White Cube, Mason's Yard, London
26 January-17 March 2007
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
19 May-29 July 2007
Anselm Kiefer's London exhibition at White Cube, 'Aperiatur Terra', takes a quote from the Book of Isaiah as its title and, in doing so, conjures up images of destruction and re-creation, apocalyptic trauma and spiritual renewal with originality and drama. 'Aperiatur terra et germinet salvatorem, et institia oriatur simul' translates as, 'Let the earth be opened and bud forth a saviour, and let justice spring up at the same time'.
Kiefer commands immediate authority with 40 years of work behind him that has addressed the significant issues of transcendence and post-war German guilt, so that using the biblical theme of Palm Sunday in a conceptual and original manner guarantees that even the most ardent non-believer or sceptic will engage with his dialogue. Kiefer's authority is informed by a subliminal understanding, at the very least, of the biblical story as depicted through the history of art. Duccio in Siena, Giotto in Padua and Dürer's woodcuts employ the Christian iconography of Palm Sunday as a central theme. Although the episode does not feature much in the Renaissance or Baroque periods, it re-emerged in the 19th century in the work of British and French artists. A German Nazarene, JF Overbeck, painted the superb 'Christ's Entry into Jerusalem' (1824), but it was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Lubeck in 1942. Kiefer is clearly aware that in both pagan and early Christian iconography, the palm was an immortal tree - its sword-like branches never died. The palm was, 'The traditional Greco-Roman symbol of military triumph, which was adapted by early Christianity as a sign of Christ's victory over death and rapidly expanded, under persecution, to serve as a universal emblem of martyrdom'.1 When a limb falls, new sheaths bud.
Much of Kiefer's career has been devoted to painting, but he has also made books and sculptures. He has radically challenged received wisdom and interpreted the world formally and philosophically. His remarkable works of art have made a major contribution to the way in which art is conceived and created today. There is often only a fine line between painting and sculpture for Kiefer, whose Palm Sunday works are total experiences of primordial matter and paint; the paint itself is often applied as if by accident or volcanic eruption. Kiefer's work addresses a wide range of issues that are both inspiring and challenging. Of 'Aperiatur Terra', Simon Schama observed that not since Picasso's 'Guernica' have pictures demanded so urgently that we reflect and recollect. He states:
That Kiefer's work happens to engage with almost everything that weighs upon us in a tortured age - the fate of the earth, the closeness of calamity, the desperate possibility of regeneration amid the charred and blasted ruins - and that it does so without the hobnailed tread of pedestrian polemics, is just one of the many marvels for which we have to thank, yet again, this most indefatigable of modern magic.2
White Cube has risen to the challenge of Kiefer's ever-changing work, and the hang and installation are flawless. The focal point of the exhibition is 'Palmsonntag', an installation on the ground floor of the gallery comprising 18 paintings, hung as a single entity on one wall. A massive palm tree of 13 metres in height is spread with heroic dignity across the floor of the gallery. Kiefer has a remarkable gift to transform, and the process of transformation exists on several levels. His use of a disused brickworks in the 1980s conjured images of elemental change and metamorphosis: 'The transformative process of brick-making, involving the elements of earth, water, fire and air, has a symbolic dimension of rudimentary totality that is equally significant'.3 In the same way, his quotation from the Book of Isaiah gives the freedom to celebrate his unique methods, using terracotta clay, plaster or white paint, which are splashed and poured onto the canvas and allowed to dry in his open air studio in France, against the rich and symbolically powerful use of biblical imagery. The baked earth forms an essential part of Kiefer's aesthetic and philosophy. In the Palm Sunday works, Kiefer gathers thorny branches, palm fronds, mangroves and sunflower pods, as well as palms themselves, and elevates their symbolism with layers of painted materials and a deep metal frame, glazed to accommodate the statement. The frames are, in fact, more like museum cabinets or the open pages of a herbiary with a sacred message. The tentative optimism of Kiefer is keen to establish that Palm Sunday is a triumph, as Christ's entry into Jerusalem inaugurates the sequence of events: his arrest, Passion and death, but also his Resurrection.
Three large paintings are exhibited in the lower gallery at White Cube. Each is made up of a number of canvases, or they could not have been transported and installed. Vast panoramas, they are killing fields, the vestiges of a battle, a poisoned earth - or the world on the brink of disaster. One senses that Kiefer has not represented a feature of creation as much as created a re-enactment of it. Thick impastoed paint that is highly tactile - a mixture of oil, emulsion, shellac and clay - is used. 'Aperiatur Terra et Germinet Salvatorem' (2005-06), 'Olympe - Für Victor Hugo' (2005-06) and 'Rorate caeli et nubes pluant iustum' (2005-06) are a celebration of the act of painting; yet they push its very boundaries. The painterly mix is suggestive of primordial, volcanic detritus strewn across metres of canvas. As one walks through the gallery and looks back from a different perspective, the vast landscape feels unbelievably real. On three sides of the minimal space, Kiefer creates an installation with a powerful sculptural dimension - it is extremely difficult not to touch the intriguing pumice-like material. The no-man's land is the very definition of ruin and loss, yet Kiefer imposes rows of flowers that suggest at once rebirth and toxic pollution. The colours suggest chemical pollution and yet there is a human presence of life, in spite of the silence.
The third part of the exhibition comprises works on cardboard using emulsion, acrylic, sand, clay and photographic paper, entitled 'Jericho'. In the Royal Academy of Arts courtyard just blocks away from White Cube in Piccadilly (where Kiefer is an honorary academician) are two vast towers made from reinforced concrete and lead. Also entitled 'Jericho', Kiefer's towers were first revealed to the world in September 2004 in a vast disused Pirelli factory in Milan. Norman Rosenthal in Towards the Towers observes that Kiefer's towers, 'must be read as echoes of history (a history both divine and real in all its mystery and tragedy over the millennia), and like all visions can be perceived as mirrors from which endless therapeutic metaphors can be extracted by the artist and by each of us individuals gazing at them. All of us, after all, have experiences of towers that might be aspirational and spectacular, or sinister, or indeed manifestations of power and appalling oppression'.4
The tower plays an ambiguous role. From the perfect moment of seeing the mass of towers in San Gimignano to the horror played repeatedly by the media of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 in New York, towers have associations, very often of melancholia and impending tragedy, as well as symbols of ego and control. A central aspect of modern architecture is height, which has posed a challenge for architects in high-rise buildings and towers, an extension of the symbolic cathedral spire reaching for the heavens. The 18th-century Age of Enlightenment coincided with a cult for ruins. Rosenthal continues:
… but if the towers of Babel and of Dante and Wagner lead us by association to thoughts of overreaching disaster and destruction, Kiefer also builds into his towers reflections of a cabbalistic mysticism that is, perhaps, ultimately based on the concept of 'Ein Sof'; something that can loosely be translated as 'no beginning' or 'eternal' or using any other definition of divine infinity that, like art itself, is ultimately beyond language. Kiefer uses his towers also as contemporary emanations of Ein Sof that can be defined as 'the ultimate source of the flow of the purest divine light' that enables us to live both in the heavens and on the earth.5
It is a poetic and ambiguous creation in the heart of London that conjures thoughts of transcendence of ambition, survival and ruin. These works have gone on show just two weeks after the travelling exhibition, 'Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth', finished in America after 16 months. 'Heaven and Earth' presented an inspiring body of work, international and far-reaching in its scope, a synthesis of abstract pathos and memory. Anselm Kiefer's manifold range of influences is original and illuminating. His recent paintings combine a sensual and passionate affinity with the matière of paint, its mysterious and symbolic ability to evoke emotional states and to allude to history and layers of meaning, with an intellectual approach that is most impressive. 'For more than three decades Kiefer has explored the dauntingly large question of why concepts such as transcendence and the idea of a superior being exist throughout history.'6
Kiefer was born in Germany only months before the end of the war in 1945. He studied law before becoming an artist. As a devout Catholic, he was interested in the problematic relationship between Church and state. Concerned with religious and philosophical issues from his student days, Kiefer brought to art an intellectual rigour that underpins all of his work. When he studied art at the university in Freiburg, Kiefer had a number of meetings with Joseph Beuys, whose influence gave him the freedom from artistic convention. Furthermore, Beuys was the first German artist to address the Holocaust in a significant body of work. Beuys stated, 'Everyone went to church, and everyone went to the Hitler Youth'.7 Central to his work has been the use of primal forces and the elements. Fire, with its symbolic associations of destruction, cremation and war, is a pivotal entity in Kiefer's work. Light is used to symbolise God's grace and personal enlightenment. Visions of heaven and hell, hope and destruction are employed in a long and inspiring process to define spirituality, always mindful, however, of the state's capacity to use religion as a propaganda tool. Kiefer's landscape paintings are profoundly solemn, alluding to past cataclysm and the inevitability that history will repeat itself.
Kiefer appreciated Beuys's broad-ranging viewpoint, in which history, mythology, religion and art formed a matrix. Beuys proposed art as a utopian synthesis of various interquestioning disciplines that was capable of creating an enlightened worldview. While Kiefer was inspired by Beuys's openness and his grasp of a wide range of esoteric knowledge, including alchemy, his viewpoint was less utopian. Beuys became a public figure, while Kiefer would remain far more private and hermetic, with a darker, more sceptical vision. If Beuys was the shaman, Kiefer would be the gnostic, the questioner of all received knowledge.7
Kiefer defined art's role and the role of the artist in a traumatised post-war world. He incorporates a traditional palette as a symbol to imply the aspiration of art to seek a higher plane of vision. In the early 1980s, an image of a palette hovers precariously between the physical landscape and the starry heavens. In certain paintings the palette lies on the messy floor among the detritus of life; in others it hovers over the physical desolation of Hitler's war. 'In his desperate attempt to communicate beyond the halls of philosophy, Church and state, an artist invariably finds himself in a kind of purgatory.'8 Referring to his painting, 'The Starred Heaven', Kiefer comments:
I was using myself as the hero of an imagined myth or revolution. It is humorous, pathetic, but it is an important part of researching about who we are in this universe. We are capable of thinking very high and very low. Placing ourselves between heaven and earth is more difficult.8
Kiefer uses the natural world as a beginning for his work. Trees, forests, life cycles and the mythology of serpents and angels are the means to create a dialogue between heaven and earth. For the artist, the universe contains spirit and matter that are in a continual process of creation and destruction. Fire and melting metals, the combining of metals, transformation and creation are fused. Alchemy is as central to Kiefer's work and creativity as it was for that of Beuys.
In alchemy, base metals are transformed into gold. Lead is used extensively by Kiefer to suggest creativity and spiritual transcendence. Much of it has come from the roof of Cologne cathedral, the tallest Gothic structure in Germany: 'I feel close to lead because it is like us. It is in flux. It's changeable and has potential to achieve a higher state of gold. You can see this when it is heated. It sweats white and gold. But it is only a potential. The secrets are lost, as the secrets of our ability to achieve higher states seem lost or obscured'. He continues, 'For me, lead is a very important material. It is, of course, a symbolic material, but also the colour is very important. You cannot say that it is light or dark. It is a colour or non-colour that I identify with. I don't believe in absolutes. The truth is always grey'.9
Books and book-making form an important aspect of Kiefer's oeuvre. For Kiefer, the book has immense symbolic power as a container and transmitter. From the Bible to ancient illustrated manuscripts and books of law, the book projects the history of world knowledge. The codifying of laws and languages, the formulation and circulation of theories of creation, the rise of religious and nation states and the scientific have played out in books.10
Using impractical materials such as lead, making the pages too heavy to turn, and created on a large scale, Kiefer's books primarily have a sculptural and symbolic value. He points out that they are not intended to be read, but to allude to a creative dialogue to symbolise transcendence.
Architectural ruins are used to symbolise human vanity, the ephemeral nature of much of human creation and the inevitability of destruction. Painted images and installations are created over long periods of time layering sand, ash, earth and emulsion, which are then left to age and weather. Keifer states: 'Each of these buildings has a history created by its own fiction and need to demonstrate its philosophy of existence. That fiction is part of the debris of history. My images connect with that debris. They attempt to connect with the beginning or the end, with a deep and lost memory between here and there'.11
Kiefer's work employs abstraction with a conceptual awareness that at every point he infuses with an original intellectual commitment. Symbolic materials, found objects and a collection of pieces that represent the minutiae of life but allude to the primal issues of human existence are stored and employed like the lost images from one's personal past and from history. The minimal grey canvases, built up from layers of impastoed chunky materials, destined to break away from the painting in time, convey a message direct to the subconscious, enlightening the present physical moment in life. They remind one that however grim the past and future may be, the search, the journey and believing in both is fundamental to being human; and that art has a pivotal role to play.
1. Howes G. Palm Sunday: Myth, Meaning and Representation. In: Anselm Kiefer: Aperiatur terra. London: Jay Jopling/White Cube/Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007: 34.
2. Schama S. Trouble in Paradise. The Guardian, 20 January 2007: 13.
3. Hutchison J. Kiefer's Wager. In: Anselm Kiefer. Dublin: Jason, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, 1990.
4. Rosenthal N. Towards the Towers. In: Anselm Kiefer: Aperiatur terra. London: Jay Jopling/White Cube/Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007: 71.
5. Ibid: 71-72.
6. Auping M (ed). Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth. London: Prestel, 2005: 24.
7. Ibid: 31.
8. Ibid: 34.
9. Ibid: 37-39.
10. Ibid: 40
11. Ibid: 41.