for Anselm Kiefer.
The German artist was born in 1945 in a bombed-out Donaueschingen. As a child, the rubble from a neighbor’s house was his first toy – an anecdote that is almost too good to be true, as Kiefer spent the rest of his life playing with garbage.
The ground is bone dry everywhere here, the fields are full of barren thistles, and if you drive over the long winding roads in the French Ardèche you see fields full of metre-high sunflowers. You immediately understand why Kiefer moved to this remote region in 1992: the landscape is like one of Kiefer’s works of art; rough, bristly and rich in earth colors and textures.
Anselm Kiefer became one of the most important post-war German artists. He creates huge canvases and sculptures, on which he tries to depict the great mysteries of life in thick paint and with numerous natural materials such as wood, straw and dried sunflowers, but also with plaster, broken glass and flexible lead. Because, however concrete and tangible his materials are, the subjects are so abstract and metaphysical: at first especially filled with German history, later much Egyptian and Norse mythology, Jewish Kabbalah and European alchemy – systems with which we try to grasp reality , but they always fall short.
For thirty years, Kiefer worked in Barjac on a megalomaniac project: a world of his own. The old silk factory became his studio, La Ribaute, where he could create his gigantic canvases and sculptures, but in addition he transformed the vast landscape of sixty football pitches into one great work of art. Kiefer built roads, dug lakes and had more than 40 pavilions built. Together with an assistant, he built a centrally located concrete amphitheater, fifteen meters high. He dug a huge network of tunnels underground in the hill, connecting the various buildings.
Closed for years
For decades, hardly anyone was welcome at La Ribaute except for the occasional museum director or art collector. Just the beautiful documentary Grass will grow about your cities (2010), in which the British filmmaker Sophie Fiennes lets her camera meander through the complex without comment, giving ordinary art lovers an impression of what Kiefer had built.
Until this summer, the door opened a crack. A foundation set up by Kiefer himself has begun giving tours of the complex. It happens sparingly: three days a week, between May and October, a group of eighteen people is shown around by a guide. The tours are completely sold out the first year.
Kiefer himself left the premises already in 2008, to settle in a 20,000 square meter studio in Paris. He continued to return to La Ribaute to complete his life’s work. The intention had long been to establish a permanent art institution there. In 2007, Kiefer stated in an interview that he was in talks with Guggenheim. Later he wanted to donate the estate to the French government – which probably hesitated because of the high maintenance costs. Now an independent foundation manages the area, largely financed by Kiefer himself.
Amphitheater, crypt and tunnels
On a visit, La Ribaute gives the impression of something halfway between a secret James Bond base and an artist-millionaire’s mega-playground (a German magazine estimated Kiefer’s net worth at €100 million in 2017). Guests are greeted at a nondescript gate on a deserted country road. An employee checks the tickets and announces who is there via a walkie-talkie: “Grey car, two people.”
Then you can drive on to the central square of the old silk factory, where the first statues of Kiefer stand on the square: from the series Les Femmes de l’Antiquité, plaster casts of dresses with barbed wire, dried branches, bricks or train tracks in place of their heads. Here, too, you get a James Bond feeling: Above your head hangs a man-sized, long steel pipe in a scaffolding. This futuristic ‘floating tunnel’ with round windows connects the old brick buildings: the tunnel connects the part where Kiefer lived with the part where his children lived. Kiefer is fascinated by tunnels: he sees in them the connection between two points, without ‘space’, as a gap in time.
After the yard and the meters high Sky Palace-towers you get to see one of the several white-painted glass greenhouses, in which several Femmes de l’Antiquité located. Their names – ‘Xanthippe, Kalypso, Pythia, Sappho, Statilia’ – are written on the windows. Figures from Greek and Roman myths and history mixed together, it is Kiefer’s ode to the women who determined history. Death and impermanence are not far away here: dead butterflies and other insects lie everywhere on the ground, succumbing to the heat of the greenhouse.
La Ribaute is somewhere between a secret James Bond base and the playground of a millionaire artist
Through a steel door, you later enter one of the largest rooms in La Ribaute: the Amphitheater, also built of concrete, which was poured into a mold between two shipping containers – Kiefer hoped that the Amphitheater would collapse, “but so far my hope is not fulfilled”. At the bottom of the arena is a large lead aircraft carrier. Some of the containers are filled with an installation of meter-long old film reels on tubes: everything breathes history, war, decay.
The most impressive thing is the extensive tunnel system you go through afterwards – a golden thread along the earthen wall shows the way, like in the classic myth of Ariadne. Holes in the ceiling show that one continues to walk under pavilions with works by Kiefer – parts of them: glass shards and stone ‘meteorites’ lie on the ground in the tunnel as if they had crashed.
Going through Kiefer’s brain
La Ribaute was much more than a workplace for Kiefer. “I have often compared my studies to laboratories,” he said during a lecture at the Collège de France, included in the volume Art will survive its ruins“But they can also be imagined as refineries or mines.” The earth provided him with “a significant part of the materials I used in my work, such as the seven meter tall sunflowers.”
But more importantly, Kiefer recognized himself in his study terrain: “When I walk a little tired through my study in the evening […] I am in another world: I see my study, but I go through my brain. I see the synapses.” You also have that experience of walking through someone’s brain as an outsider: everything here breathes Kiefer. Perhaps more than a world to himself, Kiefer built a monument to himself.
The underground tunnels also take you to the ‘Crypt’, a large underground room excavated between columns cast in concrete. It feels like a man-made cave: natural, but also molded to the artist’s will. Underground you will also come across the artwork of one of the guest artists who invited Kiefer to add a work to La Ribaute: Wolfgang Laib lined a 40 meter long corridor with beeswax – its shape refers to the tunnel in which the mythical oracle Sibyl of Cumae would have stayed. The sweet smell of the laundry, the cool air underground and the dim light from incandescent lamps: together they provide a sublime moment of silence.
After several beautiful otherworldly pavilions, full of Kiefer’s art, comes the last piece: a pavilion the size of an airplane hangar, in which Kiefer’s latest works hang: large canvases on which he connects wildly painted constellations to theater stages in Germany and Babylon.
That’s a lot. So much so that it feels decadent. And it feels strange to walk across a gigantic field that so strongly expresses the spirit of a single super artist: In the summer of all that, when the global art world celebrates the end of the individual artistic genius at Documenta in Kassel, and where the Venice Biennale Famous Men (Anish Kapoor, Bruce Nauman and also Anselm Kiefer) to the fringe program to create a main exhibition with almost exclusively female artists.
But it is precisely because La Ribaute was built as a ‘living ruin’ that the place makes such an impression. The layers of time slide over each other: the layers of the former silk factory, the old workshops of Kiefer, the immaculate pavilions in which the works of art are exhibited, the Jewish, Egyptian, Greek, German civilizations that are the subject of Kiefer – all the interlockings. Cultures rise and cultures fall again. Should the era of the individual star artist really come to an end, La Ribaute is the perfect monument to celebrate this end.