It has been a dozen years since Fresh and Fading Memories (2007), a shimmering metallic curtain draped on a Venetian palazzo, brought global recognition to the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, now 75. Since then, his magnificent, large-scale bottle-cap ‘tapestries’ have become increasingly familiar. But the first work you encounter at Munich’s Haus der Kunst is different.
Second Wave (2019) incorporates thousands of offset printing plates sourced from a Bavarian newspaper. Crushed, bent, folded and welded into 22 panels, they roll, in a manner evocative of their title, from left to right, steadily gaining colour and momentum, for the full width of the historic building’s 110-metre façade. It is Anatsui’s largest work to date.
It could, however, be his smallest and it would still feel special to stand before it. Haus der Kunst was, after all, the building opened by Hitler in 1937 to showcase the National Socialists’ notion of German art. The nearby Hofgarten was where they mounted their infamous ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition to brand modernism and its exponents ‘degenerate’. Haus der Kunst has, of course, long since successfully reinvented itself as a global museum of contemporary art, but that does not make it any less thrilling to see Anatsui’s work stretched across the façade.
‘El Anatsui, Triumphant Scale’ is curated by the former director of Haus der Kunst, the late Okwui Enwezor, and Princeton art history professor Chika Okeke-Agulu. Enwezor, who died on 15 March, just a week after the show opened, was involved to the last, participating in animated phone discussions about the positioning of works until a few hours before the preview.
Second Wave references the building’s ‘second coming’, but it was the symmetry of the architecture that first caught Anatsui’s eye. ‘He wanted to disrupt all those 90 degree angles,’ says Damian Lentini, who assisted the show’s curators. The work was inspired by something far quirkier, too: the spot a few paces from the museum where a small river bursts from the ground only to encounter a concrete block and produce an artificial wave. Even in midwinter, the Eisbachwelle attracts a queue of surfers.
An artist should work ‘with whatever his environment throws up’, Anatsui says. The (rum) bottle caps were an accidental discovery: he spotted a bag of them in the bush on the outskirts of Nsukka, where for many years he taught at the University of Nigeria and continues to live. The caps sat in his studio for a time as he pondered what to do with them, but pretty soon he was cutting, flattening, rolling, twisting, crushing – and with the help of assistants – stitching them together with copper wire. Among the most recent examples are In the World But Don’t Know the World (2019), a vast panorama whose rich variety of colours, shapes and textures somehow cohere to suggest diversity rather than discord, and the aptly titled Gravity and Grace (2019), whose flight seems held in check. By contrast, Man’s Cloth (2001), a luscious early work snapped up by the British Museum, now looks quite small. Before the bottle-cap works came refined wall sculptures composed of interchangeable wood panels – their refinement all the more remarkable when you discover he used a chainsaw and a blow torch to create them.
For this superb exhibition, containing over fifty works (plus drawings and notebooks), the museum’s vast spaces have been opened up to the full to help us explore Anatsui’s works by seeing connections between them. The semi-porous patches of Dusasa II (2007), in the first room, for example, serve as an entree for Logoligi Logarithm (2019), a walk-through labyrinth of diaphanous, suspended panels that fill the second. An earlier version of this work called Gli (Wall) (2010), comprised just five panels. This one has 66 – reminding us, if we need reminding, of the title of the show.
Anatsui never names a sculpture until it is finished. But beneath those titles – and indeed behind the luxurious folds of the bottle-cap tapestries or his use of the chainsaw – there’s often a message. The violence of the chainsaw, for instance, evokes the violence of the 1884 Berlin Conference, chaired by Bismarck, at which the European powers carved straight lines through Africa.
The message is never explicit. In Rising Sea (2019), a powerful work inspired by the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, fragile cityscapes appear to be sliding into the water. And that is the closest the artist comes to presenting a narrative or spelling out a meaning. ‘You all take things too literally,’ he chided Lentini gently at the opening. Maybe we do. El Anatsui is a great abstract artist; his strength lies in the mesmerising beauty of his abstractions.
‘El Anatsui, Triumphant Scale’ is at Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 28 July 2019
Main image: El Anatsui, Second Wave, 2019, installation for Haus der Kunst‘s facade. Courtesy: the artist and Haus der Kunst, Munich; photograph: Jens Weber