London

Anselm Kiefer

Anthony D'Offay Gallery

As far as I can tell, Anselm Kiefer’s work is devoid of any recognizable sense of humor. Weighty and monumental, it takes itself seriously, in the solemn tradition of history painting. This might not be worth mentioning, but for the fact that several of the pieces here play with notions of truth and knowledge as they are embodied in the book or library. This strategy calls to mind Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, 1983. The power of Eco’s book lies in the Rabelaisian frivolity with which the notion of learning is dismantled and reduced to a kind of dessicated narrow-mindedness. Books, 1987, and Alexandria, 1987–88, present a Piranesian library licked by flames; however, Kiefer, unlike Eco, shows no sense of the tragicomic liberation from logocentric tyranny that the burning of the library represents. The High Priestess/Zweistromland, 1985–89, has the appearance of an archeological archive. It also evokes the Nazis’ obsessive documentation of their activities, with the bunkerlike massiveness of its steel bookshelves. There is nothing poignant about Kiefer’s gray monument. Wired up with copper cables, the mouldering pages of large-scale books seem to belong to some long-dead race of giant scholars. The monumentality of the work has become literally overblown, its materiality far outweighing its capacity to carry the level of humanistic content that Kiefer’s apocalyptic vision seems to demand. And what can be said of the High Priestess of the work’s title, she of the Tarot who represents arcane knowledge? Is she also Lilith, whose name is inscribed over other works—Lilith, who refused to be less than Adam’s equal, and who in patriarchal fantasies becomes the inversion of the desired meek and maternal “feminine”? In Lilith, 1987–89, and Barren Landscape, 1987–89, this “wanton destroyer” presides over aerial views of decayed metropolises and is figured by strands of long black hair, recalling Kiefer’s earlier use of the malignant dark woman in his “Margarethe” and “Sulamith” paintings. I shall not digress too far down the slippery path of male fantasies of the “enigma” of woman, into the racial/sexual question this work poses, except to add that the words “Lots Frau” (Lot’s wife) are inscribed on an image of disappearing railway tracks encrusted with salt. Remembering both the wife’s punishment and the termini of some of Germany’s railways during the war, it is difficult to avoid an anti-Semitic reading.

Kiefer’s work is orientalist. It returns obsessively to the lands of the Near and Middle East, not only for its mythology, but also for the phantasmic mirage of the desert, which appears as a recurrent photographic image, glimpsed between the leaden pages of The High Priestess/Zweistromland and embedded elsewhere in his work. This place, which never ceases to capture the European imagination, also marks the origin of a civilization assumed by Europe to be its own property. Kiefer’s attempt to allegorize German history through Europe’s Middle-Eastern (usually female) Other, albeit mythological, adds further mystification to an already ambivalently received history. In seeming to propose that some arcane knowledge exists to which we might but do not have access, in drawing it across the mythological body of the feminine, the work avoids addressing the problems of the present and historiography as they collide with popular memory. But I wonder how much this male discourse of loss and mourning (of the well-known privileged subject and his god-in-his-very-own likeness) is now rather outmoded. Kiefer’s death-obsessed gravity is nostalgically romantic; I prefer to look forward to more of Eco’s type of iconoclastic, life-affirming levity.

Jean Fisher