In Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, filmmaker Sophie Fiennes (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema) meanders through the world-making works of landscape artist Anselm Kiefer in reverential awe and little skepticism. The idea isn’t to shed light onto Kiefer’s larger-than-life enigmatic structures, or to comprehend the obscure process of the artiste (as in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso or Alison Chernick’s Matthew Barney: No Restraint), but to simply witness the execution of the artwork and revel in the outcome.
Kiefer’s pieces are so monumental, Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor’s works might look like miniature fare by comparison, although they all share the fondness for labyrinthine systems, trompe l’oeil structures, and disorienting immersion. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow mixes an unobtrusive observation of the construction of enormous installation works in Kiefer’s derelict factory-turned-art center with segments in which the camera enters and experiences the spaces. We watch as the artist bosses his helpers around, directs bulldozers excavating tunnels, smashes sheets of glass against the floor, and burns piles and piles of books. Once in a while we’re treated to overly sleek travelling shots through the massive installations set to a soundtrack that feels redundantly grandiose.
In one sequence, Kiefer addresses intention, meaning, and concept in a sit-down interview with a journalist. Members of the my-four-year-old-could-do-this crowd, or skeptics in general, are sure to cringe at questions that begin with “Light plays a big role in your work…” and answers that end with claims about a universal yearning “to return to the sea,” or a Heidegger citation (“In boredom you are at the base of existence”).
It’s nice to see so much energy and so many resources put in the labor of any artistic endeavor (though we never learn who is funding all this), but there’s also an uncanny narcissism involved in needing, literally, an entire building to house each one of one’s work. The megalomania behind the genius, or even the fleshly artist himself, is of no concern for Fiennes, who seems too in love with her muse’s makings to allow for moments of subtle authorial interjection, or off-protocol penetration of the non-literal structures. Perhaps the whole point is to simply show, not intervene—to witness all the construction that it takes to destroy something, the “event ontology” of the artwork, if I’m allowed a Heideggerian citation myself, instead of asking why, or even “really?” Yet the extreme largesse of Kiefer’s project, his radical certainties and devotion, all call for a more intrusive probing.