In the wake of history

August 13, 2023

Anselm Kiefer has captured human vanity and provided a critique of wars, past and present

Phall if you but will rise you must 2017-23.
Phall if you but will rise you must 2017-23.


oving through an installation by Anselm Kiefer is like walking on a site of death, decay and destruction. Rubble, rust, roughed clothes, discarded machinery, discoloured bones, dry stems, disbanded structures, oversized (fabricated) sunflowers are just a few items from the itinerary of things he has constructed, collected, coloured and composed on racks, shelves, slabs, boxes, arranged in two rows of this never ending – artist-made – wreckage.

Titled Arsenal, the installation from his solo exhibition, Finnegans Wake, at the White Cube Bermondsey, London (June7-August20) is similar to a ruin of war, of bombardment, of the past, of hell (“Dante in the Inferno compared the boiling pitch used in Venice’s massive Arsenal to that found in hell”). Every component of this work, instead of looking like itself, seems to be a dead version of the original. The work, which dates from 1970 to 2023, is a reminder of Kiefer’s lifelong concerns, imagery, materials and aesthetics. The artist has been dealing with Germany’s tumult past during World War II, the painful period of the Third Reich - an era that destroyed not only one nation, but also a considerable part of rest of Europe.

Kiefer, like his compatriot Gunter Grass, has the courage to address that savage phase of German history, which left many gassed, murdered, displaced and dispossessed in its wake. What took place in the Nazi Germany was not limited to that country, because it destroyed the idea of Europe as an enlightened, progressive and peaceful place. The title of the current exhibition is derived from James Joyce’s novel, a book of fiction, in which “up to 70 languages are present, and numerous cultures: among them Egyptian, Irish, Norse, Islamic.” Brian Dillions, the British art critic, further comments, “Finnegans Wake is sometimes spoken of as though it were a literary monument or ruin.” Most parts of the exhibition, the installations in the corridor and in various rooms, as well as paintings are reminiscent of a grand ruin.

Kiefer states: “I do not consider ruins as something disastrous. On the contrary, they mark the beginning of the reconstruction of a cycle, or circular time.” Witnessing the aftermath of a bloody conflict, in the form of lead books, disfigured bicycles, snakes covered in golden or silver paint, iron rods, metal cauldrons, odd mechanisms, discarded shoes, stiffened clothes, withered plants, one starts smelling the scent of battles: outside a sequence of heroic action, but in reality a chronology of disaster.

According to Dillon, Kiefer’s work “has always been nourished by a multitude of sources: poetic, philosophical, religious, scientific... Norse mythology, German metaphysics and the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann.” The work at the White Cube is the similitude of our world – not living, but the deceased one. A viewer comes across a human skeleton, dysfunctional tools, disused attires in darkened and destroyed state, scorched wood, disbanded stones, an old dish antenna, an iron hammer and sickle – composed like the symbol of communism – all recalling a human condition that became the fate for an unfortunate milieu across Europe.

Although the work refers to James Joyce’s novel – the English book, which may turn into quite an original piece of literature if translated into another language, for instance Arabic, even German. (“Arthur Waley once said that he preferred to read Dickens in Chinese translation!”). Kiefer’s work could also be compared to the German author WG Sebold’s writing: a combination of fiction, reportage, history, memory, commentary, which evokes distant and mournful accounts in one’s personal and societal existence. The magic and miracle of Kiefer is not only in his content, but also how it becomes a haunting spectacle. At the White Cube, along with the central corridor, installations in four adjoining spaces/ halls also invoke to the main theme.

Marx my word fort 2021-23.
Marx my word fort 2021-23. 

According to Dillon, Kiefer’s work “has always been nourished by a multitude of sources: poetic, philosophical, religious, scientific... Norse mythology, German metaphysics; and the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann.

In one room, the middle area is filled with sand and deformed and scorched shopping trolleys, an old wheelchair, with large stems of skeletal sunflowers sprouting out of them (Marx my word fort, 2021-23); next to a massive canvas. A landscape of sorts, of light breaking in and a crowd of people – in reality composed of draperies (like coffins, or clothes left after one’s passing), along with actual shoes stuck on the monumental canvas.

I recall watching a German play in Lahore, about the Holocaust, with only two types of props, tunics and footwear: personal belongings that Jewish victims left before being led to gas chambers. In Kiefer’s canvas, the presence of shirts and trousers, and shoes glued and painted over, could remind one of the past or warn about a coming future, a devastation caused not by a political power, but due to some ecological disaster. The past and the future seem to blend in his aesthetics, because wars, deaths, destruction, burning of fields, are not some new or recent phenomena. In Kiefer’s art, one comes across this in multiple manifestations, as if documented by a distant observer, a participant or a chronicler.

In another space, one encounters opened and scattered books on and around a pedestal (Liffey, 2023), surrounded by 11 canvases of unidentifiable landscapes – with gilded skies. The earthen areas of these paintings are filled with dark, desolate and deep tones and textures, like a war trodden location. The sweeping gold in the skies pushes them into snapshots of some heavenly – yet depressing scenarios.

Perhaps the most dramatic and devastating work in the solo exhibition is the room with the debris of a colossal concrete structure scattered in the middle (Phall if you will but rise you must, 2017-23), with poles and oversized stilted sunflower plants. Substantial sections of some urban construction, with metal wires, rods, slabs, are a narrative of a world in turmoil, due to political, ethnic, economic and other forces/ factors. This work might resemble sites of some terrorist attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other unfortunate territories; or a place for some builder’s project that starts with demolishing of existing structure; or an episode from a war-torn region.

The scale, naturalness and abruptness of this happening, is matched with canvases of similar intensity. For example, an immense landscape with a desolate atmosphere has large artists’ palettes inserted in the middle of canvas (And oil paint use a pumme, 2023). On these protruding pieces, you see a spread of pigment, overlying of paint, besides a snake like form sitting in the middle. The presence of a reptile could be traced to a deeper origin, like the Original Sin, tempting the humans to taste the forbidden fruit in the heaven: a sin that continued in many exploitations, annihilations and extinctions – like the Jewish genocide in Hitler’s Germany.

On another level, a snake on an artist’s palette is not a stranger, because when you press a paint tube, the resulting coil of colour is not dissimilar to a snake’s anatomy. The artist has daubed his snakes in golden or sliver tints, to bestow them a special significance, yet they participate in the overarching atmosphere of misery.

Anselm Kiefer’s work depicts human vanity. The artist not only critiques the WWII, but also extends the notion of war to our nostrils, since walking inside his display, one smells the odour of blood, fluids, drenches – more in his paintings which still waft of mixing matters and liquids. Through his colour, composition, construction and expanse of imagination one feels that the work is not about what happened 78 year ago; it invokes deeper pasts and innumerable possibilities. We realise that the artist not only illustrates the content of a specific location, particular period and certain politics, but also presents a disintegrating world; that lies from Afghanistan to Libya, from Syria to Sudan, from Yemen to Ukraine, and from our bedrooms to our nightmares.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

In the wake of history