Even those that find modern art to be unbearable and pretentious must concur: paving roads, digging out caverns, and building houses as part of your art installation on the grounds of an abandoned silk factory is bad-ass. That said, detractors are likely to question the amount of money used for this that didn’t go to something else, but let’s remember that art, when given the chance, can affect us profoundly and in ways that we sometimes can’t comprehend immediately. Also, let’s not derail towards a time-consuming and bitter brannigan.
As for the example of “bad-assery,” German artist Anselm Keifer has done just that. With work already displayed at both the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain and France’s Grand Palais, Keifer decided to take on his most ambitious project yet, starting by traveling to La Ribaute located near the Southern France commune, Barjac. This abandoned locale is his canvas; his place to create enormous sculptures and paintings and place them in refurbished homes for viewing. It’s quite an undertaking for sure, and a subject that would suit a documentary perfectly, no matter how amateur the handling. Thankfully, they didn’t just get any journeyman to do the job, as English director Sophie Fiennes creates a unique, hypnotic, and sometimes sinister exploration of this grandiose endeavor with “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.”
After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it informational title card, Fiennes’s creeping dolly examines the underground tunnels and caverns, her eye tracing various cement constructions with a very slight orchestral score backing the crawl through the artist’s creations. It’s about 20 minutes before a human being is even presented, and within that first chunk is something (if you’re willing to give it time) unbelievably moving, almost seeming like a Tarkovskian study of the environment recently built.
Once the people show, it’s back to work, and the director finds something beautiful in the process of creation as well. Assistants extract sap from a tree and create cement for future sculptures, their process captured with a fly-on-the-wall enamor. Marking the middle of the film, a seemingly uncomfortable reporter finally gets an interview with Keifer (which almost feels like we were searching for him the entire time), who in turn unleashes his philosophies, intentions, and observations like an overwhelming monsoon. He even reveals the depth of his work: certain houses have broken bookshelves, and the caverns directly below have a tad bit of rubble under those particular houses. This proposes a landslide, which ruined the bookcase, and the remnants of said earth fall.
Despite his explanation of what his work means to him, the artist is careful not to reveal too much information, allowing each piece to exist on its own terms with its own interpretations. Fiennes, too, has her own view of them, brought out by her extremely dedicated, brooding aesthetic. Even the cyclical structure of the movie (installation-work-mastermind-work-installation) suggests a specific analysis by her, showing the amount of thought and care put into the documentary. Granted, the best way to experience an artist’s work is to be mostly removed from any outside perspective or influence so one can be allowed to perceive it in an unbiased, natural fashion. But the medium of film cannot be like that, and any effort to come across so has a tendency to be shallow. The director’s voice is unavoidable, and while her analysis of Keifer’s work may not line up with yours, it’s presented in an incredibly affecting way.
In the finale, the fully revamped La Ribaute stands, surrounded by lush vegetation and seeming like a post-apocalyptic vision of the world (just with really weird architecture). It’s legitimately breathtaking; a striking conclusion to this impressive visual dissertation of an artist’s work. “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” isn’t the most exciting movie and absolutely requires a decent amount of endurance from the audience. That said, it’s quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Know what you’re getting into before you take the plunge, but once you’re in, let it work its magic. [A-]