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Heavenly Places

I n Milan's former industrial quarter, the German artist Anselm Kiefer has created seven tall towers from cement slabs and lead elements that combine the Jewish tradition of the cabala with contemporary forms.

Over the past several years, the Bicocca district in Milan has undergone an amazing transformation that will soon be nearing its end: the abandoned factories of the former industrial quarter, for the most part in the old Pirelli area, have been renovated into an exclusive business area that now houses not only the new headquarters of Deutsche Bank, the largest foreign bank in the country with a total of 5,500 staff members across Italy, but also an exhibition hall for contemporary art: the Bicocca Hangar.

Zwei der sieben Türme im Probeaufbau vor
Anselm Kiefers Atelier im französischen Barjac, 2004

The opening exhibition in this huge hall, which measures 60 meters wide, 180 meters long, and 30 meters high, is a highly ambitious project organized by the Italian curator Lia Rumma and supported by Deutsche Bank. The large-scale installation "The Seven Heavenly Palaces" by the German artist Anselm Kiefer consists of seven tall towers of cement slabs and lead elements ranging from 13 to 16 meters high. In this work, Kiefer has picked up on one of the leitmotifs of his more than thirty-year artistic career: an investigation into the relationships between mythology, astrology, and the discoveries of modern science.

Aufbau eines Turmes im Hangar Bicocca

Installationsansicht der sieben Türme im Hangar Bicocca

Kiefer, born 1945 in Donaueschingen and long considered to be one of the most important German artists alive, gave each of the towers its own name: "Falling Stars," "Sternenlager," "Die Sefiroth," "Tzim-Tzum," "Shevirat Ha-Kelim," "Tiqqun," and "The Seven Heavenly Palaces." For Kiefer, an important point of reference was the myth of creation in ancient Jewish mystical literature describing man's part in God's word. Yet the artist has taken other points of reference into consideration in his work, as well, some of which are decidedly contemporary by comparison: in his usage of the material cement and his orientation along the customary dimensions of a shipping container, Kiefer establishes connections to present life marked more than ever before by globalization and possibility.

Kiefer, who has been living and working in Barjac, France since 1993, understands the universalism expressed in these works as an apt image of our time at the beginning of the 21st century. The cross-references and symbolism in "The Seven Heavenly Palaces," which operates on several levels simultaneously, are numerous. With the " Sefiroth" tower, for instance, the painter, sculptor, and installation artist takes recourse to the three mythological paths open to mankind for lending life order and meaning, according to ancient Jewish tradition: love, sympathy, and strength.

Further associations arise through the various tower components; in addition to the cement slabs, more than one hundred leaden book sculptures as well as seven thousand "falling stars" of glass were produced by art students at the Accademia di Brera according to Kiefer's instructions. The artist left round openings in the cement slabs to let the light shine through - in reference to the famous passage of the book Zohar, one of the fundamental writings of the cabala quoted by Elohim that describes the origin of the world thus: "Let there be light" (Berechit 1:3). The divine light Kiefer refers to also created Adam Kadmon, the mythical first human being on Earth.

As far back into the past as the reminiscences in Kiefer's work extend, it also contains concrete, site-specific analogies to the city of Milan. The fact that the artist gave the elements in his installation a tower form also establishes a reference both to historic Milan - with its profane and religious tower architecture from the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance eras - and the modern skyscrapers in Milan's center, such as the newly renovated Pirelli Tower. In this web of conceptual and material references, Bicocca as a whole also shines with a new brilliance - as a reconquered urban area, and as a city within a city that is both new and old.

Ulrich Clewing

The exhibition at the Hangar Bicocca, Viale Sarca 336, can be seen through December 7. Open daily from 12 P.M. to 7 P.M. Catalogue published by Édition du Regard, Paris.

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