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Kiefer’s towers, a symbol of man’s tragic struggle that have become a Milan landmark

by Gabi Scardi

They date back to 2004 and have already become a part of Milan’s collective imagination. More informally known to the city's inhabitants as “Kiefer’s Towers,” their actual name is The Seven Heavenly Palaces: a site-specific, permanent installation created by Anselm Kiefer for the inauguration of HangarBicocca, a former industrial site now reconverted to be used as a space for big events and art exhibitions.

Titanic and spectacular, suited to enhancing the theatrical quality of the site itself, the Towers have long dominated the entire Hangar space, which has loomed for years in all its bare, raw and powerful enormity: 15,000 square meters of empty space and darkness. Artists who, from time to time, exhibited alongside Kiefer’s permanent installation inevitably faced the challenge of addressing the Towers' presence.

The work takes its name from the Palaces of the Sepher Hekhalot or “Book of Palaces,” a Hebrew text of the 4th-5th century BC narrating, in symbolic terms, the journey of spiritual initiation of those who seek to approach God.

The seven towers are up to eighteen-meters high; apparently precarious and unstable, they are actually made of reinforced concrete and containers, with the addition of diverse elements either embedded between the various levels of each tower or spread about on the floor all around them: glass splinters, ashes, organic matter like shrubs and wilted flowers; desiccated earthy matter, ladders, strips of iron or zinc etched with numbers or names, swatches of clothing, movie reels made of lead. Also in lead, huge, burnt up books are wedged into the towers’ crevices or in-between floors, as if to contribute to the constructions’ precarious balance.

Added to which are ruins, debris and dust that generate a sense of devastation and tragedy. The towers’ sheer scale crushes visitors and makes them feel small; at the same time, their gaze is drawn upwards, and silence invites contemplation.

The Seven Heavenly Palaces are a synopsis of Anselm Kiefer’s journey: an emblematic and at the same time, exceptional journey. Born in 1945, two months before the fall of Germany, Kiefer grew up – literally – playing among the country’s ruins and knowing that his personal story starts where the last tragic chapter in German history just ended: The Third Reich’s.

At the same time, he embraces every aspect of German culture, aware of its grandeur as well of the fact that its tragic outcome cannot be cancelled out.

A student of one of the post-war era’s major artists, [Joseph] Beuys, he nonetheless does not subscribe to the latter’s faith in history and the world’s upward progress. He made his debut in the late 1960s, with a series of photographs and paintings where he engaged with his themes directly, portraying himself in an unmistakable pose: standing, wearing the uniform that had belonged to his father, his arm extended into the Nazi salute. In Germany, the work triggered strong political controversy.

In the years that followed, he creates enormous paintings full of matter, strongly tactile and layered, that portray earthly or cosmic landscapes fraught with allusions to man’s millenary history – a tragic history with flashes of splendor, a history mankind must atone for. In the early 1980s, his subjects repeatedly include the architectures of the Third Reich.

Kiefer’s entire artistic journey consists of confronting and processing history, for himself and mankind. A confrontation where Kiefer takes into account man’s ambivalence – his capacity for destruction and rebirth, the inescapable aspiration towards ascent that has always governed us, no matter the barbarity and horror shown throughout history.